Brighton may have found a strong philosophical match in Roberto De Zerbi

Ian King

Losing Graham Potter to Chelsea brought upheaval for Brighton, but De Zerbi’s arrival is proof that they’ll be sticking to their philosophy.


The succession decision didn’t take long to make after all. The new manager of Brighton & Hove Albion is Roberto De Zerbi, formerly of Sassuolo in Italy and Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, and it’s believed that they didn’t even speak to anybody else about the position created by Graham Potter and his backroom staff’s decision to jump ship to Chelsea.

It’s unsurprising that De Zerbi should have accepted such an offer. After all, vacant managerial positions in the top four – even what many believe will be a fleeting one – in the Premier League don’t become available very often. But if there was little doubting the appeal of this club to this manager, what’s the appeal of the manager to the club?

That should be fairly obvious. At Sassuolo, he took the club to two consecutive eighth-place finishes in Serie A and only missed out on Europa Conference League qualification to Roma in 2021 on goal difference. After moving to Shakhtar in May of that year, he won the Ukrainian Super Cup and, while the league season was ended earlier by Russia’s invasion of the country, he left with them top of the table, unable to continue his career in that country. He also has a backroom coaching staff that he can bring to the Amex with him.

But Brighton’s interest wasn’t solely motivated by results. De Zerbi has been increasingly coveted since he left Shakhtar, and there has been a suggestion that his new employers moved as quickly as they did because Juventus were considering hijacking the move to replace Massimiliano Allegri after their increasingly poor-looking start to the season in Serie A.

And then there’s the small matter of philosophy. De Zerbi is known to be a keen follower of Pep Guardiola to the extent that Guardiola was an occasional visitor to Sassuolo matches while he was coaching there. In the past, he’s favoured a possession-based 4-2-3-1 and playing out from the back, tempting opponents into a high press, with the hope of exploiting the gaps left behind it. He’s also known to be an admirer of Marcelo Bielsa.

Furthermore, there seems to be something of the philosopher about him, even though he has explicitly denied being one in the past. He has spoken extensively about the other coaches and managers who have interested him, but has qualified this by – correctly – adding that, “In football, the word ‘philosopher’ is used in a derogatory sense”. It doesn’t have to be, of course, and there’s little debate that Brighton are a club with values that seem to align very closely with his own.

The stars have aligned somewhat to give him an opportunity to work with his players. Brighton haven’t played a Premier League match since Potter’s last, their 5-2 win against Leicester on September 4, and they do not play again until an away match against Liverpool at Anfield on October 1.

Less than two of those four weeks are still available for him to start working with his team, but it’s infinitely better than arriving in the knowledge that he may have no more than 48 or 72 hours to familiarise himself with the club and his new players before being dropped into the circular grind of Premier League football.

His initial baptism as their manager seems likely to be fiery. Liverpool find themselves at something of a juncture in their season following an underwhelming start in both the Premier League and the Champions League. Jurgen Klopp will be desperate for a positive reaction from his players to build on their 2-1 win against Ajax in their second group match, a win that only partially obscured their previous 4-1 defeat to Napoli and an uninspiring goalless draw in the Merseyside derby. Anfield will expect.

They then follow that with a home match against a Spurs team who fluctuate between looking terrible and looking excellent, but the truest test of his progress will come in the two next matches. Brentford remain the closest in the Premier League to Brighton in terms of ethos, only with a head coach who’s been in position for some time, and their meeting will be an interesting barometer of De Zerbi’s progress. And then come Nottingham Forest, who are… well, whatever Nottingham Forest are at the moment.

Any new managerial arrival carries an element of gamble, but the Brighton approach is systematic, data-driven, and proven to work. They quickly located a coach who seems to match the way in which the senior management run the club, who had a backroom team who are able to join him, and without distressing another club’s season.

And furthermore, not having to pay compensation to another club for Potter’s replacement means that Brighton emerge from all of this £20m better off than they would otherwise have been. Tony Bloom may have made his fortune as a professional gambler, but little seems to have been left to chance in making this appointment. These haven’t always worked out before – mentioning the name of Sami Hyppia continues to send a shudder through supporters – but as an established Premier League club, Brighton now have a greater pull.

But Brighton have quickly and seamlessly moved for a coach who matches their philosophy as a club and who has a track record of achieving what they want to achieve. It is this sort of strategic planning that is the reason why they remain a model club for those looking up from below and wondering how they could ever hope to stay in the Premier League and flourish there.

And while it might be easy to be derisory about a ‘smaller’ club making such a bold choice in term of playing style, it seems completely intuitive to hire a manager who’s previously shown himself to be a scholar of the game, and who’s earned the approval of arguably the very best in the business.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed in modern football. Any change of this nature could end in tears, but Bloom will already be aware of this and Brighton have given themselves as much of a chance of ploughing straight through the costs of Chelsea’s pillage as possible. They’ve given themselves a decent hand to play from an extremely difficult position ahead of the post-international break return. Now it’s up to Roberto De Zerbi to play it as best he can.