There comes a point when repeated misfortune simply begins to resemble carelessness. In Brighton’s case the hard-luck stories are starting to wear thin. Even when the bounce of the ball goes in their favour they find ways not to win, undermining their stylish approach play with defending that leaves them uncomfortably close to the bottom three.
Victorious in only two league games this season, they let an underwhelming West Ham off the hook in a scrappy match, missing the chance to pull four points clear of 18th place after twice relinquishing the lead.
Weakness under the high ball proved costly. Ahead at half-time thanks to Neal Maupay’s fortuitous goal, Brighton were pegged back after failing to deal with a cross. Back in front thanks to Lewis Dunk’s effort, which could have been disallowed by VAR for handball, Graham Potter’s side switched off again, poor marking at a corner allowing Tomas Soucek to rescue a late point for West Ham.
Potter was aghast, criticising his side for allowing Soucek a free run to attack the ball. Brighton were nearly home and dry; instead they had to stomach the frustration of a seventh draw of a stuttering campaign. “I thought the performance was worthy of three points but we didn’t defend the second goal particularly well,” Potter said. “When you do that it becomes difficult.”
Brighton’s manager knew West Ham, who are now winless in three matches, were vulnerable. Searching for a way to spark an attack weakened by the absence of Michail Antonio, David Moyes picked a baffling team. A theory based on putting more players around Sébastien Haller, a forward who lacks the mobility to occupy defences on his own, fell apart when put into practice. West Ham’s system, a 3-4-1-2 featuring Mark Noble slogging away 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 following knee surgery, Ben Johnson looked uncomfortable at left wing-back, draining momentum from attacks by always cutting back on to his right foot. In the middle Noble kept dropping too deep, meaning West Ham often had eight players in their own half and nobody to link the play.
The numbers summed it up: West Ham did not muster a shot on target in the first half. It was unnecessary from Moyes. Not only did he have creative players on the bench, he had also found a way to negate his team’s strengths. Noble’s presence unsettled Soucek, who was unsure about when to maraud into Brighton territory, while the decision to place Jarrod Bowen next to the statuesque Haller left them without width on the right.
The question was whether Brighton, who have not exactly oozed conviction in attack lately, could capitalise. The answer arrived after 44 minutes of pleasant but ineffective probing. Dan Burn seized the initiative, overlapping on the left and producing a neat cutback after combining 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 jab past 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 into the second half, Haller heading at the Brighton goalkeeper.
The West Ham substitutes began to influence the game. On the hour, Yarmolenko cut inside on the right and crossed with his left foot. Soucek, no longer crowded out by Noble, was there to cause havoc. The ball ran free and Lanzini reacted smartly despite lying on the floor, teeing up Johnson to curl home his first senior goal.
Brighton absorbed the blow. After 70 minutes a quick corner allowed March to cross. Soucek’s attempted clearance struck Dunk, who controlled before smashing high into the net. The goal stood after the VAR, Andrew Madley, failed to find clear evidence of Dunk handling. “It hits his arm,” Moyes said. “I thought if it hit your arm and led to a goal it would be chalked off.”
The game crept towards the final whistle with Brighton holding firm. Yet West Ham, who remain 10th, would not lie down. With eight minutes left Aaron Cresswell’s corner skimmed off Dunk’s head and went in off Soucek, whose relieved smile suggested that he knew as much: West Ham had got away with one.