In a world where everything seems to be moving at breakneck speed, from our social media feeds to our daily lives, there’s one man in the world of football who dares to be different. His name? Roberto De Zerbi.
In this age of rapid-fire communication and lightning-fast decision-making, where players are expected to be lightning-quick on the ball and teams strive for swift transitions, De Zerbi stands out as a manager who champions a more deliberate approach.
While others emphasize the need for speed in football, both in terms of physical prowess and mental agility, De Zerbi’s philosophy takes a different route. He values patience and precision over sheer speed. In a game where the wrong move or a hasty decision can lead to costly mistakes, De Zerbi’s teams move at their own pace.
Roberto De Zerbi’s “Slow Football”
In a world where pressing and counter-attacks dominate, De Zerbi’s teams focus on careful ball control and methodical buildup. They don’t rush; they craft their plays with meticulous care.
So, in the whirlwind of modern football, where speed is king, Roberto De Zerbi stands as a fascinating anomaly—a manager who chooses to move at his own, slower, and more calculated tempo, reminding us that sometimes, in the quest for success, it pays to take a breath and savor the game.
Most shots on target in Europe's big-five leagues since Roberto De Zerbi's first match in charge of @OfficialBHAFC:— Squawka (@Squawka) September 18, 2023
244 – Brighton
218 – Real Madrid
By now, you might be intrigued. Unless you’re accustomed to regularly perusing tactical discussions on social media, Roberto De Zerbi might not be a name you’re familiar with.
In a way, he’s a bit of an unconventional manager, especially considering he’s only 44 years old—a relatively young age in the coaching world. What sets him apart is that I’m not particularly interested in listing his past achievements. Instead, my focus is keenly fixed on his football philosophy, particularly his approach to build-up play.
His philosophy in build-up play is rather distinctive, as it actively encourages the opposition to apply pressure and aims to exploit passing opportunities whenever possible.
Drawing from insights provided by Brighton’s players, we examine how Roberto De Zerbi has embraced possession-oriented football and deliberately encouraged the opposition’s pressing tactics. This strategic approach has propelled his team to excel in the Premier League, possibly even surpassing their performance under Graham Potter’s leadership.
Upon Roberto De Zerbi’s arrival at Brighton in September, he stepped into a team that was riding high on its previous success. Some had speculated that Graham Potter had already pushed the team to its limits. However, the Italian manager’s influence has been so profound that Brighton’s performance may have actually improved under his leadership.
September 18, 2022 — Roberto De Zerbi signed in as Brighton coach 🔵🇮🇹— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) September 18, 2023
◉ Most PL goals by teenagers since he joined — 15!
◉ Managed to convince top players like Ansu Fati.
◉ 23 wins, 9 draws, 12 losses in 44 official games.
◉ Europa League for the 1st time in club’s history.… pic.twitter.com/VWu6v7IKSW
Indeed, Roberto De Zerbi’s impact goes beyond just the results; it’s about the style and approach his team adopts. Brighton has always possessed the capability to play an attractive passing game, but under De Zerbi’s guidance, they are taking it to a whole new level. Total domination of possession is becoming the standard, and the statistics are truly remarkable.
Since Roberto De Zerbi assumed control at Brighton, the team has consistently maintained an impressive average possession rate of 62%. What’s even more striking is their prolificity in terms of shots on target. They currently lead Europe in this regard, with 244 shots on target, surpassing Real Madrid, who have recorded 218 shots on target during the same period.
Roberto De Zerbi’s Tactical Philosophy: Balancing Possession and Provocation
Pep Guardiola had a strong foresight when he predicted the significant impact that Roberto De Zerbi would have in English football. Upon De Zerbi’s appointment, Guardiola remarked, “His impact in England will be massive.” Mikel Arteta is also an admirer of De Zerbi, stating, “He is someone I have followed.” Even Jurgen Klopp recognized his influence, describing him as “very influential” and expressing his admiration for his coaching prowess.
Roberto De Zerbi’s ability to introduce his ideas while maintaining what had already been successful at Brighton is commendable. It’s evident that he’s made a substantial impact, transforming the team’s style. As one observer put it, “They played Potter-ball. Now they play De Zerbi-ball.“
Interestingly, the styles of play are not drastically different. This was a deliberate choice, as Brighton’s chief executive, Paul Barber, had highlighted the importance of a cultural and technical fit when appointing De Zerbi. De Zerbi himself recognized the similarities between Graham Potter’s approach and his own ideas, which played a crucial role in the seamless transition.
The shift in Brighton’s playing style was intended to be subtle, with a continued emphasis on possession. As Alexis Mac Allister explains, “We have got the players to do that,” highlighting that Roberto De Zerbi recognized the squad’s suitability for his preferred style of play when he joined the team.
Initially, De Zerbi continued with a back three formation, acknowledging the success Graham Potter was achieving with it. However, he also introduced his own 4-2-3-1 system, which has become his favored approach. The team’s movements on the field remain fluid, and notably, Brighton leads the Premier League in goals scored from midfield.
