Brighton’s new head coach Roberto De Zerbi appears to tick all the same boxes predecessor Graham Potter did across his 40 months in charge. It made sense to the hierarchy that if you had a successful appointment in Potter — who bases his playing style on controlling possession, with an ability to improve players and teams — why not choose somebody like De Zerbi, with a similar track record and principles, to maintain your club’s upward trajectory? Brighton owner-chairman Tony Bloom’s data-driven and proactive recruitment policy had identified the 43-year-old Italian as an outstanding candidate among potential successors for the day Potter left, owing primarily to his work over the past four seasons with Sassuolo in Serie A and Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. A series of character references built up a comprehensive profile of De Zerbi’s management style. On September 8, when Potter’s exit to Chelsea was confirmed, Bloom and his executive team made their move. At the first meeting with De Zerbi, Bloom, chief executive Paul Barber and technical director David Weir were blown away by how much he knew about the evolution in playing style at Brighton under Potter, as well as the players he would have at his disposal. From that moment, they didn’t look beyond De Zerbi, who was a free agent after leaving Shakhtar in July following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There was no cause to disturb other head coaches catching the eye with impressive work at their clubs, such as Kjetil Knutsen at Bodo/Glimt in Norway or Bo Svensson of Germany’s Mainz.
Brighton moved quickly for De Zerbi (Photo: Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Further meetings followed to finalise arrangements with De Zerbi, his representatives and the backroom team he is bringing with him from his days at Sassuolo and then Shakhtar after Potter took five members of his coaching and recruitment staff with him to Chelsea.
De Zerbi watched Brighton lose 2-1 to Potter’s Chelsea in a behind-closed-doors friendly at the Amex on Saturday — when both clubs were without a fixture owing to Premier League postponements — then flew back to Italy, before the confirmation on Sunday evening of his appointment on a four-year contract, subject to work permit formalities.
Potter used to be the head coach in the Premier League nearest in philosophy and playing style to Pep Guardiola. But now that’s De Zerbi — another great admirer of the Manchester City manager. Brighton think they have landed an ideal, model-sustaining replacement for “Potterball”. Prepare yourselves for ‘De Zerbismo’. When Potter set out on his coaching journey 14 years ago with Leeds Carnegie in the Northern Counties East League, his ideas on the way the game should be played were shaped by watching Guardiola’s Barcelona side. Mutual regard has developed from a distance since Potter joined Guardiola in the Premier League in 2019, but De Zerbi’s links with him are far greater. The two men sat next to each other at a Manchester restaurant last month in a gathering that included some notable figures from Italian football.
Bivio #DeZerbi: accontentarsi di una ‘piccola’ o aspettare una big? Tra il no al #Bologna e la cena con #Guardiola… https://t.co/xmOr4fLUSe — calciomercato.com (@cmdotcom) September 10, 2022 Behind De Zerbi (second from left) is his new match analyst Andrea Maldera, a former technical coach at AC Milan and Ukraine’s national team under Andriy Shevchenko. At the head of the table is Manuel Estiarte, a long-serving member of Guardiola’s backroom team. To Estairte’s right is Marcello Quinto, who played under De Zerbi at Foggia in Italy and is expected to join his Brighton staff. Quinto worked with Alberto Aquilani last season with Fiorentina’s Under-19 Coppa Italia-winning team. Enzo Maresca, formerly coach of Manchester City’s development squad, is there, too, having returned to the club after his dismissal from Parma in Serie A to replace Juanma Lillo as assistant manager to Guardiola. In front of Maresca is the former Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who was part of Roberto Mancini’s staff with the national team and a candidate at the time for the first-team coaching role at Palermo, the latest club to join the City Football Group stable. In front of De Rossi is former Serbia international defender Aleksandar Kolarov, who spent seven years as a City player, including under Guardiola. They were all in Manchester to watch Guardiola