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Roberto De Zerbi, Europe’s greatest coaching talent



Roberto De Zerbi, Europe's greatest coaching talent

Adam Lallana didn’t even know Italian team manager Roberto De Zerbi when he signed. Now he is the most desirable trainer on the market

On the evening of October 22, 2022, Roberto De Zerbi was under pressure. He had been manager of Brighton & Hove Albion for just over a month but had yet to win a game in the Premier League. The 3-1 defeat at Manchester City meant the third defeat in his first five games.

Those responsible were afraid that the Italian would ruin the work of his predecessor Graham Potter, who had migrated to Chelsea, on the south coast of England. The “Seagulls” had meanwhile dropped from fourth to ninth place in the table.

Perhaps the ever-critical Scottish TV pundit Graeme Souness was right when he quipped that De Zerbi “doesn’t know our (British) way of playing”.

But for those in the know, the Italian’s risky tactical approach was slowly taking root at Brighton. After 32 games, De Zerbi is now in the process of guiding Brighton into the European Cup. The Seagulls are currently seventh, a few games behind Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Pep Guardiola ennobles Roberto De Zerbi: ‘He will have a huge impact in England’

City may have triumphed at the Etihad Stadium that night, but something very odd had happened: the reigning English champions had less possession than their opponents. Pep Guardiola’s protégés had to be content with 48 percent.

“They play in a way that we’re not used to,” admitted Pep Guardiola afterwards, before boldly predicting: “De Zerbi will have a huge impact in England.” Guardiola tends to heap vague praise on his opponents, but on this occasion he meant every word. And he should be right too.

Just seven months after his arrival in England, which was met with skepticism by many in the field, De Zerbi is being hailed as a tactical genius. He’s managed to combine the best moves of Pep’s possession game with Jurgen Klopp’s controlled counter-pressing.

But he doesn’t let the praise go to his head. “I’ve been a coach for ten years and I’ve learned to cope in this world,” he said last month Gazzetta dello Sport. “Now that the results are smiling at us, there are many compliments and kind words. But it’s important to know how they come about. I don’t want to change anything, just do what I’m capable of: putting my stamp on the team I think I managed to do that in a short amount of time here, but credit goes to the players.”

Roberto De Zerbi: Adam Lallana didn’t know his new coach

Brighton’s side were not opposed to making him their new manager. But that was mainly because she had never heard of De Zerbi, as midfielder Adam Lallana now admits “ashamed”. However, the former Liverpool man also claims he was the first Brighton player to understand what Potter’s successor was up to. Lallana played a key role in getting his teammates to embrace the coach’s new approach.

“Even though he doesn’t speak English well and I don’t speak Italian well, we understood each other just by looking at each other,” said Lallana Gazzetta. “It was difficult for us at the beginning because Potter left us when we were fourth in the table. We were all sad and we’re not exactly players who like to change coaches. But I knew we had to carry on, also because we had important games to play straight away.”

The Englishman continued: “And I remember how De Zerbi wanted to convey something to the group straight away. He wanted us to learn his tactics quickly. He conveyed his passion and love for football straight away. It took a bit. But I believe , we still adjusted very, very quickly, with an open mind and a willingness to hear what he wanted to tell us.”

Lallana couldn’t stop raving about it. “We started to realize that things worked his way because he’s a person who has almost a father-son relationship with the players. I remember telling him to tell me what he wanted – and that I was willing to explain to my team-mates why they had to follow his instructions. And I did that: I explained that it would be difficult at the beginning, but that we would then be successful.”

Roberto De Zerbi: Few teams play better than Brighton

And he wasn’t wrong. Brighton narrowly missed out on reaching the FA Cup final, losing to Manchester United on penalties (6-7 after 0-0). They got their revenge in the league last Thursday, however, with Alexis MacAllister’s winner in the 9th minute of added time.

But what is most impressive about Brighton’s results is the way they were achieved. There are few better teams in Europe these days, let alone teams from England.

While still occasionally playing with Potter’s back three, De Zerbi has successfully established his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. When opponents take a breather with this Brighton system, Brighton try to tear them apart with plenty of possession and some of the remaining principles of the “Potter Ball”. However, if they decide to counter-press, Brighton will try to get past them as quickly and with as many direct passes as possible.

Roberto De Zerbi: “Long and high is like gambling”

Of course, such a daring tactic requires the highest level of quality and composure from every single player in possession. In England in particular, some would rather choose a long ball than play out from behind.

De Zerbi, however, sees things very differently. “For me it’s a gamble to hit the ball forward and try to win the second ball,” he once told Bobo TV“and since I don’t like to bet, I prefer to train a team that carefully plays out from behind.”

As he himself now admits, this Brighton is the best example of his footballing philosophy. He modestly attributes the success to the foundations of his predecessor, Potter, and praises the intelligence of his players. Lallana is amazed at how quickly “he managed to get so many guys to play that way. I think that’s what makes him so incredible,” said the Englishman. “He made a group of 25 players follow him, stay focused and accept his style of play.”

Roberto De Zerbi makes it clear: “Determination is not arrogance”

The question now, of course, is how far he can go with Brighton. The squad faces a sell-off in the summer: Alexis Mac Allister, Kaoru Mitoma, Even Ferguson and Moisés Caicédo could all join even better teams for high transfer fees.

The latter almost got poached from Arsenal in January. It seems only a matter of time before Brighton’s excellent scouting department finds more hidden gems.

De Zerbi knows very well how the football world works. It’s his success at previous low-budget station Sassuolo that has made him so interesting for Brighton. But he has already made it clear he has little interest in staying if his best players are sold. De Zerbi has never hidden the fact that he wants to prove himself at the biggest clubs in the world.

“In this job you run the risk of being misunderstood and perceived as arrogant, but for me, ambition is not arrogance,” he explained. “It’s a dream you want to achieve and it motivates you. It allows you to inspire people – the people who fill the stadium. It motivates your club. It’s risky to set the bar high because you can fail too. But it can also make you better than keeping the bar low.”

Roberto De Zerbi: Summer move to Serie A?

So it wouldn’t be a surprise if he left Brighton at the end of the season. Tottenham are said to be interested but a return to Italy is also a possibility – especially as several Serie A positions could become vacant this summer. The successful De Zerbi will certainly not be short of options.

Back in September, when pundit Souness described his signing as a “risk”, the Scot revealed he had found out about the Premier League newcomer. “If you Google him, you’ll see he’s had seven jobs in nine years,” he said TalkSPORT. “If you’re an exceptional coach, people want you to stay…”

Considering how little time it has taken him to establish himself in English football, Roberto De Zerbi is sure to be one of the hottest names on the coaching circuit this summer.