Football News

Roberto De Zerbi to Brighton: Tactics, style of play & Pep Guardiola connection

By Harry Edwards

Published: 8:46, 21 September 2022

Brighton and Hove Albion have officially started the post-Graham Potter era, announcing Roberto De Zerbi as their new manager.

Potter spent three years at Brighton and led them to their highest-ever league finish last season, securing ninth spot in the Premier League, but said goodbye to the Seagulls earlier this month to take over at Chelsea.

Brighton swiftly started the process to find his replacement and according to reports they only had one target. Things moved pretty quickly once they got started and De Zerbi was eventually announced as new Brighton manager.

The Italian has the international break to get things going at Brighton, with his first game a big one away to Liverpool at Anfield at the start of October.

But what does De Zerbi bring to Brighton?

Who is Roberto De Zerbi?

As a player, De Zerbi spent most of his career in his native Italy, only leaving for a two-year spell with Romanian side Cluj, and his managerial career has had a pretty similar pattern.

De Zerbi started with Italian amateur side Darfo Boario and spent one year their before taking charge of Foggia, one of his former clubs. In two years at Foggia, De Zerbi won the Coppa Italia Serie C and just missed out on promotion, though the squad he had assembled did go up to Serie B a year after he left.

It hasn’t all been rosy for De Zerbi though. Making the step up to Serie A, De Zerbi spent just two months at Palermo before getting sacked due to a poor start which including seven consecutive defeats and no points at home. He then oversaw Benevento’s relegation back to Serie B in the 2017/18 season, but that was their first ever campaign in the top-flight and De Zerbi had a mammoth task on his hands.

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De Zerbi was praised for his work at Benevento and stayed in Serie A with Sassuolo, where things really started rolling. After maintaining an 11th-placed finish from the season before he arrived, De Zerbi then led Sassuolo to back-to-back eighth-placed finishes in Serie A and they only missed out on the Europa Conference League in 2020/21 on goal difference – having drawn both matches with seventh-placed Roma. Brighton are currently 4/1 with Sky Bet to finish in the Premier League’s top six, which many expect would guarantee a European spot, either the Europa League or Europa Conference League.

Last season De Zerbi moved outside Italy for the first time in his managerial career, taking charge of Shakhtar Donestk, and won the Ukrainian Super Cup not too long after arriving. Shakhtar did struggle in the Champions League, finishing bottom of their group behind Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Sheriff, and De Zerbi eventually left when Ukrainian football was suspended.

For any Brighton fans who might be uncertain about how the club will fare under De Zerbi, especially after Potter’s reign, the Italian has got Pep Guardiola’s seal of approval. De Zerbi first met Guardiola when the latter was manager of Bayern Munich and the Italian just starting his coaching career. And in his first press conference as Brighton manager, De Zerbi revealed he has already spoken to Guardiola.

“I spoke to Pep on Sunday evening. Yes,” he told reporters.

“He’s very happy that I’m on board here. He told me very good things about the club. And he told me that if I need he will be very happy to help me — but of course not in the match we are playing against them!

“Guardiola, I think, is the trainer of the strongest team of the last 40 years, Barcelona. We met each other when he was the manager of Bayern Munich. A couple of months ago I flew to Manchester to see him. He is a great trainer and we are all looking at him.”

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Style of play

It can sometimes be hard for a new manager to take over a club after the season has started, especially when that club have been spending the past few years building a team to fit another manager’s system. The incoming manager then has two choices. They either stick with the old manager’s system initially or rip up the tactics book and start again, as Jesse Marsch essentially did when replacing Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds last season.

But De Zerbi believes he can implement his own system without making too many changes from Potter’s plans, seeing some similarities between himself and the now-Chelsea boss.

“Potter has worked very well – but I’m not Potter,” he told reporters.

“I think we have a lot of things in common but I’m not talking about the systems we play. I am talking about principles and mentality. So, if we can keep this mentality and those principles, I can bring my ideas without making any big changes. Don’t throw the ball away. That is very important, very clear. To attack. To make the game, as we say in Italian.”

However, there are differences too.

De Zerbi added: “At first sight, in my opinion, I like much more to control the game. One of the things for this team can be to control the rhythm of the game much more.”

At both Sassuolo and Shakhtar, De Zerbi implemented his possession-based system with a lot of focus on holding the ball in midfield. In the above image you can see the there were a lot of passes between the centre-backs and central midfielders during his three-year spell at Sassuolo and there were signs of it coming at Shakhtar Donetsk, though there is a much smaller sample size of six Champions League matches.

De Zerbi also looks to have his full-backs pushing higher up the pitch in keeping with the modern understanding of the role that they should be more attacking outlets. The full-backs do also provide a secondary out ball for the centre-backs and have a link with the wingers/wide midfielders in De Zerbi’s favoured 4-2-3-1.

Something that is very similar to Potter’s way of playing at Brighton is the position of the attacking midfielder and the striker during De Zerbi’s spell at Sassuolo. There, the attacking midfielder was playing very close to the striker, something we have seen of Brighton when playing certain formations.

But we can see differences too, when comparing De Zerbi’s final season at Sassuolo and Brighton under Potter this term. De Zerbi’s Sassuolo had a lot of focus on dribbling, to help advance the ball up the pitch, with less emphasis on playing the long ball.

As mentioned there is also the desire for De Zerbi’s team to be a lot more possession-based than Potter’s Brighton have been this season, which means fewer fast breaks – though they weren’t completely missing at Sassuolo. De Zerbi also has less tendency to see his team cross the ball, with more action outside the area, though that may change with the personnel on his hands at Brighton.

How Brighton could line up under De Zerbi

All this begs the question of how De Zerbi’s Brighton will look. The Italian stated that he has a good foundation on which to work thanks to the characteristics and mentality Potter instilled into the current Brighton squad and while he won’t have to make too many changes, don’t be surprised if you see an immediate switch in formation.

As mentioned, De Zerbi loves the 4-2-3-1 and Brighton do have the players capable of fitting into that system this season, such is the versatile squad they were building.

“We have a lot of strong players and I saw a lot of games from the Premier League, I have studied all the players individually,” De Zerbi said.

“The team knows what they have to do on the pitch, they have a very clear style and I believe that perfection doesn’t exist – there are always some things to improve. In my opinion, [my idea] is to improve results from last year and to remain in the top ten positions in the table.”

Brighton have made a good start to the season, currently sitting fourth, and are 4/11 with Sky Bet to meet their pre-season expectations of a top-half finish.

The question to ask then, if De Zerbi does go for the back four, is who drops out of the defence? When Brighton played four at the back against Leeds earlier this season, Joel Veltman moved from centre-back to right-back with Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster the central partnership. Pervis Estupinan then came in at left-back, with one of the midfielders dropping out. However, it’s worth remembering that Brighton do have Tariq Lamptey at right-back as another option.

This is something we could see under De Zerbi, with Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister the holding midfield duo, key to starting the build up. Leandro Trossard and Solly March could then keep their spots in the team but move further up the pitch from wing-backs to wingers, with Pascal Groß playing just behind Danny Welbeck.