With Roberto de Zerbi set to take over at Brighton, Kaustubh Pandey looks a detailed look at the ex-Sassuolo boss’ style and persona.
It is fair to say that Brighton and Hove Albion are arguably the smartest club in the Premier League. In an Italian context, the same applies to Modena-based outfit Sassuolo too. But the similarities do not simply end there.
While the Seagulls have never been Premier League regulars in the past, they have been an ever-present figure in the top-flight since their promotion in 2017. They had skirmishes with relegation, but they held on and established a unique identity for themselves that a lot of the others are jealous of. The club’s owner – Tony Bloom, is arguably the pioneer of implementing Moneyball in English football and his club relies on rooting talent from lesser known zones, improving them under managers that use an attacking brand of football, thus increasing the values of talents.
Sassuolo meanwhile, came to Serie A under Eusebio di Francesco in 2013. After their own initial battles to avoid the drop back to Serie B, the Neroverdi established themselves as a regular in the top flight. Di Francesco, who is famously known to have taken Roma to the Champions League semi-final and then fading into obscurity, first enjoyed the limelight at the Mapei. Professing a quick brand of football that relied on swift moves from back to front and clever movements, Di Francesco’s style helped a lot of Sassuolo players thrive and upgrade.
Tony Sanabria headed to Roma in 2014, Simone Zaza joined Juventus later and Sime Vrsaljko also moved to Atletico Madrid in 2016. Stefano Sensi also first truly came to Serie A under Di Francesco’s tutelage.
Over time, the Modenese outfit has become one of the biggest conveyer belts for talent generation in Italian football. Domenico Berardi has become a star at the club, Manuel Locatelli’s move from Milan to Sassuolo paid off as he joined Juventus later, Gianluca Scamacca joined West Ham earlier this summer and Giacomo Raspadori is now a Napoli player. While a lot of it comes with what Giovanni Carnevali has wanted from his club, having the managers of the right fit to meet those demands has been key. And De Zerbi was the biggest success on this journey.
Without De Zerbi, the aforementioned four stars may not have been as good as they are today. Even though De Zerbi’s Sassuolo didn’t finish above eighth (twice) and Di Francesco took the Neroverdi to a sixth-placed finish back in 2016, the contexts are very different. The ex-Roma boss operated in a Serie A which was still lingering on ‘primitive’ and the tactical revolutions brought about by Maurizio Sarri were yet to fully take hold. De Zerbi found himself in a division which was more competitive and tactically diverse.
De Zerbi’s personality would shine through during his time at the Mapei – in stark contrast to the much more calmer demeanours of Di Francesco and successor Alessio Dionisi. While his exploits at Sassuolo have become rather well-known to some, there remains an aura of unknowingness about where he comes from as a manager.
He has already seen the ups and downs of the Italian football pyramid and the despite the pressures, his complex and fresh ideas have always carried him through. While his stint at Serie C side Foggia did bring more joy to the Rossoneri than the fans had seen since the days of the 1990s, they sorely failed to earn promotion to Serie B. His stint at skint Palermo didn’t last long as he only won a single game out of 12 before getting the axe during a largely complex situation at the ex-Serie A outfit.
Despite all his ideas, his Benevento side got relegated from the top-flight in 2018 and he couldn’t undo the damage from Marco Baroni’s stint. The Sassuolo move was seen as a risk – pretty much how Fabio Liverani’s move from Lecce to Parma in 2020 was considered to be too big of an upgrade.
Two consecutive eighth-placed finishes with Sassuolo made sure that De Zerbi’s ideas were being accepted by social media’s analytics community and Pep Guardiola alike. It was very well-deserved for someone who has witnessed a fair share of ups and downs in his managerial career.
Over time, De Zerbi’s ideas have become more concrete. His stint at Benevento saw him often play a 4-3-3 shape or a 3-4-3, he began using the 4-2-3-1 after his first season at Sassuolo. The key to that became the idea of building from the back with the two pivot midfielders being close to each other while operating deeper. While one of the two midfielders was only slightly further forward, the distance between the pivot would be lesser than usual. It didn’t allow the Neroverdi to dominate possession against the best of teams, it also allowed them the numerical superiority to play through the opposition press expertly.
