A year ago on Monday, Roberto De Zerbi entered the fold at Brighton. From the outside, there was trepidation; the Italian was stepping into big shoes after Graham Potter, the mastermind behind the club’s transition from relegation fodder to progressive challengers, headed for Chelsea.
Perhaps that is natural. In the mainstream, De Zerbi was largely unknown after an impressive spell in Serie A with Sassuolo was followed by a spell at Shakhtar Donetsk, which was cut short by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But for those who knew him, he was an ideal choice as Potter’s replacement. In essence, he shared his predecessor’s football vision, based on possession, quick transitions and high energy. One of his biggest fans, dating all the way back to those days at Sassuolo, was Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
It would have been hard to imagine at the time, but De Zerbi has actually improved upon the work left by Potter. Brighton look like they have evolved and developed from the foundations that existed. They are more potent, direct and effective with the counter-press, fully deserving of a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League and Europa League qualification. After an impressive start to this season, they look like genuine contenders for Champions League qualification next season.
This success is clear evidence of Brighton’s forethought and the depth of the structure in place. They know their players and managers are always likely to be poached by bigger clubs, so they scout their replacements before they are needed. That’s why Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo were sold for huge profits this summer without a huge impact on the team’s form. The likes of Kaoru Mitoma and Evan Ferguson are the next in line for huge moves, and in all likelihood it won’t be long for De Zerbi either. That’s just the way it is at the AMEX Stadium and that has to be admired.
Plenty of clubs will want De Zerbi, and if he is patient, he’ll have the pick of them. Replacing his friend Guardiola at City may be the best option for him. The man who just won the treble last season has never hidden his admiration for the Italian, claiming Brighton are the best team in Europe when it comes to playing through teams. At City, breaking through low defensive blocks is the most fundamental point from a tactical perspective, and it is clear that both men have begun to learn from each other. This is not just a one-way relationship.
Last season, Guardiola called De Zerbi “one of the most influential managers of the last 20 years”.
“There is no team playing the way they play – it’s unique,” Guardiola said.
“I had the feeling when he arrived the impact he would have in the Premier League would be great – I didn’t expect him to do it in this short space of time.
“He creates 20 or 25 chances per game, better by far than most opponents. He monopolises the ball in a way it hasn’t been for a long time.
“They deserve completely the success they have.”
Replacing Guardiola is a problem City do not want to face. For all their wealth and quality, he is the reason they have appeared so formidable over recent seasons. Whoever comes in will more than likely oversee a drop off, just because the standards are so incredibly high right now. But given he is still likely to be in charge next season having taken over in 2016, they have enjoyed him for longer than either of his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, did.
Previous success shouldn’t be the main measurement of whether Guardiola’s successor is the right one. Instead, continuing the style, identity and ethos of his team is paramount, and as he alluded to himself, De Zerbi does just that. He led Brighton to victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Saturday, and it didn’t look or feel like a shock in the slightest.
Different names, including Vincent Kompany and Mikel Arteta, have been linked with the City job over recent years. But De Zerbi looks every bit the right man for when the time eventually comes.