When Brighton appointed Roberto De Zerbi, a significant amount of criticism exuded from British pundits.
Former Liverpool player and manager Graeme Souness spearheaded the charge of skepticism, stating De Zerbi’s appointment was a large “risk” because he “doesn’t know” the English game. Souness also took it upon himself to critique the Italian manager’s track record, interpreting it as a bad sign that he’s coached seven teams in nine years.
“If you’re an outstanding coach, people want to hold onto you,” the pundit claimed. Though a rather naive statement, he didn’t stop there.
While Brighton’s upper management was impressed by De Zerbi’s knowledge of the club, Souness wasn’t as moved. “He’s gone for an interview, so he spends a couple of hours on the internet. That’s not the work of a genius.”
The comments felt unnecessarily harsh and overly critical for a young coach that was simply hired for a job. Souness’ words didn’t just make it out to be a bad hire, but it painted De Zerbi as undeserving — a rather unfair characterisation.
It’s true that the managerial sphere can often be considered far from a meritocracy, but De Zerbi’s rise is one that can easily be understood. Through a culmination of results, beautiful football, and innovative ideas, the Italian manager has climbed from coaching in Serie D to the Premier League in less than a decade. His recent achievements with Sassuolo and Shakhtar made him a hot commodity on the coaching market, and Brighton were the first to cash in on his availability.
While blind praise isn’t necessary, De Zerbi deserved at least an iota of respect, rather than be the subject of vitriol. To act as if his coaching experience and knowledge wouldn’t translate to the English game is not only stubborn, but a rejection of the idea that football is a universal language.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this better than Pep Guardiola, who dominated in Spain and Germany before conquering English football, winning four Premier League trophies in five years. Pep recently credited De Zerbi with “changing many things in English football,” and complimented the Italian manager’s tactics, stating, “People said: you can’t play the ball from defense in the Premier League. He’s doing that, and incredibly well.”
Guardiola is describing De Zerbi’s high-risk, high-reward approach, characterized by inviting opponents to press the team in their own half. Coupled with a possession-based, free-flowing approach that is inherent to De Zerbi’s footballing philosophy, Brighton have taken world football by storm due to their attractive style of play.
Arguably what’s most impressive is the performance vis-a-vis the cost of the squad. Brighton’s team has the lowest purchase value out of all clubs in the Premier League, a figure that stands at €111.16 million.
While a vast amount of credit is due to Brighton’s scouting department, the same goes to De Zerbi for utilizing young talent so effectively. It can often be difficult to take a group of players from a wide range of backgrounds that possess such different characteristics, and form them into a cohesive unit that plays with a true identity. Yet when watching Brighton, it’s often clear they illustrate just that.
Perhaps “De Zerbi-ball” was best put on display last weekend against Wolves. De Zerbi’s squad selection deviated from the norm, featuring a heavily rotated side that omitted key players such as Mitoma, MacAllister, Caicedo, and more. Former England international Paul Merson saw it as De Zerbi wanting to throw games to avoid qualifying for a European competition.
“He doesn’t think they’re ready for Europe,” Merson said.
Similar to Souness, these words were quickly thrown back in the pundit’s face. Brighton went on to win the game 6-0, their biggest margin of victory in 16 years.
While De Zerbi still believed that “perfection is far,” the performance left many in awe. Jurgen Klopp, who has coached Liverpool to Premier League and Champions League victories, stated, “Brighton played one of the best football games this weekend that I have ever seen in my life.” Though certainly a big statement, the fact that it’s conceivably not hyperbolic is a testament to both Brighton’s play and De Zerbi’s coaching abilities.
As the final stretch of the season approaches, the Seagulls are sitting on the cusp of qualifying for Europe for the first time in their 121-year history. All under the guidance of a man who “doesn’t know” the English game.