The style with which Roberto De Zerbi has established Brighton in the top half of the Premier League table, this season and last, demands that the 44-year-old coach be considered for the biggest jobs. Strangely, that style also raises questions.
That is always the way when a coach has had success with fewer resources. Will that relative success be repeated when the expectation is that wins are delivered every week and results such as the recent 4-0 defeat at Luton could spark talk of a crisis?
With De Zerbi, there is an unusual twist to this familiar tale. When Sam Allardyce and Sean Dyche took unfashionable teams into the upper reaches of the Premier League, the concern was that their approach would not be ambitious enough for the very best.
In De Zerbi’s case, could it be too ambitious for cautious owners?
The good news for Brighton is that those are the whispers following reports that he is under consideration for the soon-to-be vacant role at Liverpool. Xabi Alonso has less coaching experience but it is De Zerbi whose fascinating football is seen as a risk.
In full flow, his teams find angles that others do not, triangles all over the pitch, controlling the rhythm in possession and pressing man-to-man out of it. At its very best, watching his Brighton side can feel like watching the future of the sport, evolution in action.
Pep Guardiola has called De Zerbi “one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years” because of this brand of football. The three-time Champions League-winning coach continued: “There is no team playing the way they play. It is unique.”
But can De Zerbi really be both unique and uniquely influential? Many have sought to copy Guardiola’s game, inferior versions of it abound. De Zerbi may be informing the thinking of other coaches, Mikel Arteta included, but none are seeking to replicate it entirely.
Perhaps there are parallels here with Marcelo Bielsa, the celebrated Argentine coach who has inspired so many but been overlooked for Europe’s biggest jobs. He too is regarded as a maverick who changed the way coaches think with his interpretation of the game.
De Zerbi once wrote to him when the Italian was in charge of Palermo in 2016 and was invited to observe Bielsa’s Lille team train, spending time together discussing their ideas. “If he is supposed to be crazy,” said De Zerbi, “then I would like to be the same.”
Putting this question to Bielsa in an exclusive interview in 2022, he was typically firm in his response when asked whether he saw others copying his ideas. He stuck to the facts rather than the pleasant fiction. For all the praise, no top coach chose to do it like him.
“I sincerely do not,” Bielsa told Sky Sports. “There are a lot of coaches who it has been said follow my ideas but that is not the case. I want to make it clear that those who are said to follow my ideas have clearly said themselves that this is not the case.”
De Zerbi’s own vertical approach focuses more on possession than pressing but it is similarly eye-catching when it works and alarming when it does not. Naturally, surrendering the ball in your own defensive third of the pitch is more likely to result in conceding.
Brighton have made seven errors leading to goals this season, the joint-most by any team in the Premier League along with bottom club Sheffield United. That commitment to playing out from the back comes at a price.
De Zerbi’s admirers would argue, with some justification, that it is worth it. When Brighton play through the opposition, it is both beautiful and brilliantly effective. They may have conceded more than any top-half team but they are also the sixth-highest scorers.
With better players, would De Zerbi’s football be even more impressive and, crucially, less likely to result in errors?
According to Opta, two of those mistakes resulting in a goal go against the name of goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen with Carlos Baleba and the defensive quartet of Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster, Joel Veltman and Jan Paul van Hecke responsible for one apiece.
Substitute in the names of Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk, for instance, and the hope might be that there would be fewer errors in possession and more examples of the team playing through the opposition press to good effect.
De Zerbi’s football embraced by some of the world’s best? That is the dream. But there might be a good reason why Liverpool and the rest do not commit fully to this style of play. After all, if you have the best players, maybe a less risky approach just makes sense.
To elevate his reputation beyond the coaching community and football’s aesthetes, De Zerbi will needs trophies as well as admirers. That was the appeal of his move to Shakhtar Donetsk. “To bring my idea of football – and to win. Because that counts too.”
He was unfortunate that circumstances beyond his control denied him that opportunity. Shakhtar were top of the Ukrainian Premier League when the competition was terminated following the invasion of the country. That he had to go there at all is revealing.
Arrigo Sacchi, that great Italian innovator – and winner – pointed that out in a recent column for Gazzetta dello Sport. Maybe he was speaking from experience when he noted that “whoever brings new ideas is always seen negatively” but he is a De Zerbi fan.
“I consider him the most exciting coach of this generation, so I feel he is ready to sit on an important bench. I am sorry that no Italian club, based on reports, is trying to get him. The same happened a few years ago when he went to Ukraine and then to England.”
Italy is certainly open to coaches moving through the system. Massimiliano Allegri and Stefano Pioli were both in charge of Sassuolo early in their careers too – and not in the top division like De Zerbi – before going on to become Serie A winning managers.
But they were not seen to be as dangerous as De Zerbi.
There will always be doubts whether a coach can adapt to the demands of a bigger job. Jurgen Klopp and Xavi Hernandez are walking away from Liverpool and Barcelona respectively in the summer, citing their energy levels. The pressures are vast.
The spotlight tests character, the profile of player challenges man-management. These are factors worthy of consideration. The odd thing about the De Zerbi conundrum for football’s risk-averse super clubs is that they know the football that he plays is beautiful.
They just have not yet seen anyone try it and win.
But if they wait for De Zerbi to do that elsewhere, they may regret it.