A mix of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp: How Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi silenced Graeme Souness
On the evening of October 22, 2022, Roberto De Zerbi was a man under pressure. He had only been Brighton boss for just over a month, but he had yet to win a game in the Premier League. A 3-1 loss at Manchester City represented a third defeat in his first five outings.
It was feared that all of Graham Potter's excellent work on the south coast was in serious danger of being undone, with the team having dropped from fourth to ninth following his departure to Chelsea. Maybe Graeme Souness had been right when he claimed that De Zerbi "doesn't know our game".
Yet those that actually do know the game could see that the Italian's daring tactical approach was starting to take root at Brighton.
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'His impact in England will be massive'
City may have triumphed that evening at the Etihad, but something very strange had happened: the reigning English champions had lost the battle for the ball. Brighton had restricted their hosts to just 48 percent possession.
"They propose a type of game we're not used to," Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards, before boldly predicting, "De Zerbi's impact in England will be massive." Guardiola has a tendency to lavish meaningless praise on opponents but, on this occasion, he meant every word. And he's been proven right, too.
Just seven months after his arrival in England was greeted with almost widespread scepticism, De Zerbi is being hailed as a tactical genius who has managed to marry the best principles of Pep's possession play with Jurgen Klopp's controlled counter-pressing chaos.
Not that he's allowing the praise to go to his head. "I've been coaching for 10 years and I've learned to live in this world," he told the Gazzetta dello Sport last month. "Now that the results are smiling at us, compliments and nice words abound. But it's important to know how to decipher them.
"I don't want to change anything, just do what I'm capable of: leaving my imprint on the team. Here, I think I have succeeded in a short time, but the credit goes to the players."
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'Almost father-son relationship with players'
The Brighton squad wasn't against his appointment. But that was mainly because they had never heard of De Zerbi, as Adam Lallana is now "embarrassed" to admit. The former Liverpool midfielder has claimed, though, that he was the first Brighton player to understand what exactly Potter's replacement was trying to do, and thus played a key role in his team-mates embracing the new approach.
"Even if he doesn't speak English well, and I don't speak Italian, we understood each other just by looking at each other," Lallana told the Gazzetta. "It was hard for us at the beginning, because Potter had left us while we were fourth in the table: we were all sad and not at all players like change. But I knew we had to go on, that we had to move on, also because there were immediately important games to play.
"And I remember how De Zerbi immediately wanted to get things across to the group, how he wanted everything to change quickly, and convey the passion and love he has for football. It took a little bit of time, but I think we still adapted very, very quickly, with an open mind and a willingness to hear what he had to say.
"We started to see that things worked his way because of the way he is as a person, the almost father-son relationship he creates with the players. I remember telling him to let me know what he wanted, that I was ready to explain to the team-mates why they had to follow him. And I did it: I explained that it would be difficult at the beginning, but that we would see the results and we would be successful."
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Few better footballing sides in Europe
He wasn't wrong. Brighton narrowly missed out on a place in the FA Cup final, losing on penalties to Manchester United in the last four, while ahead of Thursday's game against the same opposition, they sit eighth in the Premier League table, with games in hand over all of their rivals for a fifth-placed finish.
What's most impressive about Brighton's results, though, is how they are being achieved. There are few better footballing sides in Europe right now, let alone England.
While he still occasionally dabbles with Potter's three-man defence, De Zerbi has successfully implemented his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, which he uses to put opponents in a most uncomfortable position. If they choose to sit back, Brighton will dominate possession and pick teams apart with some of the remaining principles of Potter-ball. If they elect to press, though, Brighton will pass through them, as swiftly and directly as possible.
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'Launching the ball is the equivalent of gambling'
Obviously, such a daring strategy requires the utmost quality and composure from each and every single player entrusted with possession of the ball. It feels like a high-risk tactic. There are those that frown upon building from the back and instead espouse knocking it long when required.
De Zerbi, though, sees things very differently. "To me, launching the ball upfield and trying to win the second ball is the equivalent of gambling," he once told Bobo TV, "and since I don't like to bet, I prefer to train a team to bring the ball carefully out of defence."
As he now freely admits himself, this Brighton side best exemplifies his footballing philosophy, the one with which he enjoys "the most harmony". He rather humbly puts that down to the foundations put in place by his predecessor Potter and the intelligence of his players, but Lallana has been astounded by just how quickly "he managed to get so many guys to play in such a specific way".
"I think that's what makes him so incredible," the Englishman said. "He got a group of 25 players to follow him, to always stay focused, and to embrace his idea of football."
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'Ambition is not arrogance'
The question now, of course, is how far he can take Brighton. There is an obvious risk that this thrilling team will be picked apart during the summer, with Alexis Mac Allister, Kaoru Mitoma, Even Ferguson and Moises Caicedo all being linked with big-money moves.
The latter was very nearly prised away by Arsenal during the January transfer window and it does feel like it will only be a matter of time before Brighton's excellent scouting department are forced to unearth more hidden gems.
De Zerbi is acutely aware of how the football world works. His work on a shoe-string budget at Sassuolo was precisely what attracted Brighton to his services. But he has already made it clear that he has little interest in sticking around if his best players are sold. Indeed, he has never hidden his hope of competing on the game's grandest stages.
"In this field, you risk being misunderstood and perceived as arrogant, but for me ambition is not arrogance," he argued. "It's a dream to achieve, one that motivates you. It allows you to generate enthusiasm among people, the people that fill your stadium. It motivates your club.
"It's risky to set the bar high, because you can fail, but doing so allows you to grow more than is possible if you keep it low."
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Summer switch to Serie A?...
It would not come as a surprise, then, to see him leave Brighton at the end of the season. Tottenham are said to be interested, but a return to Italy is also a distinct possibility, given there could be several vacancies at elite Serie A sides this summer. De Zerbi certainly won't be short on options.
Back in September, when Souness described his appointment as a risk, the Scot revealed that he'd done a bit of "research" on the Premier League newcomer. "If you look him up on Google, you'll notice that he's had seven jobs in nine years," he pointed out on TalkSPORT, the negative implication obvious. "If you're an exceptional coach, people want to hold on to you..."
They'll also be desperate to hire you, though, meaning offers will always be inevitable. And given how little time he needed to get to know the English game, Roberto De Zerbi will be one of the hottest - and most recognisable - names on the managerial merry-go-round this summer.