Roberto De Zerbi: Brighton head coach's playing style analysed after Graham Potter leaves for Chelsea

Sep 20, 2022

New Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi will face the media on Tuesday - but what will the progressive manager bring to the south-coast club?

The Italian has been out of work after leaving Shakhtar Donetsk in July following Russia's invasion of Ukraine and had previously spent three years in charge of Serie A side Sassuolo - earning rave reviews for his style of football.

De Zerbi's coaching career so far

  • 2013 to 2014: Began his coaching career with Italian amateur side Darfo Boario.
  • 2014 to 2016: Joined Serie C side Foggia, winning the Coppa Italia Serie C and narrowly missing out on promotion.
  • 2016: Spent two and a half months at Serie A side Palermo, but was sacked after a poor start to the season.
  • 2017 to 2018: Joined recently promoted Serie A side Benevento. De Zerbi earned plaudits despite his side's relegation back to Serie B.
  • 2018 to 2021: Appointed manager of Sassuolo, leading the club to two successive eighth-place finishes. Missed out on the Europa Conference League to Roma on goal difference in 2021.
  • 2021 to 2022: Took his first job outside of Italy at Shakhtar Donetsk, winning the Ukrainian Super Cup in September 2021. Left the role due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The 43-year-old is a fan of Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Biesa, and a voracious student of the game, securing two successive eighth-placed finishes with minnows Sassuolo while backed with considerably less resource than the Italian league's traditional powerhouse clubs, all while selling star players during his tenure.

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Image: Brighton's Premier League fixtures
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Those circumstances are strikingly similar to Brighton's emergence under Graham Potter, parallels that led the club's hierarchy to approach the innovative coach as their first-choice target as they aim to continue on an upwards trajectory which has taken them to fourth in the Premier League table going into the international break.

Former Shakhtar Donetsk head coach Roberto De Zerbi is set to take the vacant managers position at Brighton (AP)

So what is De Zerbi's style and what will he offer Brighton? We explore the data from his final season in charge at Sassuolo and take a look under the hood...

Direct comparisons

The radar below compares Brighton's per-game returns this season to Sassuolo's in 2020/21 and reveals obvious parallels: tactically, the teams match up in almost all attacking metrics, with the exception of De Zerbi encouraging far more running with the ball and deploying fewer fast breaks.

The radar below, meanwhile, highlights the Italian's possession-based style, a preference for controlling games through keeping the ball and attempting far fewer long balls.

The set-up

De Zerbi used a 4-2-3-1 formation in 32 of his 38 Serie A games during his final season at the helm, and proceeded to use it as his preferred system at Shakhtar. Potter started with three central defenders in almost half of his Premier League games last season, and all but one this term - but the Brighton squad is well-versed in positional fluidity after three years under the new Chelsea manager.

AVERAGE XI

The graphic below shows how that system of choice affected the players' average positions, with the full-backs typically influecing the game higher up the pitch than the No 6 pairing, while the No 9 played in line with the attacking three up top.

AVERAGE POSITIONS

Conversely, De Zerbi is unlikely to encourage high-frequency crossing or aerial play, with the statistics below further highlighting his preferred approach of playing the ball shorter and along the ground.

To further illustrate the Italian's achievements during that final campaign in Serie A, the table below ranks his players' form according to the Power Rankings algorithm - all with far fewer big-name stars at his disposal than elite rivals.

Manuel Locatelli made 36 appearances for Sassuolo last season

Image: Manuel Locatelli was a star performer when Italy won Euro 2020

This was the year when Manuel Locatelli also came to the fore during Euro 2020 and earned a big-money move to Juventus.

Domination

Without question, Sassuolo's defining style was possession-based passing. The chart below highlights the extent of De Zerbi's influence, recording league-topping totals for possession, touches, total passes and ranking second for passes in the final third - proving the tiki-taka approach led to progressive, upfield play.

The graphic below shows exactly where those passes were played and reveals a left-sided skew until approaching the opposition's penalty area, with the most active area of distribution being in the central zone, just inside their own half.

PASSES BY ZONE

New, advanced metrics shed greater light on how the tactics proved effective, with the club ranking second for progress upfield in possession and build-up attacks, while topping the division for open-play passing chains comprising of 10 or more exchanges.

Attacking threat

Sassuolo ranked around their final league standing in 2020/21 for most attacking metrics, but led the way for dribbles - boosted by Chelsea graduate Jeremie Boga attempting 153 take-ons during the campaign - a total bettered only by two other players in the division.

The deeper, left-sided skew mentioned previously translates to the team's attacking thirds that term, with a slightly higher proportion of their attacks coming down that channel. However, there is a notable spread of danger imposed down all thirds - with the key threats leading to opportunities building from the flanks.

ATT. THIRDS

The goal and assist maps below demonstrate this and provide further evidence of De Zerbi's preference for shorter passes from narrow, wide positions, in addition to encouraging his players to fire from range and attempt cutting, direct passes from deeper, central positions.

GOALS & ASSISTS

De Zerbi's track record of eking the best out of his players, overachieving results and sustaining returns to punch among the elite, mirrors what Brighton achieved over three seasons under Potter, and the club can expect a new era of innovation with the Italian at the helm - as the Seagulls look to maintain their trajectory and disrupt the status quo further.

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Italian football journalist Marco Demicheli runs the rule over Brighton's new head coach Roberto De Zerbi and says the fans can expect an attacking brand of football.

What the Brighton hierarchy said

Brighton chairman Tony Bloom said: "I am absolutely thrilled Roberto has agreed to become our new head coach. Roberto's teams play an exciting and courageous brand of football, and I am confident his style and tactical approach will suit our existing squad superbly."

Technical director David Weir said, "Roberto has shown his undoubted ability with his work in Italy and Ukraine, and what he achieved at Sassuolo certainly stands out.

"In his short spell with Shakhtar he enjoyed further success, leading the club to cup success and topping the Ukrainian league before the war brought an abrupt halt to his time there.

"We are delighted to welcome Roberto and we look forward to introducing him to our squad as well as providing all the support he needs to introduce his coaching philosophy and help the players continue their brilliant start to the season."

Graham Potter

Image: Graham Potter replaced Thomas Tuchel as Chelsea head coach after three seasons with Brighton

Deputy chairman and chief executive Paul Barber added: "We looked at a range of excellent candidates but Roberto was our number one choice from the start and the only person we spoke to.

"It's no secret our chairman is constantly monitoring potential coaches, both here in our domestic leagues, throughout Europe and across the world as part of our succession planning work.

"We feel Roberto is the ideal cultural and technical fit for Brighton and Hove Albion, and the right person to continue the club's progress and work with this outstanding group of players."

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