At the start of last season, Brighton and Hove Albion were not one of the sides favourite to stay up.
That they did, is a credit to Chris Hughton’s management, the players’ performances, but also the system that brought these players to the club in the first place.
Hughton said at the start of the season that Brighton had to look towards a “middle market” of transfers, adding: “There are some transfers that have gone ahead so far that are so above our levels you almost have to disregard them.”
Dial M for Moneyball
Two recent signings, in particular, seem to show the type of level that Brighton are looking at – last season’s signing of Pascal Groß and this summer’s acquisition of Florin Andone.
Neither were big names when they joined, but both caught the eyes of the online football stats community.
In 2016/17 Groß was an unfamiliar name at the top of key pass lists. When using total key passes, this was partly driven by the German barely missing a match, but even when sorted per 90 minutes his figures looked good.
He contributed the third most key passes from set-pieces per 90 minutes and the 29th most from open-play, impressive given he was on a lowly, and eventually relegated, Ingolstadt team.
The headline figure of ‘most chances created in the Bundesliga’ might have been skewed by minutes played, but this is a valuable asset. After achieving survival this season, Hughton commented: “He's [Gross] not been injured all season, which has been important.
“You want a lot of players like that and we have been fortunate in that respect, particularly in that area of the pitch.”
Andone is a similar stats darling.
His 0.49 Expected Goals per 90 minutes puts him 5th in La Liga for 2017/18 and his 0.45xG90 for 2016/17 had him 8th. Seeing this Deportivo de La Coruña player in amongst players from Real Madrid and Barcelona, it’s a wonder it’s Brighton who’s signed him.
Even José Izquierdo, not usually identified by data types as a stats signing, topped the Belgian Jupiler Pro league in 2016/17 for touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes.
Brighton, then, seem to have developed an eye for players from Europe’s top leagues who show up well statistically and play for lesser teams, the ‘middle market’ Hughton talked about.
Each of the three signings already mentioned have also been in their early mid-twenties too, which makes some sense.
Players of this age will have played long enough that clubs can be fairly sure that they know what they’re getting from them. However, they’ll also be young enough to still have some room to grow, and plenty of time left in their careers.
It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, difficult to find players around their mid-twenties with eye-catching stats and a recent history of playing well in a good league.
Looking through the Big Five leagues on Expected Goals and Expected Goals assisted, names like Sehrou Guirassy (0.59xG90 at FC Köln), Ihlas Bebou (0.27 xA90 at Hannover) and Mariano (0.49 xG90 at Lyon) pop out, but then problems arise.
Problems and options
Guirassy barely played in 2016/17, Bebou was at Fortuna Düsseldorf in Bundesliga Zwei last season, and Mariano was at Real Madrid which both means he didn’t play much and his price tag would likely be inflated. Another interesting name, Ante Rebic at Eintracht Frankfurt, is on loan from Fiorentina.
Paolo Faragò at Cagliari is interesting. While the 25-year-old rarely played last season, he was an exceedingly high-volume defensive player last season (7.94 tackles and interceptions per 90) while still creating 1.59 open play key passes per 90.
In 2017/18 his defensive workload was lower, though he still made over four tackles and interceptions p90, while also posting 0.23xA90.
From the Big Five, Adama Niane also pops up. The Troyes striker had chances worth 0.43xG90 in Ligue 1 this season, 13th best in the league against any age of player. Last season he played for Troyes in Ligue 2 where he took 3.05 shots per 90 and scored 23 goals in the equivalent of 26.6 games (2390 minutes).
Beyond the big leagues, Alireza Jahanbakhsh has shone for AZ Alkmaar. On a per 90 basis, he’s taken the third-most shots of any attacker in the league (4.56) and created the second-most open play key passes (2.06).
Young Boys’ Jean-Pierre Nsamé is a strong shot-taker (3.93 shots per 90) and chance-maker (third-most big chances created per 90 at 0.52), all while winning 5.33 aerial duels per game.
Could these names be linked with Brighton sometime soon? Genuine Brighton transfer target Franco Cervi created the most big chances (17) and second-most open play key passes (44) for Benfica in the Primeira Liga last season.
Brighton seem to be using numbers to help them scout, and it’s helped them stay in the Premier League. Where will it take them next?