TRoberto de Zerbe demands that his new accusations at Brighton be summed up in a three-word decree: “Play the game”. It means “make the game” in Italian and speaks briefly of a career based on displays of courage. He has been given a unique opportunity, entering the fourth-placed club in the Premier League while the garden is rosy, and he is ready to seize it on his own terms.
De Zerbi struck a respectable balance at his unveiling on Tuesday, acknowledging the remarkable work of Graham Potter on numerous occasions while leaving little doubt that he feels Brighton can develop further. “At first glance, in my opinion, I like controlling the game a lot more,” he said. “One of the things for this team could be controlling the tempo of the game so much more.”
Since the Potter team was barely shrinking Violet in its pursuit of possession, this was a bold intent. But De Zerbi’s intense focus on staying ahead was one of the reasons Brighton quickly made their top choice to take the reins and, as his level of research into the team made clear, he admits to playing “very clearly”. Style,” it was clear he had discovered an attractive fit. “They have the right skills and characteristics to play brave football as I want.”
Nothing was broken from what Potter inherited upon his departure to Chelsea, so, in the first place, De Zerbi doesn’t have much to fix. There have been no bold statements about where their current position in the league might lead, and the stated intent was to ensure they remain in the top ten, but it brings with it a bewildering sense of the unknown. At Sassuolo, whose rise through the divisions in Italy had at least some parallels with Brighton’s comeback from near-oblivion, he squeezed every drop of creativity from his players and led them to successive eighth-place finishes in Serie A in a bold style that gave individual skill his platform.
He’ll have more resources to play with on the south coast even if Tony Bloom, seated to his right, has a hard time ruling out big January expenses; Those fortunes include the team at his disposal, which includes a number of attacking midfielders who are able to work in his image. “Don’t throw the ball away,” he said when asked about his philosophy. “We have a lot of quality players [and will] Try to put them in the best condition to give the right performance, like playing one against one, and attacking the right way. And when we don’t have the ball, we get it back as fast as we can.”
The echoes of Pep Guardiola are no accident. Like De Zerbe, the Manchester City coach had a spell with Brescia. He has cared about his career for several years, the duo first met in 2013 when De Zerbi was coaching young Darfo Boario, and stylistic influence is evident through him. The two managers spoke on Sunday evening, after he agreed to the job, and Guardiola was about to help. Coincidentally, there is another link to City: Guardiola’s assistant Enzo Marisca has been friends with De Zerbe since they were 13 in the youth setup at Milan, and he was identified as Brighton’s interest crystallized. “He told me the truth,” de Zerbe laughed.
It’s a potential career-defining step in what has been an amazing year for De Zerby. He joined Shakhtar Donetsk after leaving Sassuolo 16 months ago and built a charismatic side when, on February 24, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made that irrelevant. There was no doubt, in his mind, of leaving the country until his players and their families had been successfully evacuated from their base in Kyiv. He eventually came home, too, an experience that hardly anyone could ignore.
“Of course I didn’t expect the conflict to start,” he said. “It was bad not only because of the war but because things were going well. I respect the dignity of the people of Ukraine, the players I coached for eight months and the club. This experience has taught me a lot and for my coaching staff. When you leave your country of origin to work abroad, you attend Something to this place, but when you leave, you take a lot of it and you take a lot of Ukraine. Some things will remain inside you forever. Of course it was painful to leave and say goodbye to the players.”
English football probably holds relatively few fears for someone who knows the sirens of air raids and shelter. De Zerbe, who watched Brighton narrowly lose a friendly against Chelsea Potter on Saturday but did not get the chance to speak with his predecessor, will make a bow at Liverpool on October 1 and the job begins in earnest: he must mix continuity with whatever innovation he sees fit.
“Potter did a great job: everyone knows what Potter made here, but I’m not Potter.” Brighton is on the verge of discovering who exactly de Zerbee is.