Written by Patrick Echatah
Roberto De Zerbi famously said, “as a footballer, I was a pain in the ass.” A genuine Number 10 who emerged at the turn of the century just as they were leaving the game, he was also in some ways a player hopelessly out of his time.
A rebel and thrill-seeker in a sport that is becoming more and more regimented. Without ever being good enough to play for Milan, one must be good enough to be at Milan. Even when he was loaned to Calcio Lecco in the third division, he had disagreements with the manager Roberto Donadoni. His prowess with a ball was never in question, but his capacity for adaptation was. “I am a dreamer,” he would later tell La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Very ambitious, honest but unstable, impatient and fiercely volcanic.” For De Zerbi, football had to be played his way if it was worth doing at all. Thankfully, there was a job that would let him do just that.
At CFR Cluj, where he finished his playing career, the notion of becoming a coach started to take shape. He spent his evenings watching football intensely, but critically — Guardiola’s Barcelona, Mourinho’s Internazionale, and Van Gaal’s Bayern.
De Zerbi is starting to implement this detailed plan at Brighton. It is sometimes reasonable to wonder if we are seeing the next tiny change in the game, the idea that advances football a little farther, when watching them, as with his ground-breaking Sassuolo club.
And if this seems like somewhat of a leap for a team now seventh in the Premier League and a coach who has only been in the position for a little over six months, then Guardiola was convinced he had witnessed something completely fresh when Brighton visited the Etihad Stadium in October. “They put forward a type of game we’re not used to,” Guardiola said after a 3-1 Manchester City victory achieved with 48% possession. “His impact in England will be massive.”
What then is this vision? Let’s begin with a brief, overarching tactical review: Around ten years ago, a chaotic, aggressive game centered primarily on strong pressing and quick transitions progressively replaced Spanish-style possession football—what your friend down the pub still likely refers to as tiki-taka.
The gospel of pressing expanded in scope and complexity was sterile possession in defensive areas. Pressing became the new passing. The objective for teams in possession of the ball was to advance it as far and as effectively as they could. The trend now is midfielders who can withstand pressure. Playing accurate mid-range passes has become a necessary goalkeeping skill.
As nothing in football is ever truly novel or revolutionary, what De Zerbi is doing at Brighton may not be particularly novel or innovative.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been done this audaciously or purposefully before, at least not in the Premier League. Robert Sánchez, Brighton’s goalkeeper, plays out from the goal like most elite teams do. But in contrast to them, Brighton frequently keeps passing the ball methodically through their own danger zone for up to 10 or 15 passes.
Because of this, De Zerbi’s teams routinely have more than 70% possession of the ball. Nevertheless, it is also the same thing that current football tradition forbids. De Zerbi once said that central defenders must “have the pleasure of holding the ball, of building the game, knowing that everything starts from them”.
The Italian tactician managed Shakhtar Donetsk until last summer, and his team frequently used two or three technical No. 10s. A rotating cast of at least six players, including Alexis Mac Allister, Solly March and Kaoru Mitoma, Adam Lallana, Facundo Buonanotte, and Jeremy Sarmiento, can play the role for Brighton. Regardless of their starting position, these players are most at ease when they have the ball in their hands and are driving into the three-quarter spaces.
It will be interesting to observe whether this signals a significant change or just a passing interest. It certainly seems premature to say that ‘top pressing football’ is dead or begin to hail the ‘revenge of tiki-taka’.
De Zerbi, however, has challenged some of the most widely accepted rules of the game by leading one of the Premier League’s lower-income clubs to within striking distance of Champions League football with a ‘small’ squad, some time, and a personal touch. This seems like a tale that is at the very least worth paying serious attention to.
Brighton have been one of the best teams in Europe this season, and this is down to De Zerbi’s tactical ingenuity as well as the players’ abilities. They are a team with many threats who are difficult to stop, Brighton can hurt the opposition in every which way.
Their tactical flexibilty is also something that makes them very hard to counter or stop and as illustrated, they have the ability to change between many formations, shapes, and styles. Most people stereotype De Zerbi’s teams as possession-oriented machines, but they can also mix it up, with low block teams. Brighton’s two wingers (Mitoma and March) are proving vital to their system so far.
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