Tariq Lamptey underscores the continuity of ideas from the previous coach, stating, “We have similar ideas to under the previous gaffer. It is just a case of building on them a bit.”
Former Brighton player Alexis Mac Allister draws parallels between the two managers, noting their shared desire for ball possession and high pressing. A prime example of this philosophy was evident in Brighton’s 3-0 victory over Liverpool on 14th January this year when they visited Brighton for an away match.
The goal against Liverpool perfectly exemplified Roberto De Zerbi’s tactics. Evan Ferguson initiated a press on Joel Matip, and Alexis Mac Allister seized the opportunity to intercept the ball ahead of Jordan Henderson. What followed was a seven-touch sequence involving four different Brighton players, culminating in the ball finding the back of Alisson’s net. The execution was seamless, swift, and proved too much for Liverpool to handle.
Since De Zerbi took charge, Brighton ranks third in the Premier League for high turnovers leading to shots. While they remain a pressing team, pressing is no longer the central focus of their football. In fact, De Zerbi has even referred to pressing as a gamble. Instead, he prefers to entice it from the opposition.
As Alexis Mac Allister explains, “Yes, he tries to attract them.” Provoking the opposition press is a defining feature of De Zerbi’s tactical approach. This strategy places a premium on players’ comfort with the ball in their own half, as De Zerbi is content to draw the opposition into that area. If they retreat, Brighton maintains control; if they engage, Brighton skillfully plays through the press.
Roberto De Zerbi has articulated his philosophy succinctly, stating, “The possession always depends on the opponents’ pressure. The tougher the pressure, the more vertical further development. The less opposing pressure, the greater our control of the match and possession of the ball will be.“
When facing less pressure, Brighton’s play might appear passive, but this is a deliberate strategy aimed at provocation. The team patiently waits for the right moments, and when spaces open up, they transition swiftly and play the ball forward. A prime example of this approach can be seen in the second goal against Liverpool: Pervis Estupinan to Evan Ferguson to Solly March, resulting in a goal.
As Alexis Mac Allister elaborates, “Roberto likes more the idea of building up from the back, and you can see that in our games. He loves to have possession, and then when we can find our wing-backs and our strikers, we can try to be direct and score.” This combination of controlled build-up and quick transitions is a key feature of De Zerbi’s tactical approach.
Brighton Creating Isolation and Freedom
Brighton’s strategy of drawing the opposition toward them serves a specific purpose: isolating defenders. This is the underlying objective behind their passing game. Once players find themselves in one-on-one situations, Roberto De Zerbi encourages them to express themselves more freely. It becomes less about rigid instructions and more about individual ability, granting players greater freedom.
Tariq Lamptey sheds light on this approach, stating, “Everyone knows what we have to do in our position, and he expects different things from each position. He gives you enough information to choose the right decision for you. That is good as a player. You can see which decision fits.“
Ultimately, the statistics speak for themselves, reflecting the success of this philosophy.
Since Roberto De Zerbi took charge, Brighton has secured an impressive ranking. They currently sit in second place, just behind Manchester City, for the number of sequences consisting of 10 or more passes originating from open play. Additionally, they hold the second spot, again behind the champions, for such sequences culminating in either a shot or a touch inside the opponent’s box. These statistics underline Brighton’s proficiency in maintaining possession and creating goal-scoring opportunities through intricate passing sequences.
When it comes to the effectiveness of converting pass sequences of 10 passes or more into sequences that conclude with either a shot or a touch inside the opponent’s box, Brighton surpasses even Manchester City in efficiency. In fact, only the Premier League leaders, Arsenal, outperform Brighton in this regard.
This data underscores the significance of Brighton’s build-up play, demonstrating its successful execution and its ability to generate goal-scoring opportunities with exceptional efficiency.
Under Roberto De Zerbi’s leadership, Brighton has made significant advancements in their approach to progressing toward the opposition’s goal per sequence. Additionally, they’ve incorporated more width per sequence into their style of play. Despite not having the financial resources of the elite teams, only the top three clubs in the Premier League complete more passes within the final third of the pitch.
What sets Brighton apart is their proficiency in executing lay-off passes, defined as one-touch first-time passes away from the goal when the passer is under pressure.
The players at Brighton have wholeheartedly bought into Roberto De Zerbi’s coaching approach.
Tariq Lamptey emphasizes De Zerbi’s motivational skills, saying, “He definitely gets you motivated for the games. He gives you the confidence to go out and play because he has given us the tools in the week on the training pitch. He provides us with all the information we need to secure a positive result.”
Furthermore, De Zerbi’s personality plays a significant role in conveying his ideas effectively. As Alexis Mac Allister notes, “He is intense, he is passionate, but he is a really nice guy.” These characteristics, combined with his innovative football concepts, have left a strong impression on the entire squad.
Mac Allister also highlights the widespread approval of De Zerbi’s ideas, stating, “From the very beginning, we knew that his idea was amazing. We are really enjoying playing how he wants us to play.” It’s clear that De Zerbi’s coaching philosophy resonates not only with the players but with the entire team.