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NYTimes
New York Times
15 Apr 2023


NextImg:The Secret Behind the Premier League’s Smartest Team

BRIGHTON, England — The floor-to-ceiling windows in Paul Barber’s spartan office offer a panorama of the lush green practice fields of Brighton and Hove Albion, the Premier League soccer team he has run for the past 11 years. The secret to Brighton’s success, though, is for his eyes only.

“It’s all in there,” Barber said, pointing at the laptop on his clutter-free white desk on a recent afternoon. The computer contains a file with the names of the desired replacements for at least 25 key individuals working at the club.

Players, coaches, back-room staff members, executives: Barber has already identified a potential replacement (or two, or three) for each of them should anything happen to them, or should they choose to move on. There is even a suggestion for who should replace Barber as chief executive. No, he will not show you the names.

That file, though, is a major reason Brighton’s peers, as well as its much richer rivals, now look enviously at the club, which has thrived by committing to a culture reliant on hard data and meticulous planning put in place by its owner, the professional gambling mogul (and lifelong Brighton fan) Tony Bloom, and rigorously enforced by Barber.

Use of the list has been required more and more in recent years, but this season, the biggest test yet of the system, has seen Brighton, which as recently as 2011 played in the third tier of English soccer, rise to seventh in the world’s richest soccer league. That position is four spots ahead of Chelsea, which will host Brighton on Saturday wondering just how it’s possible that it could have stripped its rival of both players and a coaching staff over the past year, paying handsomely for the privilege, and still find itself looking up at Brighton in the standings.

Plan B

This season was barely a month old when Barber got the call from Todd Boehly, the American co-owner of Chelsea. Boehly had asked for permission to speak with Brighton’s coach, Graham Potter, an Englishman who had won praise, and respect, for the job he had done since being recruited from second-tier Swansea in 2019.

It quickly became clear that Potter wanted to accept the offer to coach Chelsea, a club with a bigger name, bigger budgets and bigger aspirations. But Chelsea did not just want Potter last September; Boehly informed Barber that Chelsea also wanted to hire five other members of Brighton’s staff.

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Kaoru Mitoma is one recent example of Brighton’s player acquisition model: He stepped right into the spot vacated by Leandro Trossard’s departure for Arsenal in January.Credit...Ian Walton/Reuters

What happened next — at both clubs — offers perhaps the clearest picture of why Brighton’s well-honed system of future-proofing itself has become so respected within the sport. Eight months later, Chelsea, a team flush with money but lacking anything remotely resembling a plan, has already fired Potter. Brighton, after pivoting effortlessly to the first name on a separate list of potential coaches kept by Bloom, the Italian Roberto De Zerbi, is on course for the best season in its history.

Bloom had identified De Zerbi as a great fit for the attacking, possession-based style Potter had instilled and for the profile of the type of players on the club’s roster. Within a week, all the formalities were over and De Zerbi, only available because war in Ukraine had forced him to leave his former club, Shakhtar Donetsk, had signed on. Brighton, as usual, never missed a beat.

“One trick we have to try and pull off as a club of our size is evolution,” Barber said. “So what we don’t want to do is to build a squad for this coach, and this coach leaves, and then you have to build an entirely different squad for the next coach.”

This, as Chelsea has found, can be quite expensive, and require the kind of resources Brighton does not have at its disposal.

“Our challenge,” Barber said, “is to keep evolving from coach to coach with broadly the same squad.”

Next Man Up

Brighton’s succession planning is perhaps most evident in its roster, perhaps the most visible example of the club’s ability to forecast exactly what it will need long before it is required thanks to a bespoke and closely held model developed by its owner, a mathematician.

“It’s a database of people and performance levels and attributes that enables us to more accurately predict whether a player in X country is more likely to adapt to playing in the Premier League, with all other things equal,” Barber said.

Take, for example, the story of Kaoru Mitoma, a Japanese wing signed in the summer of 2021. Mitoma, 25, had chosen to complete his university studies before committing to a professional career. But after he excelled in his belated debut season in Japan, Brighton saw enough potential to sign him.

