Roberto de Zerbi: Brighton boss backed by Pep Guardiola aiming to show life after Graham Potter


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Roberto De Zerbi
Roberto De Zerbi was confirmed as Brighton boss on 18 September

There can be few coaches who will have had a more difficult start to life as a Premier League manager than the one Robert de Zerbi is about to embark on.

The 43-year-old Italian takes charge of Brighton for the first time on Saturday with a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool, and it doesn’t get any easier after that.

Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea are three of the opponents De Zerbi will face in his five games after the Reds, making for an incredibly tough start for someone hoping to prove quickly to Brighton fans that there is life after Graham Potter.

But for De Zerbi it is a challenge he embraces as he looks to make a name for himself in the Premier League.

Carrying on from Potter or a change of direction?

The departure of Potter to Chelsea at the start of September was understandably a huge blow for Brighton fans.

Following his arrival in 2019, the 47-year-old had crafted the Seagulls into a side praised for their attacking, fluid passing style that brought a number of eye-catching results, including a 2-1 win at Manchester United at the start of this season.

Italian football is considered pragmatic, a contrast to the style Potter had developed, but De Zerbi is seen as part of the country’s new generation of coaches, capable of providing the continuation Brighton fans are perhaps keen for.

“He is part of this new wave of Italian coaches who have not been influenced by coaches close to home like the Capellos, the Lippis, the Allegris,” Italian football expert James Horncastle told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Euro Leagues podcast.

“His is a generation that has grown up with more access to Spanish football and English football and he is a bit counter cultural in that regard.

“The football he will play will be very exciting because it will be very risky. He likes to invite teams on to his team, play through the press because he thinks that gives them a numerical advantage, and that has driven some old school Italian coaches mad.”

An emotional manager who doesn’t want robots

Roberto De Zerbi
Roberto de Zerbi started his managerial career in 2013 but really made a name for himself five years later when he was praised for his attacking brand of football at Sassuolo

De Zerbi, who started his career at AC Milan and also played for Napoli as an attacking midfielder, began his managerial career in the Italian lower leagues before making a name for himself at Sassuolo.

He guided the Italian side to two eighth-place finishes in Serie A, only missing out on European qualification on goal difference in the 2020-21 season.

In May 2021 he took charge of Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk and won the domestic Super Cup in his first few months at the club.

De Zerbi amassed an impressive 66.67% win record, guiding the club to qualification for the Champions League and to first place in the table before leaving last summer because of the Russian invasion of the country.

“I met him when he said goodbye to the Shakhtar Donetsk players,” said Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague.

“They were in Split in Croatia and he realised he couldn’t continue, without knowing where to go next but they were in such a difficult position he felt he couldn’t help much.

“He came out of the dressing room crying because he was very close to the players. He lives through the emotion, not just telling you what to do, he doesn’t want robots, he wants the players’ emotions too.

“He is 5ft 10in but when he walks into a room it is like he is 6ft 5in – he looks bigger, he has aura and a great personality.”

An acolyte of Guardiola and an admirer of Bielsa

Pep Guardiola
De Zerbi, who first met Pep Guardiola in 2013, spoke to the Manchester City boss before taking the Brighton job

De Zerbi, and those who know him best, will perhaps feel he was destined to manage in the Premier League.

He is a big admirer of some of the coaches that have enjoyed great success in England and once broke off a news conference because he wanted to watch Leeds United play when Marcelo Bielsa was in charge.

De Zerbi also sought the council of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola before taking charge of Brighton.

“He is a big admirer of Pep,” added Horncastle.

“I remember when he was starting out and he went to see Pep at a pre-season training camp in the Dolomites when he was at Bayern Munich.

“He was also a visitor at the City football campus only a few weeks ago.”

“I spoke to Pep, yes,” said De Zerbi. “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!”

One potential barrier is language. The Italian needed an interpreter for a large part of his first news conference as Brighton manager and that could prove a challenge when trying to get his message across to his new players, although it didn’t appear to pose a barrier when he was managing in Ukraine.

“At Shakhtar he had two interpreters, one from Italian to Ukrainian for the Ukrainian players, and one from Italian to Portuguese for the Brazilian players,” Horncastle added.

“Language is so important, not only in tactical instruction but also empathy and developing those connections with players.”

De Zerbi arrives at Brighton with the Seagulls fourth in the table, having thrashed Leicester 5-2 last time out, and four points ahead of Saturday’s opponents, Liverpool.

Potter has left the club in a good shape and while De Zerbi acknowledged the good work of his predecessor, he is determined to make his own mark.

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

“I come here very humble because I know where I’m coming to work. But of course I come here with my personality, to do what I know to do, bringing here my experiences of what I know to do.”

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