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Fish Chips and Chianti: What Will De Zerbi Bring To The South Coast?

Brighton and Hove Albion fans, and indeed the vast majority of us, can be forgiven for not having heard of Roberto De Zerbi. 

However, this was no knee-jerk appointment from the club’s board who seem to have done their homework on sourcing Graham Potter’s replacement. In fact, De Zerbi, who was on Juventus’ radar after a stuttering start to their season under Allegri, was on the Seagulls’ shortlist of just one. 

It must be said though that a marquee appointment was never likely at the South Coast club. No Pochettino and No Benitez. Coaches who are out of work, but would have demanded high salaries and transfer budgets to boot. 

Instead, Brighton seek continuity and will hope that putting their faith in another young, promising manager will pay off in keeping them at the dizzy heights of the top four where they currently perch. Potential has clearly been prioritised over experience with the Italian’s instating but they will hope that he can deliver.

So who is Roberto De Zerbi and what is it that the Seagulls have seen, that has them thinking he can pick up where Potter left off? 

The Origin Story

Technical Director David Weir on De Zerbi: “Roberto has shown his undoubted ability with his work in Italy and Ukraine and what he achieved at Sassuolo certainly stands out”. 

Intrigued by the appointment, curiosity has us delve into the new man’s career both as a player and coach. 

A 15-year playing career as an attacking midfielder stroke number 10 began at AC Milan where he only really used the club to touch base, in between loan spells at lesser clubs, as he never made a senior appearance for the Rossoneri. A 4-year spell at Napoli was as good as it got for De Zerbi, making 33 appearances within that time, so it’s safe to say his playing days were pretty unremarkable. 

Shortly after hanging up the boots, De Zerbi’s coaching career began and followed suit with brief uninspiring stints at lesser Italian clubs such as Foggia, Palermo, and Benevento. Therefore, as Weir said, it was at Sassuolo where his work caught their eye. 

De Zerbi spent 3 seasons with Sassuolo, joining the club in June 2018. 3 full seasons that brought a respectable 11th and 2 8th place finishes. One of which saw them only miss out on Europa Conference League qualification to Jose Mourinho’s Roma on goal difference. 

The Neroverdi ( literally meaning black and green: the Club’s colours and nickname) certainly bore De Zerbi’s hallmark, a philosophy of expression and attack. In his own words, he wears the number 10 on his back as a coach just as he did as a player. 

Programmed To Play Patiently 

His team was programmed to build from the rear and pass the ball around the back line, for sometimes extraordinary lengths of time, until their opponents grew impatient and got sucked in. Then they would break out in numbers via the double pivot, getting the ball out wide and attacking down the flanks. 

Although perhaps a frustrating strategy to watch, across 38 league games, in De Zerbi’s 3 seasons at the helm, Sassuolo netted 53, 69, and 64 goals. Certainly, the latter 2 campaigns stand out the most and are quite impressive for a modest Serie A outfit, however with the Premier League’s renowned high press, would the same outcome be achievable at Brighton? 

“I want to attack, make the game, to attack in the right way, and when we do not have the ball to take it back as fast as we can” are De Zerbi’s words but it’s when they lose possession that things tend to unravel. 

Chaotic chasing down and lunging tackles would lead them to be susceptible to their own medicine with counter attacks. Very often his charges were caught woefully out of position unable to recover their shape quickly enough. In each of his three seasons, De Zerbi’s side conceded 60, 63, and 56 goals.

The Italian’s time at Shaktar was cut short during his first campaign due to the conflict in Ukraine. However, after 30 games, De Zerbi’s side sat top of the league, having only conceded 9 goals. A league in which Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv have shared the title for the past 29 seasons. A league where his attacking style was seldom breached. 

Therefore, it will be interesting to see how this pans out for Brighton and De Zerbi. On face value, it seems a logical replacement for Graham Potter but also a brave one. One that could develop into “headless football” the type that Leeds United played under Marcelo Bielsa. A gung-ho style will be brutally exposed by the savvier Premier League teams who will invite attacking sides on and subsequently pick them off in clinical fashion. 

One thing is for sure, whether the Italian’s brand of football is a success or not, the Amex will certainly host some entertaining games under De Zerbi’s tenure. 

Will De Zerbi’s appointment at Brighton prove to be a successful one or not? Let us know what you think on our Twitter page: @aftermatchftbl