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The pitch Sam Jewell, right, makes to young players like the 18-year-old Argentine Facundo Buonanotte is simple: Pick us now and we’ll move you to a bigger club when you succeed. Credit...Peter Flude for The New York Times

Visa requirements meant Mitoma’s first season was spent on loan at Union Saint-Gilloise, a team in Belgium also owned by Bloom, but he was in Brighton for the start of this season. So when Brighton granted forward Leandro Trossard’s wish to leave the club in January — Brighton banked an eight-figure profit when he moved to Arsenal — Mitoma was perfectly positioned to slide right into his vacated spot in the lineup. He has quickly grown into not only one of Brighton’s most dangerous players but also one of the Premier League’s breakout stars.

That timing is what makes the system work, Barber said. “Normally we would try and get a replacement for a player we think might leave through the door” before his predecessor is sold, he said.

He cited the example of Moises Caicedo, an Ecuadorean who was brought in as a 19-year-old in 2021 in preparation for the eventual sale of midfielder Yves Bissouma. Had Brighton tried to recruit a replacement after selling Bissouma, Barber said, it probably would have faced paying a higher price, or rejecting one it could not afford.

“There’s nothing worse than doing a big transfer out with funds coming and then going to the market,” he said. Barber can name-check a string of other players already on the club’s books, ready to step in if a similar situation arises, and a line of savvy signings; Brighton, for example, has something many bigger clubs do not: a World Cup champion (the midfielder Alexis Mac Allister).

There are other ways to beat the big clubs to a player, too. Evan Ferguson, a prodigiously gifted 18-year-old striker who had made his professional debut in Ireland at 14, picked Brighton over a host of Premier League suitors in January 2021. He did so, he said, after the club promised him a place on its under-23 squad, which he saw as a more direct path to earning Premier League minutes than a potentially longer (and less assured) route through a top club’s youth teams.

Within a year after joining Brighton, Ferguson had moved onto the first team. This season, he has become a key player in the second half of the campaign. “Here,” he said, “if they think you’re good enough, they’ll give you the opportunity.”

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Evan Ferguson chose Brighton over bigger suitors because he saw a more direct path to the first team.Credit...Peter Flude for The New York Times

Brighton’s model relies on moving on players at the right time, and for the right price, and continually reinvesting the money it receives in the squad. The club currently has one of the Premier League’s youngest squads, a multinational cast recruited both for their potential as Brighton players and their future value to someone else.

The pitch to pick Brighton over a bigger name is often a simple one: Join Brighton now, take advantage of the chance to show yourself in the Premier League, and then move on to the club of your dreams.

“I always say to players, ‘Yes, you’ve got Man City and Bayern there, but we will sell you to them anyway if you do well,’” said Sam Jewell, Brighton’s head of recruitment. Jewell has lived what he preaches: He was promoted to his current post after his boss left for Chelsea.

Wrinkles in Timing

Any successful system, though, eventually creates new pressures. Brighton faced a stern test in January when Caicedo, who in a year had gone from a relative unknown to one of the world’s most coveted players, publicly asked for a transfer. Bigger rivals circled, ready to bid top dollar for his services. But Brighton was not ready to let him leave; the plan for a replacement, this time, was not yet in place.

“It might have been the right time for the Premier League club that wanted him, or the player, but it wasn’t the right time for us,” Barber said. Brighton defused the situation by offering Caicedo a more lucrative contract, and by reminding him that there would come a time when it would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave.

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When Moises Caicedo publicly asked for a transfer earlier this season, the team said no but mollified him with a more lucrative contract.Credit...Peter Flude for The New York Times

By then Brighton could well be a different proposition, a team playing in European competition for the first time in its history and perhaps even with a first major trophy to celebrate.

“We want to get to a place,” Barber said, “where players, coaches and staff question whether it’s the right time, the right club and whether there’s a need to leave at all.” He has felt this pull himself, having received (and rejected) similar overtures for his own talents.

At the heart of the project is Bloom, the owner. He has plowed a fortune into the club — more than $500 million since acquiring it in 2009 — and seen his complex, and highly secretive, modeling validated. He has built the system that allows Brighton to stay several moves ahead of its competitors. But his name is not in Barber’s file, because there is no replacement for Bloom.

“He’s the only one,” Barber said, “who can’t leave.”