The run of tough games supposedly never ends in the Premier League. A sequence that has recently seen a local derby at home, and us take on Liverpool and Tottenham was punctuated by a trip to Huddersfield, a winnable game on paper but never on grass, and Burnley coming here. Burnley who many see as our model going forwards. Burnley who went down but went straight back up (at our expense, Joey Barton stamp and all) and stayed up. Burnley who recently spent a day in the Champions League places and have been sitting comfortably in the top half all season. Burnley who beat Chelsea at the Bridge. That Burnley.
Many on Twitter and elsewhere still felt this was winnable. The Boy did too. Steve and I weren’t so sure. The general consensus was that it would be tight, maybe a goal in it either way. Goals are not something we do right now, not even from four yards out or from a penalty. Or even in the warm up.
March was returned to the side with Murray up top. Having been nagged constantly by the boys we went to our seats earlier than normal, just in time to see the warming up team enter shooting practice, with March and Murray prominent. I think they hit one on target between them. It would prove to be prophetic.
Before the report I’m going to drift off, prompted by social media discussions last night, in to what constitutes a good game and just how toothless we are. Yes, the title of this blog entry references an NSC thread from last night but with the addition of a question mark. I tweeted at the end about how poor the game had been. I’m still on 140 characters, which are not enough after a beer or two, to explain poor in terms of actual skill and quality. Not action, there was plenty of action yesterday, but both teams conspired to serve up sub-Championship quality and zero goals. That’s the net effect no matter how many times the ball crosses the goal mouth. The referee had a mare too and, I’m sorry to say, the crowd were much quieter than recently. It was like going back three years. IMHO like. I predicted we’d be last on MOTD and, guess what, we were.
And in terms of threat? In terms of threat we created plenty in the first half. So that’s not toothless at all. In fact, after an awkward first fifteen minutes we bossed the rest of the first half to the extent that it was only us really playing. Three decent penalty shouts (one given) and other point blank chances created. I should be ripping the positives out of that. After Huddersfield and Tottenham, here we were back at our fortress, dominating a team and setting up chance after chance after chance. But, just like the warm up, we never looked like taking them. And then there was a second half in which each substitution weakened us, both centre backs committed acts of gross stupidity and only Ryan kept us in the game. Is my glass half full or half empty? I genuinely don’t know. It’s just half.
So, anyway, the action. Burnley swapped ends on us after winning the toss, meaning we were attacking the North Stand first. The first fifteen or so were evenly matched with Burnley winning an early corner, sure to test us, but dealt with more than adequately. Credit to the team for work on this area in the last week. But, as we eased in to the game Burnley were troubled. The front players were closing them down high, Gross in particular with a fantastic work rate. Knockaert and Bruno were in best partnership form, weaving the shapes that trouble defences. Propper and Stephens were breaking play up and, with more time on the ball, using it, even if in Stephens’ case that still means sideways or backwards more often than not. But it paid off.
Both wide players were seeing a lot of the ball and Gross was joining them, interchanging in attacking positions and forcing crosses in. From one such cross by Bruno Murray headed in to Pope’s gloves when it was easier to score.
Then we broke quickly and Stephens, Knockaert and Propper combined. The ball came across the six yard box at, to be fair, a real speed. Knockaert still managed to turn it goalwards but somehow it hit the post rather than the back of the net.
Corners were also being forced and we looked like we’d worked just as hard on attacking set pieces. A near post corner from the left was perfectly met with a Dunk header but Burnley had a man back to head off the line. From another the ball spat out to the right and Duffy chased it down, going down under a challenge with the crowd howling for a penalty. Nothing doing from referee Chris Kavanagh.
But then the moment it looked like we’d get what we deserved. An excellent long ball over the top down the right channel saw Murray on side and controlling the ball perfectly before driving in to the box. He too went down under challenge – arguably a more benign one than Duffy had suffered – and Kavanagh pointed to the spot. Here we go we thought. Murray rarely misses from twelve yards but this was one of those rare moment. The net remained conspicuously absent of bulge, the only people troubled by the penalty being those stood in Row Z of the North Stand.
Still we should have had another and Burnley should have had a red card, Tarkowski’s elbow in to Murray’s ribs unnoticed by Kavanagh. Somehow we went in 0-0 but the only disheartening thing at this stage was the missed penalty. We were massively on top. Surely a goal was coming?
But if ever there was a game that proved you need to take your chances at this level, this was it. Dyche rallied his troops and Burnley got more of the ball and began to hit us on the break. Enter Mat Ryan and a series of outstanding point blank saves that earned him a deserved man of the match. A ping-pong series after a quick break actually ended with Burnley scoring, but from an offside position. One of Burnley’s three ex-Brighton strikers, Chris Wood, was put through on the right but his chip was brilliantly clawed out of the air by Ryan. Our attacks were becoming fewer and fewer but there was still another nearly moment, Knockaert weaving his magic and shooting from an acute angle, which got a deflection and sent the ball agonisingly ahead of Murray’s sliding boot and then agonisingly wide of the post. The subsequent corner came to nowt.
The worrying thing for Brighton fans was our substitutions, each of which weakened the side rather than providing fresh impact. Burnley dealt with Hemed, on for Murray, far better than they had with Murray. Izquierdo came on too late to have an impact. And then there’s Brown. Now, you can imagine it’s not been easy for him. Injured early on, asked to play lone striker at Arsenal of all places, and then used mostly off the bench he still hasn’t settled. Yesterday he looked like a 10 year old who’d never had to make a decision in the top third of the pitch. Horribly ponderous and about as bothered as Leon Best, every touch said “I wish I’d stayed at Huddersfield”. The nadir was his with Izquierdo haring in to space, and Brown with all the time in the world to find him, the ball was still played behind, slowing the whole move down and forcing a pass wide to Bong who produced a ball of sheer horror quality.
Did I mention that Duffy won’t be playing next week due to the most blatant and unnecessary hand ball in history? Or that Dunk is now one off suspension because he couldn’t keep his mouth closed?
Should I be more positive? I was reminded today that this is the Premier League after all and, of course, we were never going to find it easy. We’re still 13th. There are a lot of teams in the same points bracket as us. We’re getting 30,000 at home, 3000 away and seeing football from the best league in the world. We’re famous in India. But we’re also missing penalties, missing from four yards out, having our keeper be man of the match every week, getting silly bookings and failing to score or convert winning positions at home against relatively poor sides. As a fan it’s an interesting ride. As a blogger I’m compelled to point out both sides of the story.