Following a warm reception and an equally warm embrace from his former coach David Wagner, one of the many sub-plots in yesterday’s game was the return of Izzy Brown.
Last season, Izzy Brown played his part as beneath the lights and in front of the Sky cameras, Town demonstrated exactly what they were capable of when they took apart Chris Hughton’s Brighton & Hove Albion.
Because of this, David Wagner knew the symbolic meaning of the fixture and when looking at the Premier League table itself, it was almost a six-pointer.
Through the team selection which saw the return of fruitful partnerships and Town re-finding their identity, yesterday’s performance was very much a homage to last season.
Prior to kick-off when the teams were announced, David Wagner’s team selection left very few surprises, apart from the omission of Kasey Palmer.
What was noticeable about David Wagner’s team selection was that there was clearly a homage to last season as he went back to basics.
Within the 4-2-3-1 set-up, a number of partnerships that were forged during Town’s promotion to the Premier League were reunited.
Whilst the defensive trio of Christopher Schindler, Mathias Jorgensen and Jonas Lossl have been an ever-present this season, the inclusion of Chris Lowe and Tommy Smith was symbolic of that return to last season’s success.
One of the partnerships was that of Tommy Smith and Elias Kachunga. The seemingly telepathic connection between the two was so fruitful last season and yesterday and they both looked back to their best.
The other major partnership was that of Aaron Mooy and Jonathan Hogg. The deep-lying midfield pairing complemented each other so well last season and once again, they dictated the game and took it away from Brighton.
Each of these decisions carefully made by David Wagner led to an environment where his side could play with more freedom and confidence than recent weeks.
Formation and the tactical tweak
With the team selection described above, it appeared that David Wagner would set up his side within the orthodox 4-2-3-1 framework.
During the game, however, there was a noticeable tactical tweak. Rather than the 4-2-3-1 formation, Town were matching Brighton and almost playing a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-4-2 at times.
The position that Tom Ince has played has been a point of contention all season. This is largely due the lack of goal-scoring contribution that we thought he may have.
Yesterday, however, we saw Ince deployed in a far more advanced position almost as a second striker, as he played off the shoulder of Steve Mounié.
In recent weeks, we have seen both Steve Mounié and Laurent Depoitre win their aerial duels but there has not been any midfield runners or players in support to take advantage of that.
Yesterday, we saw exactly that. A partnership between Steve Mounié and Tom Ince was born. On a number of occasions, the duo combined and they posed a much larger threat than the entirety of Town’s attack had in recent weeks.
This tactical tweak by David Wagner and the slight positional change had a massive difference as we saw Tom Ince have his most influential game for Town so far this season.
A re-found identity
Most noticeably, this homage to last season, primarily through the team selection led to the sense that Town had re-found their identity, both in and out of possession.
Last season, Town simply overwhelmed Brighton and there was almost an exact replication of that, particularly in the first half.
Out of possession, there was a controlled aggression and a tenacity that had been missing in previous performances. A major difference was the sense of purpose in Town’s pressing game.
The effectiveness of the pressing was two-fold.
Firstly, Town’s front four and the two midfield generals behind them had a cohesion which led to Brighton making a number of mistakes.
However, it also became apparent that David Wagner had spotted a weakness. Both of Brighton’s centre-halves, Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, looked severely uncomfortable in possession and Town simply smelt blood.
As well as the impressive nature of Town’s off the ball work, they also impressed in possession.
In the first half, as Brighton stood off Town, Town were able to play the ball out of the back and transition through the middle third with relative ease.
Once Town had established themselves into the game and occupied areas of the pitch where they could hurt their opposition, Town simply played to their strengths.
Recognising that Steve Mounié had the beating of both Dunk and Duffy, Town played the ball out wide early to provide the Beninese striker with the service that he thrives upon.
Rather than the slow lethargic build-up play of recent weeks, Town played with confidence as it was the delicate interplay between the full-backs and the inside forwards that created many of Town’s chances.
Town showed care and composure to manufacture chances which had been a missing ingredient in recent weeks.
It was, therefore, the reversion back to basics and the return of collective confidence which saw Town re-find their identity in one of the most crucial matches of the season.
Through excellent team selection and a slight formation tweak, what we were witness to yesterday was a return to the Town of last season.
The hunger, togetherness and confidence in possession was simply far too much for Brighton to handle. If Town can replicate these kind of performances against fellow bottom-half sides, Town will continue to pick up points and continue to edge closer and closer towards survival.