The Seagulls have been well and truly flying in the Championship this season, a point behind big money Newcastle, and 4 points ahead of their nearest competition for the automatic promotion spots. Brighton have been unlucky in previous years, missing out to
Middlesbrough on Goal Difference last year, and losing out in the playoffs 3 times since being promoted from League One 5 years ago, never even getting to Wembley for the Final. This year has been different, however, keeping pace with Newcastle for the season so far, and with no signs of slowing down.
In this mini-series, I will go through the style of the main contenders for this years Championship promotion race, and picking out a player who has been key for them, and that you should look out for should the dream of Premier League football be realised.
There have been three key reasons for Brighton’s performance this season; A fantastic defence, Glenn Murray and Anthony Knockaert. If you want to read more on the tactics used by Chris Hughton that has led to the tightest defence in the league, I highly recommend Francesco Sulas’ article from earlier in the season here.
As the title suggests, I will be focusing on the Frenchman that makes everything tick on the South Coast. Anthony Knockaert started his career at Guingamp, where Premier League regulars Koscielny and Imbula also spent their early years. The French side were languishing in the third division, following relegation the season before, and Knockaert helped them rebound straight back up to Ligue 2. But it was in the French Coupe de la Liga that Knockaert began to impress a wider audience, scoring 2 goals in 4 games in the 2010/11 campaign. The next season he played 36 league games, second only to Turkish midfielder Fatih Atik, scoring 11 goals and 4 assists in the process, as well as 2 goals in the cup competition he made his name in the previous season.
It was at this point that clubs began to take notice, notably Leicester City. We’ve all seen how Foxes scout Steve Walsh uncovers talent from the French second division; N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez were both scouted from Ligue 2, although Kante spent a year in the first division before he was signed by Leicester. Knockaert was interested in the move to England, although Marseille were also interested, says Guingamp assistant coach Eric Blahic, but the financial incentive was undoubtedly a draw for the winger.
Leicester reportedly paid around £750k for 20 year old Knockaert, and his first season was excellent, scoring 8 and assisting 6 for the foxes on their way to play off qualification, including these two crackers against Huddersfield, but lost in the most spectacular style, with Knockaert taking and missing the penalty and the rebound, which began a Watford counter in the 96th minute…
Fortunately the next season was much less eventful, Leicester strolling to the title with 102 points, 17 points clear of the play-off places, scoring 5 and assisting 7, and while in his first top flight season he only played 9 games, including only 3 starts, his performances in the U21 Premier League earned him a move to Belgian side Standard Liege. Liege had won the title two seasons before, but slipped down to fourth in the following season, and even further to seventh in Knockaert’s first (and only) season for the club. He did take home some European experience, Standard were in the Europa League qualification stages but failed to make it through to the competition proper.
With that signalled a return to England with the Seagulls, a £3m move that made him Brighton’s record signing, and the investment has certainly paid off since. In his first year for the club, Knockaert was MOTM 4 times, with a higher WhoScored rating than anyone else in the Brighton side, and the 6th Highest in the league. His dribbling stats are also remarkably high, more per 90 than any other Brighton player.
But now into the nitty gritty, a place where Knockaert is not afraid to go. In that season, he made the third most tackles in a defensively solid Brighton side, behind the two tough tackling central midfielders but ahead of Bruno, the defensive midfielder from Spain, and Lewis Dunk, perhaps the best Central Defender in the championship right now. His play style was described by the Guingamp scout who discovered him, a French idiom translated as to “wet his shirt”. The connotations of this phrase are fairly clear, the man works hard both in attack and defence, and ends every game with a shirt soaking in sweat.
This season has extended the show of his talents, with 6 goals in 16 appearances up until the start of November, when the tragic death of his father caused him to miss Brighton’s trip to Bristol City. His Brighton teammates went on to win, with a tribute to Knockaert’s late father. But in a fantastic display of team spirit and kindness, the squad flew to France three days later to attend the funeral and support their teammate.
Knockaert says his Father’s dying wish was for him to lead Brighton into the premier league, and after a rocky return, he has been doing just that.
In 2017, Knockaert has more assists than anyone in the top 4 tiers, 6 so far, and hasn’t been skimping on goals, with two in Brighton’s 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday, rescuing them after top scorer Glenn Murray was sent off. He also bagged another goal in Brighton’s 3-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Reading, which also took his WhoScored rating up to 7.75, the highest in the league. The combination of Murray and Knockaert has been deadly this season, with 27 goals between them, the highest scoring duo in the league, and if Brighton want to continue to fight Newcastle for the title, that won’t be about to change.
The Seagulls are ready for the Premier League, and it would take a big fall for them to lose their automatic spot this season. Their goal now has to be to compete for the title, so don’t be surprised to see Newcastle pipped to top spot despite their riches by this fantastic Brighton side.