The demands Roberto De Zerbi makes of his new Brighton charges will boil down to a three-word edict: “fare la partita”. It means “make the game” in Italian and speaks succinctly of a career’s work built on displays of bravura. He has been given a unique opportunity, walking into the Premier League’s fourth-placed club while the garden is rosy, and is prepared to grasp it on his own terms.
De Zerbi struck a respectful balance at his unveiling on Tuesday, acknowledging the prodigious work of Graham Potter on numerous occasions while leaving no doubt he feels Brighton can evolve further. “At first sight, in my opinion, I like much more to control the game,” he said. “One of the things for this team can be to control the rhythm of the game much more.”
Given Potter’s team were hardly shrinking violets in seeking possession it is a bold intention. But De Zerbi’s intense focus on being on the front foot was one of the reasons Brighton quickly made him their top choice to take the reins and, as he explained the level of research he has conducted into a team he acknowledges play with “a very clear style”, it was clear he detected an appealing fit. “They have the right skills and characteristics to play brave football, as I want.”
Nothing of what Potter bequeathed upon departing for Chelsea was broken so, in the first instance, De Zerbi has little to fix. There were no bold proclamations about where their present league position might lead, the stated intention being to ensure they remain in the top 10, but he brings with him a tantalising sense of the unknown. At Sassuolo, whose rise through the divisions in Italy has at least some parallels with Brighton’s return from near oblivion, he squeezed every creative drop from his players and led them to successive eighth-placed finishes in Serie A with a daring approach that gave individual skill its platform.
He will have more resources to play with on the south coast even if Tony Bloom, sitting to his right, was at pains to rule out significant January expenditure; those riches include the squad at his disposal, which houses a number of attacking midfielders capable of operating in his image. “Don’t throw the ball away,” he said when asked about his philosophy. “We have a lot of players with quality [and will] try to put them in the best condition to make the right performance, like to play one v one, to attack in the right way. And, when we don’t have the ball, to take it back as fast as we can.”
The echoes of Pep Guardiola are no coincidence. Like De Zerbi, the Manchester City manager had a spell playing for Brescia; he has taken an interest in his career for several years, the pair first meeting in 2013 when De Zerbi was coaching tiny Darfo Boario, and the stylistic influence shines through. The two managers spoke on Sunday evening, after he had accepted the job, and Guardiola was forthcoming in offering help. By chance, there is another link to City: Enzo Maresca, Guardiola’s assistant, has been a friend of De Zerbi since they were 13‑year‑olds in Milan’s youth setup and was sounded out as Brighton’s interest crystallised. “He told me the truth,” De Zerbi laughed.
It is a potentially career-defining step in a year that, for De Zerbi, has been dizzying. He joined Shakhtar Donetsk after leaving Sassuolo 16 months ago and built an attractive side when, on 24 February, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made that irrelevant. There was no question, in his mind, of leaving the country until his players and their families had been successfully evacuated from their base in Kyiv. Eventually he returned home too and it is hardly the kind of experience anyone can shrug off.
“Of course I was not expecting the conflict to start,” he said. “It was bad not only because of the war but because things were going well. I respect the dignity of the Ukraine population, the players I trained for eight months and the club. This experience taught a lot to me and my coaching staff. When you leave your home country to work abroad you bring something to this place, but when you leave you take a lot from it and I took a lot from Ukraine. Some things will stay inside you for ever. Of course it was painful to leave and say goodbye to the players.”
Perhaps English football holds comparatively few fears for someone who has known air‑raid sirens and the bomb shelter. De Zerbi, who watched Brighton narrowly lose a friendly against Potter’s Chelsea on Saturday but did not get the chance to speak with his predecessor, will make his bow at Liverpool on 1 October and the task begins in earnest: he must blend continuity with what innovation he sees fit.
“Potter did a great job: everyone knows what Potter made here, but I’m not Potter.” Brighton are about to discover exactly who De Zerbi is.