Mailbag: Pulisic, Liverpool, Brighton and more!
Plus: value of attacking midfielders and, err, Ted Lasso
Hi, and welcome to another mailbag post. I tried a new thing of taking questions from the Discord server. If you’re a paid subscriber and would like to join, you can do so by following the link here. I got some good questions here and let’s get stuck into it.
While I have you, please check out the fundraiser print and single from my friends Lorenzo Landini and Ritika Bhasker. All proceeds go to the Transgender Law Center, an American civil rights organisation fighting for trans liberation in the United States. It’s an excellent cause and it would mean a lot to my friends if you would take a look.
Now, the bit you’re all here for.
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“Realistically what is the ceiling for Brighton? It feels like it is something around this level (if not in the long term, a bit lower) since it is probably a lot harder to find replacements to match the level of the team at the moment. But then again they did replace Cucurella reasonably well and immediately so maybe uncle Tony’s gambling database can scale to above average premier league players?”
Ok, I’m going to get to this, but I started researching the history and I found it more interesting than I expected, so we’ll answer this question the long way around.
When Tony Bloom bought Brighton and Hove Albion in 2009, the team he grew up supporting was a midtable League One side, having been relegated from the Championship in 2006. Brighton were “temporarily” playing at the Withdean Stadium, with a capacity of 8,850 that put it as one of the smallest in England’s third tier. Their original home stadium, the Goldstone Ground, closed in 1997 as the Taylor Report in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster required all football grounds to be fully seated, and Brighton were in too much debt to afford the conversion.
The club spent over a decade trying to build and move to the Falmer Stadium (now known as the American Express Community Stadium). Brighton might still be homeless if Tony Bloom’s cash injection hadn’t given the funding to finally finish the new ground and move the club over within two years of buying the club. “League One has found its Roman Abramovich”, claimed Paul Hayward in The Guardian in 2009. “[Bloom] has taken a punt on Brighton becoming a Premier League club in the next five to 10 years – the only way he can hope to recoup his vast outlay on the new arena”.
Well, he certainly managed that. He replaced existing manager Russell Slade with Gus Poyet and earned promotion to the Championship within two years. It wasn’t plain sailing in the second tier. Brighton reached the playoffs in 2013 but, under strange circumstances, parted ways with Poyet afterwards. Next manager Óscar García reached the same standard in 2014 before resigning. From there, Bloom made the biggest mistake of his era, hiring Sami Hyypiä who saw the club in the Championship relegation zone by Christmas. Bloom took drastic action, sacking Hyypiä and replacing him with an uncharacteristic safe pair of hands in Chris Hughton. Brighton successfully stayed up under Hughton then, after another play-off disappointment, made it to the promised land of the Premier League in 2017.
Bloom’s expensive “punt” paid off, and not for the first time. He’s known for his success in gambling, with his successful betting syndicate Starlizard generating a lot of his wealth today. He looked at Brighton through that lens and figured out that, with the right acumen, any initial investment to get the club up the leagues could pay off hugely with the Premier League riches. He continued that approach in the top flight, putting plenty of money into the club as it made a loss almost every year.
I assume his initial strategy was to spend in order to stabilise the club in the top flight and secure that Premier League TV revenue every year. Brighton have been very adept at “gambling” on players from outside Europe’s top five leagues. Of Brighton’s eleven most-used players this season, only three were signed from the big five leagues (Pascal Groß, Pervis Estupiñán and Danny Welbeck). The entire club has been structured exactly like nerds like me would want it run, but it’s important to stress this hasn’t been done on the cheap. Bloom has typically gambled a hefty investment on building the modern Brighton.
Last summer, I had started to wonder if Bloom was thinking the club were hitting a midtable ceiling and pulling back investment. A very well-run club with decent financial backing can jump from League One to the Premier League, but Bloom can’t get close to competing financially with the Rich Seven (the traditional top six plus Newcastle). To break into that grouping would almost certainly require a financial outlay beyond what Bloom can realistically spend. So I expected Brighton to stop spending so heavily and simply consolidate their midtable position. The growth years of the business were over, so now it’s time to cut back and start turning a profit.
Then this season happened. Brighton are pretty clearly favoured to qualify for at least one European competition. They’ve played really good football, bettered only by Man City and Arsenal in xG difference. They’ve played football beyond that of teams with much greater resources. Brighton are undoubtedly the model for how to run a club right now. As John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times showed, in the period from 2015-2023, only Man City (which would be a whole other article) have outperformed their wage bill to a greater extent than Brighton. The Seagulls are adding around 7.5 extra points per season against their wage constraints.
I can’t think of any examples of clubs remaining this well run over a long time but, for the sake of argument, let’s say Brighton do it. In recent years they’ve had one of the lowest wage bills in the league.
Over the last five seasons, the 16th-placed team has averaged 39 points, so add in Brighton’s overperformance and we’d typically be looking at 46-47 points. That generally lands you around 12th. This season is obviously way above that, but I still think it’s a reasonable yardstick for what we might expect. Brighton are defying gravity right now, but I still think even the best-run version of the club can’t push much further. Let’s say they started overperforming their wages like Man City and averaged about 54 points with this wage bill. That can get you to eighth, which is probably the ceiling in anything but an exceptional year.
The case for better than that is probably in recruitment, as rmcintosh alluded to. This isn’t just about signing good players for the team but in flipping assets and bringing in money to improve the squad. Brighton sold Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard for decent fees this season, with Ben White commanding plenty of money the year before. This has to be part of the model to bring in more revenue, but it’s really hard to keep getting the new signings right. I can believe that Brighton are good at this, but not that their secret sauce is so special to break all known rules.
So I think upper-midtable is probably the long-term ceiling for Brighton under Bloom. Maybe they’ll get that “best of the rest” title beyond the Rich Seven.
“How should we think about the value of James Maddison types? Are they actually pretty useful for teams that aren't that good and really just need a lot of creativity but can't reliably surround them with great teams? Or are they actually just not that useful in general and the spectacular nature of the good things they do on a bad team just makes them look good in contrast to the drab character of a lot of football?”
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