While this allowed for the developments of Locatelli and Frenchman Maxime Lopez, it gave Sassuolo the solid foundation of always building from the back. There was a period when Marlon, who had arrived from Barcelona, became one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in Serie A and Jeremy Toljan, who had endured a tough loan at Celtic from Borussia Dortmund, became a very reliable right-back for Sassuolo. Toljan’s ability to get involved in build-up and then maraud forward thrived and Rogerio at left-back was linked with Premier League moves too.
Some of Sassuolo’s best goals under the Brescian though, came when they played quickly and fearlessly between the lines when the opposition came forward and pressed them. Having numerical advantages at the back is a vital part of De Zerbi’s ideas and that helped them counter the opposition pressing excellently.
Francesco Caputo, who was once known be a stalwart in Serie B due to his goalscoring reliability, joined in 2019 but many believed that he wouldn’t fit into a possession-based system at Sassuolo. But the current Sampdoria man scored 33 goals in two seasons at the age of 32 and 33, something which speaks volumes for how De Zerbi can adapt when it comes to his choice of strikers. Sometimes, Jeremie Boga and Gregoire Defrel also played upfront and they’re forwards who like to get on the ball and go past defenders instead of thriving in movement like Caputo. While Scamacca never actually played under De Zerbi, he was on the bench multiple times and that is perhaps where the token of encouragement came from for the teenager.
Fluid movement from the front four and the midfield often made sure that Sassuolo often made sure that even when teams weren’t intentionally pressing them would come forward in an attempt to win the ball back. But the opposite made the Neroverdi a terrifying unit against the bigger sides, as they would often come forward and press them but would find themselves being exposed by Sassuolo’s exquisite quick passing between the lines and movement in the advanced third.
They became a scourge for the likes of Inter, Milan, Roma and Napoli, becoming the most watchable Serie A side behind Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. It was only after De Zerbi’s exit that Hellas Verona picked up that tag (or maybe even more).
It isn’t just the tactical wisdom that always gripped many to De Zerbi though, as his almost Marcelo Bielsa-esque persona attracted a fair amount of admirers. When a host of managers across Europe came up with bland statements about the introduction of the Super League, De Zerbi didn’t hold back.
“Football belongs to everyone and is meritocratic. They released a statement at midnight with their new website. It was like putting their flags in a territory they had taken from someone else.
“It’s like the son of a labourer can’t dream of becoming a surgeon, a lawyer or a doctor. It’s as if they had told me as a kid in the schoolyard that the ball’s mine. I’m taking it. Football has a role in society that’s different from other sports,” he stated.
The statement was praised by many, but De Zerbi showed his willingness to stand up for a community during the Ukraine crisis earlier this year. During the first day of the war, De Zerbi and his team were stuck in a hotel and in an interview with SportItalia, the Italian stated:
“There are no heroes here, but our job puts us in front of responsibilities. We were supposed to play on Saturday, so I could not run away.”
And while he did leave the Ukrainian side and his contract there was terminated, Bologna did make an approach for the Italian following the exit. But De Zerbi’s rejection came out of respect for Sinisa Mihajlovic, who was departing the Rossoblu.
The ex-Sassuolo boss stated: “I’d like to, but I can’t do it after Sinisa. Money can’t buy everything,”
It was a move which was hailed by Mihajlovic’s wife, who confirmed that this actually took place and it wasn’t just media talk from out of thin air.
It is the sort of class that ex-Brighton and current Chelsea boss Graham Potter conducted him with too. While Potter was extremely versatile in his shapes and formations on a game-by-game basis depending on the opposition, De Zerbi has a specific style and formation which he will bring in while experimenting with different profiles.
The issue at Sassuolo during his early years was the lack of technical players. But Brighton are full of them from back to front and that will make the transition smooth for De Zerbi. Even though Brighton don’t have full-backs that would invert while building from the back like De Zerbi had at Shakhtar Donetsk, he has shown that he is versatile enough to operate with pure full-backs during his time at the Mapei.
England has, for long, been a very favourable hunting place for Italian managers but none of them have been of De Zerbi’s ilk. The likes of Antonio Conte, Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini had an overpowering of pragmatism in their approach, but the opposite is true for De Zerbi. In that sense, it is a very fresh adventure but considering the congruency involving Sassuolo and Brighton, there is a high probability that he settles in nicely.