There comes a point when repeated misfortune simply begins to resemble carelessness. In Brighton & Hove Albion’s case, the hard-luck stories are starting to wear thin. Even when the bounce of the ball runs in their favour, they find ways not to win, undermining stylish approach play with a self-destructive streak that continues to leave them sitting uncomfortably close to the bottom three.
Still victorious on only two occasions this season, Brighton let an underwhelming West Ham off the hook on a scrappy afternoon in east London, missing the chance to pull four points clear of 18th place after twice relinquishing the lead with sloppy defending. In front thanks to slightly fortuitous strikes from Neal Maupay and Lewis Dunk, Graham Potter’s side ended up frustrated again after Tomáš Souček rescued West Ham with a flukey late equaliser.
Brighton should have held out after Dunk’s goal. West Ham, winless in three matches, were mediocre. Searching for a way to spark an attack weakened by the absence of the injured Michail Antonio, David Moyes picked a baffling team. A theory based around putting more players around Sébastien Haller, a forward who lacks the mobility to occupy defences on his own, fell apart when put into practice. The system, a 3-4-1-2 featuring Mark Noble slogging away in a free role, simply felt too cautious against a team battling 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 favoured right foot. Further inside, Noble was dropping too deep, meaning that 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 West Ham’s strengths. Noble’s presence unsettled Souček, who was unsure about when to maraud into Brighton territory, while the decision to move Jarrod Bowen inside and closer to Haller left the hosts without natural width on the right flank.
Brighton gradually realised that West Ham were labouring. Easy on the eye in possession, they initially lacked a bite in the final third, a few promising darts from Danny Welbeck aside. Under little pressure, though, they began to force the issue. Solly March, a threat on the left, swung in a couple of dangerous crosses and tested Lukasz Fabianski from 20 yards. Adam Webster was disappointed to head straight at Fabianski.
The question was whether Brighton, who have not exactly oozed conviction in the final third this season, could take advantage. 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 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 Fabianski from close range.
It was up to Moyes to sort out his mess. To his credit, though, he responded assertively during the break, replacing Bowen and Noble with Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko. West Ham were transformed. They even tested Robert Sánchez two minutes into the second half, Haller delivering a warning by heading straight at the Brighton goalkeeper.
West Ham’s substitutes were free to influence the game. On the hour, Yarmolenko cut inside on the right and crossed with his left foot. Souček, no longer crowded out by Noble, was there to create a nuisance. The ball ran free and Lanzini reacted smartly despite lying on the floor, teeing up Johnson to curl home his first senior goal.
Rather than wilt, however, Brighton remained calm. After 69 minutes a quick corner allowed March to cross. Souček’s attempted clearance struck Dunk, who controlled before smashing high into the net. The goal stood after a VAR review for handball by Dunk.
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 deflected in off Souček, whose relieved smile suggested that he knew this much: West Ham had got away with one.