For the first time in their history, Brighton & Hove Albion have qualified for the Europa League – the second tier of European competition. Everyone’s second-favourite team have defied all the odds and will now finish in sixth place, above the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Aston Villa. Their magnificent coach, Roberto De Zerbi has risen above the tide of financial domination and beaten the rest to their own promised land and have swept aside Arsenal, Southampton and Manchester United in recent weeks.
They exude confidence and class in the way they play, swiftly playing out from the back starting with Jason Steele in between the posts, providing a constant threat to those who try to press them. Despite the 5-1 home drubbing to strugglers Everton, De Zerbi’s unlikely switch away from Spanish international Robert Sanchez to English veteran Jason Steele has offered a different dynamic to ensure the push for European football was cemented. The Italian’s decision to pivot to Steele has delivered and the Englishman is now thriving in a team playing some of the best football in Europe.
Steele hasn’t had the most orthodox of journeys to the Premier League. After loan spells at Northampton Town and Blackburn Rovers in 2010 and 2014, respectively, he became the mainstay at Rovers in 2015, making 98 league appearances for the Championship side after joining them on a permanent deal. Steele then signed for Sunderland in 2017 on a four-year contract for a fee in the region of £500,000. He struggled to impress in an unambitious, lacklustre Sunderland side which were experiencing life in League One at the time, and Steele was no anomaly in a side struggling for confidence and quality.
The public then got a closer look at Steel as a person rather than just a footballer when he appeared on the ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ documentary produced and subsequently released by Netflix in 2018. He explained how being a professional footballer wasn’t just about the flashy lifestyle and their relationships with the finer things, but rather the pressure that came with being in the spotlight. Some argue that goalkeepers must operate beyond their own mental well-being and endure the pain with great fortitude whilst being able to bounce back from adversity as quickly as possible – a trait which has led to comical labelling suggesting that you need to be mad to be a goalkeeper.
Brighton Hove & Albion have qualified for European football for the first time in club history and will be competing in next season’s UEFA Europa League.
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the heroes behind the Seagulls’ historic campaign: pic.twitter.com/c3LLWXyTVh
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) May 24, 2023
Steele, much like his name, showed his mental stability after back-to-back relegations with Sunderland. Despite being unable to convince the fanbase of his goalkeeping abilities, the Englishman has shown on many occasions that he is able to take constructive criticism on board. His move to Brighton in 2018 served that narrative up on a silver platter; fast forward four years, and Steele is playing the best football of his life at the age of 32.
Risk is a key component of how Brighton operate on the football pitch, and the recent result at Arsenal only proves how important risk aversion is to De Zerbi. In the first half at the Emirates, Steele played a flat pass out within an inch of Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka’s toe.
The stadium gasped in awe at what they had just seen – an aging goalkeeper who had barely played for the club in seasons prior had eclipsed the ball-playing ability of one of the most highly-coveted goalkeepers in the Premier League and displaced him with ease. It was the moment that made English football’s ears prick up – De Zerbi’s Brighton has perfected the high-risk, high-reward gameplan against one of the best possession-based teams in Europe.
The movement, passing and purpose of their play gave sent a message to the mega-rich clubs above them in the table and Steele epitomises the blueprint which Brighton have set. There is an argument that suggests the game has evolved beyond recognition since Pep Guardiola first walked through the doors in Manchester and immediately replaced Joe Hart with Ederson, whom he signed from Portuguese side Benfica. The Brazilian has been ever-present in a Manchester City side that has won five league titles in the last six years and has completely changed the way goalkeepers are viewed by the public.
Those of more traditional views may argue that a goalkeeper should simply be the one to keep the ball out of the back of their net, but it is incomprehensible to suggest that such a quality is the only one a goalkeeper needs in the modern game. Steele has completely flipped this narrative and shown that he is in fact the opposite.
His light feet and extraordinary confidence on the ball lure the opposition press on to him before he expertly releases the ball at the very last second into, usually, the midfield pairing of Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo. The athleticism and fitness of this purring Brighton side have clearly exceeded expectations which have culminated in the Seagulls finishing sixth – their highest-ever Premier League finish.
A 1-1 draw against already-crowned champions Manchester City last on the penultimate match of the season served up a multitude of Brighton’s strengths and weaknesses yet clearly showed how far they have come as a collective since Graham Potter left for earlier in the season. Despite an incredibly high defensive line leading to City’s opener on the night, new signing Julio Enciso fired in a Goal of the Season contender after Brighton’s Steele had started a mesmerising move by playing out from his box.
Steele picked up the ball and lopped a brilliant pass into the feet of Levi Colwill on the edge of the box and the Chelsea loanee pushed into the City half with a sense of purpose and desire. The result defied the physics of how a football should move in the air, as the Paraguayan fired an incredible effort beyond a stranded Stefan Ortega with the ball seeming to stand still in mid-air.
The goal epitomised exactly what De Zerbi and Brighton are all about since the Italian manager landed on the south coast. Loaded with the foundations and the resources of predecessor Graham Potter, the Seagulls are now flying high well beyond the level many expected of Brighton and Steele’s introduction looks like another tactical masterstroke from De Zerbi.
Steele and Brighton will now be looking into the future of playing in the Europa League – an incredible achievement for a club who are operating at the highest level of English football. The Seagulls took points off the top two and completed a double over Chelsea and Manchester United. Brighton may lose several key players this summer including stars Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo but the more recent acquisitions of Karou Mitoma and Julio Enciso have shown that the club are more than capable of replacing departing players with solutions that make them better.
For the first time ever, the rest of European football will get the chance to watch the Seagulls in action up against some of the heavyweights who have in years gone by participated in the Champions League. The remarkable journey of Jason Steele who in recent years suffered back-to-back relegations with Sunderland will now ply his trade against some of Europe’s elite with De Zerbi in the dugout, with Brighton fans praying the Italian stays to see out their European campaign for at least another season.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tim Goode – PA Images