Roberto De Zerbi guided Brighton and Hove Albion to a commendable sixth-place finish last season in the Premier League in the first year of his tenure. The club qualified for the Europa League, participating in European competition for the first time in its history.
Currently, Brighton sits third in Group B, below second-placed AEK Athens and topper Marseille. With its next match against Ajax, the club will aim to take a step towards knockout qualification and will hope to create ripples in Europe after already making positive strides in English football.
After a 34-year absence, Chris Hughton oversaw Brighton’s return to the top division, gaining Premier League promotion after the 2016-17 season.
In 2019, the Seagulls signed a relatively unknown manager Graham Potter, from Swansea City. Under Potter, Brighton gradually carved a niche for itself with his style of fast possessional football and systematic transition between formations.
After finishing 15th in the 2019-20 season and 16th in the next, Potter guided the club to a remarkable ninth place in the 2021-22 season.
But in September 2022, Potter decided on a sudden move to Chelsea. Before that, the club underwent an outflux of talent with the departures of Neal Maupay, Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma, and later Leandro Trossard in January.
Losing a set manager and so many important players - there was a fear of Brighton losing its identity and drowning in the heavy competition of the Premier League.
Cut to the present, Brighton’s managerial change has been seamless after the club appointed De Zerbi, whose audacious and unapologetic style of play has transformed the club into a unit which focuses on hurting opponents through collective excellence and not just individual brilliance.
Style of play
Like Potter, De Zerbi is a loyalist about his shapes and tactics. Heavily influenced by the Spanish style of possession football, the Italian focuses not just on high press and passing football.
On paper, the Seagulls often start with the shapes of 3-4-2-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. As the match goes on, Brighton crowds more players in the final third by resorting to a 2-4-4.
It usually starts its buildup from the back, luring opponents to come and take the ball. The idea is to make opponents take the bait and force them to lose their shape, which creates openings that can be exploited by forwards such as Kaoru Mitoma, Joao Pedro and Even Ferguson.
For this style of play, one would need press-resistant players who can dictate the match tempo, especially in midfield. De Zerbi has the ideal players in Pascal Gross and Billy Gilmour to do that.
This season in the league, Brighton has finished with more than 50% of possession in nine out of 11 matches. Only against Liverpool and Manchester City did the Seagulls finish with 46% and 45% of the ball, respectively. Overall, Brighton has a pass accuracy of 89%, with an average of 616 passes per match.
In terms of chance creation, De Zerbi’s team has created 27 big chances, out of which it has scored 20 goals - which translates to a chance conversion rate of 74.07%.
In an era of big-money signings, Brighton’s performance-driven approach has served the club well. The Seagulls have successfully spotted players with a high ceiling, and analysed factors such as skill set and age. Players are signed not always keeping the present in mind but with the vision that they will develop over time.
Players like Moises Caicedo (4 million) and Mitoma (2.7 million) are examples of this. Cucurella, Enock Mwepu, Adam Webster and Bart Verbruggen are in a higher bracket of 15-20 million - a considerably lower sum while considering the current inflated market.
Brighton’s efficiency as a selling club also deserves praise. Two prime examples are selling Caicedo and Cucurella to Chelsea for 115 million (111 million profit) and 63 million (48 million profit) each.
De Zerbi has made some promising signings in Carlos Baleba for 27 million and Joao Pedro for 30 million - Brighton’s most expensive signing to date.
While Brighton’s expansive style of football has bore fruits on the attacking front, De Zerbi’s side has often been exposed at the back.
This season, on multiple occasions, the Seagulls failed to soak in the pressure and found it difficult to find openings in the opposition defence.
These failings were highlighted during De Zerbi’s team getting thrashed 6-1 against Unai Emery’s Aston Villa.
Brighton has conceded 20 goals in 11 matches in the Premier League this season and has zero clean sheets. In the Europa League, it has conceded five goals in three but managed to keep a clean sheet in its home match against Ajax.
Brighton is going through a slump, not having won any of its last five matches. It is seventh right now with 18 points. But the overall signs have been positive.
De Zerbi once said - “I was a pain in the a** as a footballer.” Now, during his coaching tenure, he has made Brighton - a troublesome opponent to deal with as well. While there are chinks in the armour, there is no denying the fact that it has been an upward curve for Brighton under the Italian.
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