at work in training. De Zerbi and Guardiola played in different eras for Brescia, which is also the city where the former was born. In 2013, when De Zerbi launched his coaching career with Serie D amateurs Darfo Boario, he travelled to the Dolomite Mountains in north east Italy to observe Guardiola in pre-season training with his then-club Bayern Munich. Guardiola returns the respect, always taking interest in other coaches with like-minded styles who are doing good work. He was an occasional spectator at the Mapei Stadium, when time permitted, to watch De Zerbi’s team during his three seasons in charge at Sassuolo. The disciple can sometimes teach the master. De Zerbi’s tactic at Shakhtar of playing two full-backs very narrow, with a central midfielder in front of two central defenders, was replicated by Guardiola with mixed results at City at the start of last season and on the opening weekend of the current one in the 2-0 victory at West Ham. But before Shakhtar, De Zerbi had made his breakthrough at a village club from northern Italy… Sassuolo had never been in Serie A until 10 years ago. De Zerbi transformed both their style of play and performance levels. He didn’t steer Sassuolo to European qualification, as Eusebio Di Francesco did in 2015-16, but he kept them punching above their weight with finishes of 11th and eighth (twice) in Serie A. They missed out, on goal difference, to Roma last year for qualification to the inaugural Europa Conference League — and Roma, under new management with Jose Mourinho replacing Paulo Fonseca, went on to win the competition. Sassuolo’s sustained progression under De Zerbi heightened his appeal to Bloom. Potter did something similar at Brighton over the same time frame, changing the style of play while delivering finishes of 15th, 16th and ninth in the Premier League. As the chart below demonstrates, De Zerbi’s Sassuolo are the only club in the “big five” European leagues since 2017-18 to have improved their possession game more drastically than Brighton did in Potter’s 2019-20 debut season. De Zerbi has become renowned for getting his teams playing out from the back, irrespective of who they were facing or the pressure on the game, luring opponents into playing a high press and then turning it against them. One pattern of play at Sassuolo, recommended by De Zerbi’s goalkeeping coach Giorgio Bianchi, saw the full-backs go high and wide, with two central midfielders positioned on the edge of the penalty area. That type of outside-the-box thinking is reminiscent of the tactical nuances introduced to Brighton by Potter. De Zerbi’s style stems initially from a 15-year playing career as an attacking midfielder who enjoyed being on the ball for — among many other clubs in his homeland — AC Milan and Napoli. This spirit marks him out from iconoclastic Italian coaching greats such as Arrigo Sacchi, who led Milan to two European Cups and the national team to the 1994 World Cup final, where they lost on penalties to Brazil. De Zerbi likes to say he coaches with a No 10 on his back, remarking to Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “The good of the team is also the sum of all our personal ambitions. In this, I’m different from Sacchi.“ Sacchi only sees football in terms of the collective. I, on the other hand, am convinced that a team can be developed by getting the best out of individuals — as long as it doesn’t lead to the selfish and the egotistical.” De Zerbi has three core principles. “I’m interested in individual skill and technique, without which you can’t keep the ball in your own half,” he says, “an understanding of the game, which comes down to concepts like the right posture with which to receive a pass and being able to pass to a team-mate’s preferred foot, and the courage to accept you may make a mistake.” A video that went viral shows De Zerbi explaining the advantage of controlling the ball with the sole of your foot.
#DeZerbi explaining the ‘provocative’ function of using the sole. A quote that says a lot about the way he understands ball-possession: a game of attraction and adaptation rather than a linear progression from A to B. pic. twitter.com/aJZIgDBw73
— Dario Pergolizzi (@dariopergolizzi) June 17, 2022
Guardiola isn’t the only coach from whom De Zerbi has learnt.
When Palermo sacked him in November 2016 after only 12 weeks, he acquired a mobile number for Marcelo Bielsa, sent the Argentinian a text and got invited to watch him take training at French club Lille.
