When Potter left Brighton for Chelsea, many thought that he had taken the Seagull's as far as they could go. That was until Roberto De Zerbi arrived, and Brighton might be even better now.
It’s not so much ‘one or the other’ when talking about Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi though, it’s more about the fact they complement each other very well. Graham Potter, for over three years, instilled ideas on his Brighton side which resulted in them changing from a bottom 6 side, to a side barging themselves into the top six argument.
He brought brilliant football to the Amex Stadium with great emphasis on passing and chance creation, and many believed that when he departed for Chelsea, he had them performing at their optimum level and at the top of their ceiling.
This is where De Zerbi comes in. His appointment was in fact made based on statistics and data that shows that the pair play a similar style of football. The Brighton board wanted a cultural and tactical fit.
He kept Potter’s back three system for the first few weeks, a nod to Potter’s good work, whilst he educated his team with new ideologies. He has respected ‘Potterball’ but has changed things over time.
Firstly, De Zerbi has brought more personality and excitement to the side, which comes with risk and reward. He has had a revolutionary effect on Brighton, turning the players into possession-hungry masters of provocation.
He’s got his team playing front-foot football in stylish and energetic fashion, involving passing patterns close to their own goal which aim to suck opponents in before exposing holes they’ve left when pressing. It’s football the edge; absorbing and frightening.
Some of football’s greatest minds have complimented the Italian coach, with Pep Guardiola predicting, “His impact in England will be massive in the future.” Mikel Arteta has said that De Zerbi is, “Someone I have followed,” and Jurgen Klopp described him as “very influential.”
De Zerbi summed up the situation perfectly, declaring: “Potter has worked very well – but I’m not Potter.” If De Zerbi’s tenure is a success, Brighton fans will undoubtedly come to adore watching this new style of football, whilst fondly recognising shades of what Potter grew originally.
So, how do Brighton play? They like to play out of the back, with their 4-2-3-1 converting to a 2-4-4. The quartet of two centre backs and centre midfielders play intricate passes with few touches to move the ball and the opposition out of position.
Sometimes you can see Solly March drop deep from right wing, and Pascal Gross become an inverted full-back and run into the midfield if he hasn't started there already, creating a 3-5-2. Brighton are an intelligent team who know a lot of passing patterns so can adjust to their opposition accordingly.
Sometimes, a centre-back might take slightly longer on the ball, delay or slightly misplace a pass, triggering the opposition to press. This is where the magic happens.
De Zerbi likes to provoke teams into pressing them so that the opposition leave gaps in behind for exploiting. He loves players that can be confident on the ball in their own half in his risky style of play.
This is why Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo and Pascal Gross work so well in midfield together. They are natural on the ball, quick, technical, good passers and have bundles of energy, eternally shuttling from box to box.
They are also good progressively and are quite press resistant, but have the intelligence to recognise when trouble is brewing and when it’s probably smartest to pass back to the defenders or goalkeeper.
This is where De Zerbi’s tactics payoff: back off and Brighton dominate the ball, press and they break through you. Since De Zerbi’s appointment, Brighton have finished 5 matches with over 70% possession, more than any other club including Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. 15 of the clubs haven’t achieved that feat at all, it shows that people are scared to fall into the Seagulls’ trap.
This is all without recognising any individual talent. Colombian duo Estupinan and Caicedo have worked wonders down the left-hand side progressively, with Estupinan hugging the touchline ready to put sublime crosses in. Solly March is also an excellent crosser of the ball from the right-hand side, and he is good at creating space and has Pascal Gross behind him attack, creating an overload.
Perhaps the scariest man on the team sheet is Mitoma. When he gets the ball at his feet, it is terrifying for the opposing team. He studied dribbling at university, has quick, tricky feat, embraces the one-on-one challenge and is one of the most direct and technical players in the English top flight. Not only that, he also has nine goals and six assists to his name in the current campaign.
Leading the line was Leandro Trossard before his move to Arsenal. Danny Welbeck has featured for the Seagull’s, but they could’ve found their Trossard replacement from their own youth academy.
Starlet Evan Ferguson has hit the ground running since his call-up, with 12 goal involvements in 18 games. He has already impressed fans and pundits with his intelligence and physicality at such a tender age.
Even with Ferguson thriving up front for the Seagulls, no club has scored more goals from midfield since De Zerbi’s appointment.
There are fluid movements and sharp patterns of play. Tariq Lamptey has stated that all the players are loving life at the Seagull’s and Alexis Mac Allister has told the press that he loves De Zerbi’s appointment because the team is so capable of keeping possession. The Amex Stadium really is the place to play right now.
To De Zerbi, the best form of defence is clearly attack, and because his teams are so possession hungry, the opposition barely get a sniff. When under pressure, the Seagull’s aim to win the ball back early either in midfield or by forcing the ball into the wide areas.
Thankfully, Mac Allister and Caicedo are both excellent in reading the game and shuttling wherever required to toss themselves into the mix and are true all-rounders despite their attacking attributes being recognised more than their defensive ones. The pair have made 183 tackles and interceptions between them this term.
The other key area of the pitch that the Seagulls love to win the ball is in the wide areas, where they will often force traffic into their defensively overloaded traps. It’s no surprise that Veltman and Estupiñán are the next top ball-winners statistically.
When they don’t win the ball from tackles and interceptions, the most common way to score from the wide areas is via a cross. It is helpful that Brighton are blessed with height and physicality in their backline, with Dunk, Veltman, Webster and Colwill.
Given the already existing positional awareness of players like Dunk, Veltman, Webster and Colwill, not to mention the commanding presence they naturally impose, it’s often hard to find a way past the Seagulls.
The two centre-backs may even surround the same striker to ensure a better chance at winning the header, as the midfielders collapse into the box to add to the pressure. De Zerbi has his defence will organised to say the least.
It’s Roberto De Zerbi’s character and personality that sets him aside from Graham Potter as well, he has probably provided more entertainment during interviews already than what Potter did in three years, as the Englishman prefers to be cautious with journalists who can twist his words and stir controversy.
De Zerbi seems optimistic and inspiring though and has mastered one of the most difficult parts of the job as a Premier League manager, the press.
He leaves no stone unturned in his quest for perfection at Brighton, shown in his interview after Brighton conceded late on to Everton in a match that they won 4-1: “We cannot concede the goal at Everton in that moment. The goal changed nothing, but it can change the end of the season.”
He has also complimented his players and given them confidence in addition to feedback: “I’m really lucky to work with these players because my idea without this quality of players, this quality of men, would be impossible to show.”
Adam Lallana has even said that his new manager makes you, “Feel like a million dollars.”. He is a great coach who improves players individually for the good of the team.
Look at Mitoma, March, Ferguson and Caicedo under De Zerbi, and compare them to White, Bissouma and Cucarella under Potter.
Brighton fans will have been fearing the worst when Potter left them, but De Zerbi has took the high-flying Seagulls to new heights. They might not be in 4th, where they were when Potter left, but they are playing more entertaining and convincing football than ever before.
The Italian has taken principles left behind from his predecessor and has continued building in his name. Since De Zerbi has taken over, Brighton have played in 10 games where they have scored three or more goals, most notably putting Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal to the sword.