Brighton Runs On João Pedro Power
10:06 AM EST on January 8, 2024
It's hard to follow up a dream season of the sort Brighton & Hove Albion had last year, when the Seagulls were the toast of the Premier League. Following the lamented departure of celebrated manager Graham Potter, who in September of 2022 parlayed his admirable stint with Brighton into a brief and embarrassing stint with Chelsea, the Seagulls brought in Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi and almost immediately hit all new heights. Kaoru Mitoma emerged as one of the most exhilarating wingers in England. Moisés Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister made for an impossibly cool midfield duo, the envy of any team in Europe. De Zerbi's playing style, in particular his fearless and innovative build-up routines, turned Brighton into the newest object of reverence for tactics nerds. Brighton spent much of the season flirting with the Champions League places, and their eventual sixth-place finish, with its concomitant Europa League spot, felt like a trophy.
Given the dizzying heights the team floated to and the inevitable offseason talent raid that followed, it was always going to be difficult for this season to match the heady vibes of last year. And indeed, in most respects this campaign has been worse. The team lost Caicedo and Mac Allister to Chelsea and Liverpool, lost Mitoma for much of the first half of the season to injury, and lost the element of surprise that surely helped De Zerbi's tactical schemes work so well, before opponents had learned how to prepare for them. Despite sitting in an objectively impressive seventh place in the Premier League table and winning the top spot in their Europa League group, the Seagulls' campaign so far is, to an extent, burdened by an air of disappointment for not being quite as exceptional as before.
This is unfortunate, because this Brighton team is still extremely cool and worthy of praise. Far from a demerit, it actually speaks well of De Zerbi's work that the team's gameplan is still as effective as it is even with other coaching staffs having a year's worth of tape to study. Mitoma might not have played as much as anyone would've liked, but he's still done some amazing things when he has been on the pitch. Caicedo and Mac Allister are dearly missed, but Billy Gilmour has stepped into the starting midfield role with aplomb, and has been one of Brighton's best performers of the season. And the single most exciting aspect of the team's season has been the eruption of João Pedro.
João Pedro was the most tantalizing of Brighton's new additions over the summer. For a couple years now the 22-year-old Brazilian has been one of those random youngsters you hear about as potential stars of the future, the kind know-it-alls love to talk about but rarely actually watch, and who even more rarely wind up panning out. Watford took the Brazilian forward from Fluminense in 2020, and plopped him into a dysfunctional team that yo-yoed up and down England's top two divisions. João Pedro flashed his promise intermittently in a couple EPL campaigns, but really showed his ability in the Championship. Especially in his last season at Watford, it was clear the Brazilian had become far too good to slum it in the Championship.
The move to Brighton looked like a great fit. The club offered João Pedro a prominent role in an attack-minded team, where he could hone his skills in a team that played a style that would really showcase him before the eyes of the even bigger clubs his talent marked as his destiny. João Pedro offered Brighton another gem with world-class potential for them to polish, use, and eventually sell on, in the process maintaining the club's position as an upwardly mobile midtable outfit that is attractive for burgeoning stars looking for a mutually beneficial stepping stone.
The union has already proven fruitful. João Pedro has 15 goals and two assists across 28 appearances (only 16 of them starts) in all competitions. He's played and played well in several different positions and roles: lone striker, second striker, no. 10, left winger. But more so than his numbers (it's worth pointing out that eight of those 15 goals have been penalties), what really stands out are the breadth and magnitude of his skills. He is the total package as a runner—fast, powerful, and an electric dribbler. He's a threat to space with his pace, and also a consummate possession director with his soft feet and eye for a pass. In fact, he's equally willing and dangerous when it comes to dropping deep to receive the ball into his feet and when the team needs sprints into the channels or behind the defense to open space elsewhere. That varied and unceasing movement with and without the ball is his most remarkable trait, and it's what makes him a terror in any and every situation imaginable.
João Pedro compliments all of that running with exquisite touches and choices with the ball. He's a deliciously creative dribbler, not a Neymar-level technician but absolutely capable of wowing by jinking through a tangle of defenders. He's got a great pass on him that can carve open back lines with crosses to the far post. And while he's not an especially consistent finisher, his nose for finding space, feel when in it, and physical and technical gifts to take advantage of it earn him loads of goals. It's development in that last facet that stands between him and the highest levels of the sport. Should he ever become a reliable finisher—something perfectly possible for a young player with so much margin to grow—he'll go straight to the top.
The last couple weeks have been especially impressive. In every match, João Pedro has been leaving little details that show how it's all really starting to click. Well, not all of the details are little. There was the match against Tottenham on Dec. 28, where the Brazilian outplayed every other player on the pitch en route to a statement-making 4-2 Brighton win. João Pedro scored two of the goals (both penalties) and assisted another.
Next came a 0-0 draw against West Ham in the new year. David Moyes's predilection for rock fighting didn't allow for much soccer to be played during the 90 minutes, but João Pedro did wiggle loose for at least one special moment, which would've been a career highlight of a goal had his final shot been better:
Proving he could do it on a chilly though thankfully dry afternoon at Stoke, João Pedro ripped apart Stoke City on Saturday in the FA Cup. He added two more goals—and both from open play for once!—thanks to his elite run-making, and simply could not be stopped whenever the ball entered his orbit; he finished with four of five completed dribbles, including one ridiculous blind heel chop down the touch line that you can see here. Brighton's 4-2 victory was largely down to him:
The Premier League doesn't have a single amazing team this year, but it does have a clear, tightly bunched group at the top that looks set to make for a greatly entertaining title race. Brighton, unfortunately, is not included in that group, nor is it likely to retain its title as The Best Of The Rest, on which Aston Villa already has a firm grip. Because of that, and because of the defensive frailty born of the absence of Caicedo and Mac Allister and former loanee Levi Colwill, this Brighton can't compete at the top of the league the way they did last time around.
But don't let that spoil your enjoyment of what Brighton still has to offer coming into 2024. The Seagulls are still well placed to fight for a spot in Europe, be it the Europa or Conference Leagues, still have a Europa League trophy to contest, which will really start to get good now that the knockout games are coming around, and still have sensational players playing some captivating soccer. For evidence of Brighton's enduring appeal, you need look no further than João Pedro, a veritable fireworks show unto himself who is exploding and dazzling right before the eyes of all who are wise enough to look his way.