This has led to the perception of De Zerbi as being different from other Italian coaches, and something of a philosopher. He once couldn’t wait to wrap up a post-match interview with Sky Italia because he wanted to go home so he could watch Bielsa’s Leeds on TV.
“I’ve tried to take things from teams that excite me,” he told Spanish newspaper El Pais. “Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli. Luciano Spalletti’s Roma, when Francesco Totti was a false nine. Guardiola’s Barca, Bayern and City, Germany’s 2016 World Cup-winning team, Lucien Favre’s Borussia Monchengladbach, Imanol Alguacil’s Real Sociedad, Quique Setien’s Las Palmas, Bielsa’s Athletic (Bilbao). I’ve added my own ideas to all these.”
But De Zerbi has pushed back on the philosopher tag. “Don’t make me pass for a philosopher,” he has said. “Every coach has their own scale with which to make value judgements. In football, the word philosopher is used in a derogatory sense.“ It is true, though, that I like to play attacking football. Eighty per cent of my work in the week is dedicated to the attacking phase. That’s why I use pre-emptive marking structures (his attacks are structured in such a way that the team are set up to defend the transition). “ If I limited the amount of work I do on the defensive phase to just 20 per cent, we would lose every game. But I don’t. When I train the attack, I pay close attention to our positioning so we aren’t unbalanced when the ball is lost. I have united both phases.” De Zerbi, in common with a lot of Italian coaches including Tottenham’s Antonio Conte, calls himself a “hammer”, which refers to hammering concepts into players. He relates this to his playing career. De Zerbi only made three appearances in Serie A but some claim he had the talent to play more often. He says: “Maybe I was better than I showed but I got what I deserved and that was three games. I was a No 10 in an era when the 4-4-2 prevailed. I wanted to have fun on the pitch. I wouldn’t willingly change my position. If I wasn’t convinced by something, I didn’t easily adapt.
De Zerbi has talked about how his experiences as a player have shaped him as a coach (Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images
“This has influenced who I am as a coach. Compared to coaches in my day, I will really go out of my way to accommodate the skill sets of my players and find the right position for each and every one of them.“ But there’s a flipside. Given how much I bang my head against a wall trying to put them in their best positions, I am three times more demanding than the coaches who wouldn’t do that for me.” De Zerbi’s football has been polarising in Italy. It is a threat to the old order. He has become a cult figure and has a lot of supporters on the punditry circuit. One is Daniele Adani, the former Inter Milan and Brescia centre-back, who was for a time the closest Sky Italia had to their own Gary Neville. Adani believes De Zerbi’s football is the future, and that has started a culture war with Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri about what constitutes good football. Italian football is now divided into two camps, the “giochisti” and the “risultatisti” (performance-based versus results-based). To Adani, Allegri is a results-oriented coach for whom the end justifies the means. De Zerbi was considered part of the new wave, more modern and in tune with trends around Europe. To some, he personified the rejection of Italian football’s traditions. “I don’t see it like that,” De Zerbi says. “I love Italy. I feel 100 per cent Italian and I respect tradition, because even though Italy won the 2006 World Cup playing to its old strength, I felt part of that. I was happy and proud.“ The question I ask myself is: do I like traditional Italian football? Do I want to sit back and play on the counter? No. It’s not what I stand for.” When Italy won the European Championship last year playing a fluid, possession-based attacking style under Mancini, it validated De Zerbi’s way of thinking. De Zerbi is linked with Potter through their ability to improve players, regardless of age or experience. The squad Potter has left behind in Brighton is full of players who flourished during his tenure, from 24-year-old goalkeeper Robert Sanchez to 31-year-old midfielder Pascal Gross. Hertha Berlin’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, who played under De Zerbi at Sassuolo in the first half of the 2018-19 season, raves about his methods. The 35-year-old midfielder puts him above other top coaches he’s worked under, including Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Allegri at Milan.
