Brighton and Hove Albion have started to find their feet in the Premier League, with their win over Swansea City seeing them move into 8th position. This is a remarkable position to be in after 11 matches and the supporters are starting to believe that they can become an established team at this level. They won’t be getting carried away just yet, but there are reasons to be optimistic about the rest of the season. The Seagulls have lost only one of their last six league matches and are building up momentum ahead of the busy Christmas period.
The star player of their promotion campaign was Anthony Knockaert and he arrived in the Premier League with a point to prove. There are many players that are pigeon-holed as too good for the Championship, but not good enough for the highest level. The Frenchman played a key part in the Leicester City side that achieved promotion under Nigel Pearson, but he failed to make an impact once the Foxes had reached the top-flight.
During the 2014/15 season, he made just nine appearances and only three of those were as part of the starting eleven. He failed to register a goal or an assist as a Premier League player and decided to move to Standard Liege at the end of his contact, despite the club offering him an extension. It was a brave decision from the winger, but one that can be looked back on as the right one. Knockaert looks back on the move away with no regrets.
“I am never going to regret the choices I made because I wasn’t playing too much in the Premier League with Leicester and it was time for me to go somewhere else and try something else. I always believed in my quality and, when I had the chance to come to this club, I knew the ambition they had. It was an easy decision to take and now it looks like a perfect decision.”
Standard Liege were his next destination, but it wasn’t long before he was offered a chance to return to England with Brighton in the January transfer window of 2016. The club were on the right tracks under Chris Hughton and challenging at the top of the division. However, they lacked a standout player in attack that could provide match-winning moments from nothing. Knockaert was identified as that player and it was the opportunity for the Frenchman to become the central figure of a team challenging for promotion.
That season was one of progression for the Frenchman as he did well in Belgium before dominating the Championship on his return. At Leicester, he had done well in the second tier, but his contribution for Brighton was next level. During the second half of the season, Knockaert got five goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 163.3 minutes. Despite playing only half of the season, he bettered his tally of five goals and five assists from Leicester’s promotion campaign and that underlined the progress he was making in his game.
Brighton fell short in the play-offs and failed to win promotion, but there was hope that they could go one better the following season, especially as Knockaert would be available for the entire campaign. That hope was well-placed as the Seagulls stormed to a top-two finish and it was their French maestro that led the way with 15 goals and eight assists. The 25-year-old was awarded with the Championship Player of the Year award for his performances and few questioned the decision to give him that accolade.
This promotion would have been a lot sweeter for Knockaert as he was a key player and playing under a manager that rated him highly. There was freedom for the Frenchman to play his natural game every time he stepped out on the pitch and that brought out the best in him.
Those that followed the Championship closely believed he would easily transition to the Premier League this time around and his performance against Swansea City was a real indication that he is comfortable at this level.
Has he made an impact in the Premier League?
The Frenchman was superb against Swansea City and was arguably the standout player of the match. Although he hasn’t taken the league by storm, there have been some encouraging showings and he continues to improve on a weekly basis. Knockaert got the assist for the only goal of the match as his cross was met by Glenn Murray as the striker continued his good form in front of goal.
However, it was the overall performance of the winger that will have pleased his manager, in both halves of the pitch. The Frenchman is known for being a tricky customer in the final third, but he was willing to work hard defensively and contribute to the team effort as they kept another clean sheet. Chris Hughton is a manager that likes to focus on a solid defensive foundation and every player must do their bit to achieve that.
A player with the attacking flair of Knockaert may lack motivation to work hard, but he is buying into the style of the team. Against Swansea, he made four tackles, one interception and three clearances. No player made more successful tackles than him and considering his main role is an attacking one, he deserves to be praised for that.
In attack, he completed two dribbles and two key passes, looking dangerous every time he had the ball at his feet. It is important for players in newly-promoted sides to make the most of their opportunities in the final third as they can be few and far between. Knockaert has one goal and one assist to his name. It is a good start, but he will be hoping for improvement during the coming months. Saturday was a notable moment in his career so far and it is crucial that he builds on it.