At 2:30pm on Thursday, Melissa Phillips held a press conference to discuss Brighton’s upcoming match against Manchester United. At 6:45pm, it was revealed that she had been fired by the club after almost 10 months as the manager. The next day at 12:30pm, the interim manager, Mikey Harris, was introduced to the media. It was a chaotic 22 hours on the southern coast and Phillips’ departure came as a surprise to many.
“This is not a decision which has been taken lightly, but we feel is vital for the progress we want to see in the Women’s Super League,” said the Brighton technical director, David Weir, in the club’s statement. “We have invested heavily in the women’s squad and infrastructure going into this season, and results and performances have not been at the level we had expected, given that investment.”
Brighton currently holds the 10th position in the Women’s Super League with a total of 11 points from 12 games. They have achieved three wins, two draws, and suffered seven losses. They are currently six points ahead of Bristol City, who is in last place, and three points above West Ham. Despite this, there is only a two-point difference between Brighton and Leicester, who currently holds the 7th position. This raises the question, what factors have contributed to Brighton’s struggles?
Following Hope Powell’s departure in October 2022, Brighton hired German coach Jens Scheuer. However, concerns about his coaching methods resulted in him only lasting 68 days. His assistant, Amy Merricks, took over as interim coach. In April 2023, with Brighton struggling at the bottom of the league (but with two games in hand), Phillips was brought in.
Phillips’ arrival as manager was as surprising as her exit. The 36-year-old American had left London City Lionesses after leading them to the summit of the Championship in January to join the Los Angeles-based National Women’s Soccer League side Angel City as an assistant coach. Four months later Brighton had lured her back to English football, and two wins and a draw in 18 days secured their survival with three games to play.
Brighton made a strong beginning to the season and made significant additions in the summer to improve the team’s performance after finishing sixth and seventh in the last two seasons. Ten new players joined the team while 13 left, including those on loan. Phillips was responsible for integrating them into a cohesive unit that could compete at a higher level. However, has the team’s investment not translated into successful outcomes and performances?
Brighton have the second-lowest expected goals (xG) figure in the league, but they looked like a side that still learning their identity under Phillips. A point from Manchester United and three against Manchester City are highlights of their campaign and their performances in two league defeats by Chelsea have shown promise.
“The manager, Emma Hayes, commented on the recent departure of Phillips, saying that she had only been in her position since April and had just brought in new players in January. She noted that when they played against the team last week, they seemed very organized, but there are several young players who may take time to fully gel with the team. She acknowledged that it is challenging for any team to break into the top three, as seen with Manchester United, who have built a more experienced squad than Brighton. Hayes expressed shock at the decision, acknowledging the direction the game is moving in, but pointing out that no one in women’s football is being paid a million pounds. Making such a quick decision seemed hasty to her.”
The performance history of teams with a significant change in players during the summer has not been successful. In December 2018, when Willie Kirk became the manager of Everton, the team was in last place. However, they managed to finish 10th that season and avoid relegation. The next season, Everton improved even further and finished sixth, even making it to the FA Cup final. Encouraged by the team’s quick progress, nine new players were added in the summer. Unfortunately, after only two wins in their first five games of the 2021-22 season, Kirk was fired.
This year, Aston Villa is in the spotlight, as they finished in fifth place last season and made six new acquisitions while letting go of 10 players in the summer. However, they have not had the best start to the new season, losing their first five league games and currently sitting in eighth place, just one point ahead of Everton and Brighton.
It is not an easy task to integrate new players into a team through making significant changes, and there is no quick solution regardless of the quality of the incoming players. While Brighton did acquire some talented players in the summer, they may not be of the caliber to immediately start for any of the top four WSL teams. Maria Thorisdóttir was signed from Manchester United after a lackluster performance there and at Chelsea. Goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley also joined from United but had limited playing time as a backup to Mary Earps. Vicky Losada, formerly of Arsenal, Barcelona, and Manchester City, was signed from Roma but at 32 years old, she is reaching the end of her career. Pauline Bremer’s time at Manchester City was hindered by injury and she only made 24 league appearances in three seasons at Wolfsburg after leaving the WSL to return to Germany.
It is difficult to determine if Phillips was given additional time, as there is no assurance that she could have improved Brighton’s performance. The Women’s Super League (WSL) appears to prioritize impatience, with only 12 teams and each game carrying significant weight. This contributes to the frequent turnover of managers in the league.