There comes a time when repeated unhappiness just begins to look like recklessness. In Brighton’s case, the stories of bad luck are starting to wear off. Even when the bounce of the ball works in their favor, they find ways not to win, undermining their elegant approach and defensive play that leaves them uncomfortably close to the bottom three.
Victorious in just two league games this season, they left a disappointing West Ham to fall apart in a scrappy game, missing the opportunity to pull off a four-point lead to 18th place after relinquishing the lead twice.
Weakness under the high ball has proven to be costly. Ahead at half-time thanks to Neal Maupay’s fortuitous goal, Brighton was caught after failing to manage a cross. Back in the lead thanks to the effort of Lewis Dunk, who could have been banned by the VAR for handball, Graham Potter’s team died again, a bad marking in a corner allowing Tomas Soucek to save a late point for West Ham.
Potter was dismayed, criticizing his team for giving Soucek a free run to attack the ball. Brighton was almost home and dry; instead, they had to endure the frustration of a seventh draw of a stuttering campaign. “I thought the performance was worth three points but we didn’t defend the second goal particularly well,” said Potter. “When you do that, it becomes difficult.”
The Brighton manager knew West Ham, who are now winless in three games, were vulnerable. Looking for a way to spark an attack weakened by Michail Antonio’s absence, David Moyes chose a confusing team. A theory based on putting more players around Sébastien Haller, a striker who lacks the mobility to occupy defenses on his own, collapsed when put into practice. West Ham’s system, a 3-4-1-2 featuring Mark Noble in a free role, was too cautious against a team at the wrong end of the table.
It was a case of square pegs in round holes. With Arthur Masuaku unavailable after knee surgery, Ben Johnson looked uncomfortable on the back of the left wing, draining the momentum from the attacks by still severing his right foot. In the middle, Noble continued to fall too deep, meaning West Ham often had eight players in their half and no one to connect the game.
The numbers sum it up: West Ham failed to frame in the first half. It was unnecessary on Moyes’ part. Not only did he have creative players on the bench, but he also found a way to deny his team’s strengths. Noble’s presence disturbed Soucek, who was unsure of when to maraud Brighton territory, while the decision to place Jarrod Bowen next to the Haller statues left them without breadth to the right.
The question was whether Brighton, which hasn’t exactly oozed conviction into the attack lately, could capitalize. The answer came after 44 minutes of pleasant but ineffective polls. Dan Burn took the initiative, overlapping on the left and producing a clear cut after teaming up with Solly March. The ball found Maupay and although the forward was hesitant at first, he was clinical when an inadvertent touch from Declan Rice allowed him to spin Angelo Ogbonna and pass Lukasz Fabianski.
Moyes responded during the interval, replacing Bowen and Noble with Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko, and West Ham improved. They tested Robert Sánchez two minutes after the start of the second half, with Haller heading towards the Brighton keeper.
The West Ham substitutes began to influence the game. On the hour, Yarmolenko cut inside to the right and crossed with his left foot. Soucek, who was no longer ousted by Noble, was there to wreak havoc. The ball broke free and Lanzini reacted intelligently despite lying on the floor, pushing Johnson to close his first senior goal.
Brighton absorbed the blow. After 70 minutes, a quick turn allowed March to cross. Soucek’s clearance attempt hit Dunk, who controlled before crashing high into the net. The goal had remained after VAR, Andrew Madley, failed to find clear evidence of Dunk’s manipulation. “He hits his arm,” Moyes said. “I thought if it hit your arm and led to a goal, it would be noted.”
The game crept into the final whistle with Brighton holding on tight. Still, West Ham, who remains 10th, did not fold. With eight minutes to go, Aaron Cresswell’s corner brushed Dunk’s head and walked over to Soucek, whose relieved smile suggested he knew just as much: West Ham had gotten away with one.