Who is Roberto De Zerbi? Tactics, style and trophies won by new Brighton boss who Pep Guardiola admires

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Brighton will begin a new era after the international break under the guidance of new head coach Roberto De Zerbi.

The Seagulls’ impressive start to this season, which has included wins over Manchester United, West Ham, Leeds and Leicester City, ultimately cost them the services of Graham Potter.

Chelsea moved swiftly to install the highly rated English tactician as successor to Thomas Tuchel, with changes continuing apace under new owner Todd Boehly.

But Brighton have been a model of how to run a football club under chairman Tony Bloom and, in De Zerbi, they have appointed a first-team boss who has won rave reviews in his homeland and from some of the most respected voices in European football.

Here’s all you need to know about a man aiming to follow in Italy's proud tradition of Premier League managerial success.

MORE: Graham Potter's contract and tactics at Chelsea

Did Roberto De Zerbi play in Serie A and the Champions League?

One of the first examples of common ground between De Zerbi and Potter is a fairly unremarkable playing career, albeit generally at a higher level than his predecessor.

After progressing through AC Milan’s youth academy, De Zerbi made his professional breakthrough in Italy’s lower leagues, with his most significant spell as a goalscoring attacking midfielder coming at Foggia. A season apiece at Arezzo and Catania preceded him joining Serie A Napoli in 2006.

De Zerbi went on to sign for Romanian team Cluj four years later, representing them in the Champions League. His experiences at various levels shaped the football philosophy that would define him as a coach.

“When I didn’t have the ball, I got nervous and didn’t enjoy myself, so as a manager I always keep that thought in mind," he said. "My football philosophy is that the team should be with the ball."

MORE: Graham Potter's Chelsea opener assessed: What we learned about former Brighton manager's first match vs. RB Salzburg

Which teams have Roberto De Zerbi coached?

De Zerbi first put his vision into practice at Serie D Darfo Boario before a return to Foggia in the dugout. He led the club to glory in the Coppa Italia Lega Pro - a knockout competition for Serie C clubs - and only missed out on promotion due to a 5-3 aggregate playoff loss to Pisa.

A two-year stint ended amid disagreements with the board. De Zerbi had shown enough promise to be offered the chance to coach in Serie A, but his appointment as Palermo head coach in September 2016 swiftly imploded.

He was out of a job before the end of November thanks to a stint that featured seven consecutive home defeats and elimination from the Coppa Italia at the hands of Serie B Spezia.

A little under a year later, Benevento appointed De Zerbi having been promoted to the top flight the previous season. On paper, it reads as another failure, given the club made an instant return to Serie B.

But De Zerbi’s commitment to playing possession-based, attacking football despite operating with meagre resources won admirers and, in a career-altering turn of events, he caught the attention of Sassuolo.

The Emilia-Romagna club has a long-established reputation for placing its faith in up-and-coming Italian talent, both on the touchline and on the pitch.

Massimiliano Allegri, Stefano Pioli and Eusebio Di Francesco all helped to carve out their reputations by leading Sassuolo and De Zerbi was given the tools to craft a team in his image.

Wins over the likes of Milan and Inter followed and Sassuolo finished eighth in De Zerbi’s second and third seasons at the helm.

By the time he left at the end of 2020/21 to take charge of Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk, Sassuolo had become one of the most reliable sources of playing talent for the Italian national team. Winger Domenico Berardi and midfielder Manuel Locatelli each starred for Roberto Mancini’s team en route to Euro 2020 glory.

De Zerbi won his second piece of career silverware at Shakhtar when his side beat Dynamo Kyiv to lift the 2021 Ukrainian Super Cup. His side finished bottom of a Champions League group featuring Real Madrid and Inter, although they were top of Ukraine’s top flight when the 2021/22 season was aborted due to the Russian invasion of the country.

What are Roberto De Zerbi’s tactics and playing style

De Zerbi generally favours a 4-2-3-1 formation but his teams do not play in the manner most commonly associated with that setup.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the likes of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were pioneers of a physical and pragmatic 4-2-3-1 that became a dominant model at European and international levels.

De Zerbi’s interpretation is more in line with that of Juanma Lillo, Pep Guardiola’s former assistant at Manchester City, who is credited with inventing the formation in Spain during the 1990s.

In an approach that will be very familiar to Brighton fans, De Zerbi likes to build play from the back, using lots of short passes between his back four and two central midfielders to draw the opposition press and play through it.

Creating overloads in the build-up then creates space for his wide and central attackers to hurt the opposition.
Like a few of this generation’s leading coaches, De Zerbi counts himself as a Marcelo Bielsa disciple and another of their number is a fan.

What did Pep Guardiola say about Roberto De Zerbi?

A regular feature of Potter’s Brighton reign was Guardiola lavishing praise upon the south-coast side. Last season, he claimed City’s 4-1 win at Brighton was a result comparable to their wins against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

Guardiola’s appreciation of Italian coaches inspired by the great former Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi is also well-documented and the Catalan identified De Zerbi as one of the shining lights of this school.

"Nowadays in Serie A, you see the forwards get far more service and in more comfortable areas," Guardiola said last year. "Italian football will always have an element of defending and counter-attack because that's an aspect that is admired abroad and part of your culture.

"But with the revolution of Arrigo Sacchi and lately coaches like Maurizio Sarri and Roberto De Zerbi, there are teams who play the ball more and therefore also concede more."

De Zerbi has a tough task first up when he takes Brighton to Anfield to face Liverpool on October 2. Before the month is out, there is sure to be a warm embrace with Guardiola for the game against the reigning Premier League champions at the Etihad Stadium on October 23.

Brighton and De Zerbi will quickly enjoy the chance to continue their mutual habit of taking the big boys down a peg or two.

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