Roberto De Zerbi: Bringing Calcio to the South Coast at Brighton

As the first chapter of 2023 comes to a close, Brighton fans will be eager to see what the month of February brings, with Roberto De Zerbi already having his pen at hand to continue writing history.

Throughout his time at the club so far, the 43-year-old has instilled a passionate connection with supporters. His ambitions for change between the two have been met with overwhelming positivity, and rightly so. It is a far cry to what the Seagull fans had become accustomed to.

His predecessor, current Chelsea boss Graham Potter, had a turbulent relationship with those in the stands and would undermine their importance to the media. By De Zerbi having The Amex behind him, it meant he had time for his footballing philosophy to come to fruition, an unbeaten January shows it already has.

Calcio fans will be well aware of how De Zerbi likes his sides to play. First gaining recognition for winning the Serie C title with Foggia in 2016, he had the Satanelli playing an attractive style of football that stunned the lower leagues in Italy, which are renowned for their physicality and much more traditional views on playing il bel gioco.

Having always preferred to use an innovative style of 4-2-3-1 in his managerial career, it is understandable why he made the switch to a back four not long after his arrival to East Sussex. Frustrating opposing attackers and inviting the press has been a key principle of his gameplan. It’s risky, but successfully playing around the opposition’s front-line, creates an abundance of space in the midfield to then attack from.

The more familiar partnership of Lewis Dunk and (prior to injury) Levi Colwill, sees the two centre-halves much narrower. They tend to stand still on the ball and start the attacking break off by feeding the ball to the double-pivot, most notably Moisés Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister, who drop deep to receive.

Heavily influenced on recycling possession of the ball, this style of play is proven to work at the top level. During his time on the reins at Sassuolo, he led them to consecutive top-ten finishes, having been lingering near the bottom of Serie A for the best part of six years.

De Zerbi seems to have the magic key to unlock a player’s potential and has no issue in turning to youth. He handed a senior debut to a then 19-year-old Giacomo Raspadori, who excelled in leaps and bounds for the Neroverdi and made his national-team debut within two years. Comparisons can be made between Raspadori and a certain Republic of Ireland prodigy, Evan Ferguson.

Although coming off injured in their previous game with Liverpool, Ferguson has found the back of the net three times in only five appearances, whilst notching up two assists. Unlike Raspadori, the 18-year-old had already made his home country debut by the time De Zerbi played him. Yet trusting a 2004-born striker to lead a Premier League attack shows the Italian holds him in high regard.

Along with Ferguson, the introduction of Japanese winger Karou Mitoma has reignited the Brighton attack. Forming a formidable partnership on the left-hand side with Ecuadorian full-back Pervis Estupiñán, he has let his footballing brain wreak havoc on English football.

Mitoma, who whilst at university wrote his thesis on dribbling, has seemingly mastered the art of playing under De Zerbi already. The manager prefers his wingers to stay wide, only to stretch the defence of the opposition, meaning they rarely cross the ball. Mitoma’s excellent agility and quick turn of pace allows him to have the beating of anyone when cutting inside. Estupiñán operates invertedly to cleverly support the play when this happens.

It is impossible to mention Brighton’s new-look attack without mentioning Solly March. Primarily used as a wing-back before De Zerbi’s arrival, he’s shown glimpses of his true self but struggled with confidence to consistently perform at the top level. De Zerbi has shown an added sense of belief in March, using him on the opposite flank to Mitoma, hoping to improve his attacking game. In his last three Premier League games he has scored three goals, showing De Zerbi is the right man to get the untapped potential out of March.

March’s goal scoring revelation almost mirrors that of Sassuolo star Domenico Berardi. Although he was an avid goal scorer in the early stages of his career, Berardi wasn’t quite the same after his knee injury in 2016, that was until De Zerbi took over. His last season in charge of the Emilian-based club was Berardi’s best in terms of goal-scoring, getting 17 in the league.

January was a month where English football got to see ‘De Zerbi ball’ in full flow and it was some spectacular. The players have ironed out any beginning flaws they once had in the managers system and are playing with full confidence. As for De Zerbi, he has confidence that he can be the one to bring European football to Brighton.