De Zerbi with Andrea Pirlo in May 2021 (Photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images) Boateng (Barcelona), Stefano Sensi (Inter) and Merih Demiral (Juventus) all earned big moves after working with De Zerbi. The parallels with Potter at Brighton in this respect are clear. Ben White (Arsenal), Yves Bissouma (Tottenham Hotspur) and Marc Cucurella (Chelsea) have all joined big clubs after working under him. De Zerbi made Sassuolo better while selling top players and improving others. Sensi, signed from Cesena for £4million ($4.5m), went to Inter for nearly £25million. Manuel Locatelli, Domenico Berardi and Giacomo Raspadori were selected for Mancini’s victorious Euros squad. Old traditions die hard, however. Detractors questioned De Zerbi’s record and what they regard as a disproportionately high profile. De Zerbi lost a play-off final with Foggia against Pisa in the third tier, Palermo sacked him after just a few months following seven defeats in succession, and he couldn’t quite save Benevento from relegation. What has he ever won, eh? Others such as Sarri said it was Serie A’s loss and that he would miss him when De Zerbi left his homeland in May last year to take over from Luis Castro at Shakhtar. “I wanted to test myself in a new environment,” De Zerbi told Italian newspaper Il Corriere dello Sport. “A multi-lingual dressing room, the Champions League, preparing for eight games in 25 days. I needed it and wanted a bigger challenge.“There are lots of ways to coach a football team and I’m aligned with the club’s objectives. You train either to win leagues, get into Europe or stay up. Here, I have to win and that’s it, testing out my ideas.” The Russian invasion limited his stay to 14 months, but there was enough evidence in his 30 games to resonate with Brighton that De Zerbi was the ideal candidate to build on the club-record ninth-place finish achieved under Potter last season. Shakhtar lifted the Ukrainian Super Cup at the expense of Dynamo Kyiv, defeated Genk and Monaco to reach the group stage of the Champions League and were top when the war-curtailed league season ended in April. No champions were crowned. Shakhtar sporting director Darijo Srna, speaking to Spanish media outlet AS about De Zerbi, said: “He was our first, second and third choice. He plays incredible football, his style is like tiki-taka and he’s got Brazilian players to do it.“ De Zerbi is at the level of Guardiola in his style and the ideas of the game.” Italy beckoned again for De Zerbi after Shakhtar, but he turned down Bologna when they sacked Sinisa Mihajlovic two weeks ago. De Zerbi said he would have taken the job if his friend Mihajlovic, who was diagnosed in 2019 with leukaemia, had resigned. Morally, it didn’t sit right with him to replace someone he felt deserved more time. Mihajlovic’s wife called De Zerbi a great man. His grasp of English is reasonable and he can comfortably hold one-to-one conversations but to start, he is expected to be more cautious in media duties.
De Zerbi impressed Brighton with his knowledge of their squad and style (Photo: Getty Images ) At Shakhtar, he didn’t use as much English as he would have liked, as there were different interpreters for a multi-lingual squad. That didn’t hold De Zerbi back and at Brighton, he can also lean on some members of his backroom team, whose English is more fluent. De Zerbi has recently refreshed his staff with the addition of Maldera and Quinto is expected to follow. At Sassuolo and Shakhtar, De Zerbi also had fitness coaches Vincenzo Teresa, Marcattilio Marcattilii and Agostino Tibaudi, plus method coach Michele Cavalli. This package of expertise is much-needed at Brighton after Potter left for Chelsea with Billy Reid (assistant), Bjorn Hamberg and Bruno Saltor (coaches), Ben Roberts (goalkeeping coach) and Kyle Macaulay (player recruitment analyst). An unusual three-week break in fixtures, arising from the death of the Queen and the postponement of the home game against Crystal Palace caused originally by clashing rail strikes, also gave Brighton an additional advantage of plenty of time to do their homework. Ambitious and still relatively young, Brighton believe they have the perfect answer to Potter’s sudden departure. Additional contributors: Pol Ballus and John Muller (Top Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)