When a club can’t compete with the elites on a financial footing, they look for marginal gains. Be it through investment in the academy, a supreme scouting network to find hidden gems, or going the “Moneyball” route of buying low, and selling high, any advantage gained can be leveraged for success. These clubs are often called the “smart” clubs. The flavour of this season that fall under this category are Brighton and Hove Albion, and rightly so. Roberto de Zerbi took over from the great job done by Graham Potter and turbocharged it.
However, Leicester City and Southampton’s relegation this season should provide a cautionary tale for Brighton. Smart clubs don’t survive for long in the ruthless jungle that is the Premier League, with a set food chain.
The dreaded “Smart Club” moniker
Story of Leicester City
Before Brighton, there was Leicester City. It wasn’t long ago when their recruitment was hailed as revolutionary, a step ahead of the rest. The likes of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante were picked from obscurity and became superstars. When they were sold, reinforcements like James Maddison, Youri Tielemans, and Wilfried Ndidi didn’t let the rise stop and they won more silverware in the form of the FA Cup.
Their team, both on and off the pitch was the envy of the league. Harry Maguire was sold for £80 million and replacements like Caglar Soyuncu outperformed him at times. Smart signings were made, like when Jonny Evans’ minuscule release clause was triggered after his West Brom’s relegation.
However, there is no club that can keep pulling rabbits out of the hat. Ultimately, yearly raids on Leicester by the big clubs rendered them unable to keep replacing with the same quality. Big-money arrivals flopped hard. Ayoze Perez spent this season at Real Betis on loan as Jamie Vardy struggled for form at Leicester. Rachid Ghezzal, Jannik Vestergaard, Boubakary Soumare, and Dennis Praet were other failed moves and the list of failures began far outweighing the success stories.
The end result is a team of players where half are not good enough for this level, and the other half looked like they were waiting for their transfers at the end of the season post-relegation. But before there was Leicester City, another club was adorning the “Smart Club” moniker.
Story of Southampton
If Leicester City’s jewels were taken away by the elites, Southampton were absolutely gutted every time they made a comeback. Not just players, they couldn’t even hold on to their managers.
If a Premier League XI were to be created purely from the players who gained fame at Southampton before being poached by a bigger club, it would win the Premier League.
Starting from Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and Dejan Lovren in 2014/15 to Virgil Van Dijk, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic, and more, Southampton were knocked down a peg or two for every step forward they took. Joining these players were high-performing managers like Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.
Eventually, Southampton were demoted to the club where highly-rated youngsters at elite Premier League clubs could get game time and breakout before transferring back to their parent club. Gavin Bazunu (Man City), Tino Livramento (Chelsea), Kyle Walker-Peters (Tottenham), and Romeo Lavia (Man City), have all but confirmed Southampton’s status as that of a quasi-feeder club.
Ultimately, the strategy of unearthing gems became unsustainable. Quality talent was sold, arrivals weren’t of the same level, and now Southampton are looking at a season in the Championship, an unforgiving league to get out of.
Deja Vu at Brighton?
This script has been seen before now. In just the last two seasons, Brighton have sold Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma, Leandro Trossard, Neal Maupay, and Ben White among others. Remarkably, all these players have been replaced so well that Brighton have finished higher than Chelsea and Tottenham, the buyer of some of these players.
Now, they are bracing for another gutting in the summer. Alexis Mac Allister already looks to be on his way to Liverpool. Moises Caicedo is a certainty to leave as well. Evan Ferguson and Kaoru Mitoma have begun garnering interest and could also be a year away from leaving. Brighton’s next wave of replacements have begun. Talents like Julio Enciso, Facundo Buonanotte, and Joao Pedro are all exciting prospects.
In another instance of deja vu, they’ve already lost one bright manager to the elites in Graham Potter. If Roberto de Zerbi keeps Brighton on their current trajectory, it is hard to imagine him at the club in the next two years as well.
Ultimately, history has told us that Brighton’s replacements will fall short of the quality they keep selling every year. When that happens, the cycle will repeat. Another “Smart Club” will appear on the scene, get petted on the head before being gutted by the elites, and Brighton fade back into obscurity.
Modern football has a set food chain, and the predators at the top don’t want competition. How long can Brighton avoid this fate? It remains to be seen. So far, so good, but Leicester and Southampton’s predicament should be treated as a cautionary tale.