Roberto De Zerbi: how a ‘little genius’ was helped on his road to Brighton


Roberto De Zerbi was known during his playing career as “the little genius”. Given that his days as a left-footed No 10 were spent almost entirely in Italy but outside Serie A, such a billing may appear generous. Perhaps fittingly, though, two coaches regularly referred to in similar glowing terms have helped the 43-year-old on his path to the Premier League.

De Zerbi takes charge of Brighton for the first time on Saturday at Liverpool appreciative of Pep Guardiola’s and Marcelo Bielsa’s inspiration and assistance. When the Italian was sacked by Palermo in 2016 after less than three months, his prospects looked grim. His dismissal had been sparked by seven consecutive Serie A defeats and Coppa Italia elimination by second-tier Spezia. A message sent to Bielsa, one of his idols, got the response he needed.

De Zerbi had asked to watch some training sessions and received a text from the then Lille manager inviting him and his staff to attend training for a week. For De Zerbi it was a formative experience and helped him to build coaching ideas that, via two more Serie A stints and Shakhtar Donetsk, prompted Brighton to hire him as Graham Potter’s replacement.

De Zerbi had long been studying Guardiola by the time he got to see Bielsa at work. He analysed the Catalan’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich training sessions before taking a job with Foggia in Italy’s third division in 2014 and the quirk of De Zerbi’s birthplace has done no harm in building a strong relationship with Manchester City’s manager, whom he regards as a role model.

De Zerbi was born in Brescia and has played for his hometown club, where Guardiola had two spells as a midfielder in the early 2000s. He was told years ago by Guardiola he was destined to manage in the Premier League and their bond is such that they spoke before De Zerbi accepted the Brighton job. “He told me that if I need he will be very happy to help me,” De Zerbi has said.

De Zerbi would be delighted by comparisons to Guardiola, and Bacary Sagna has said he sees similarities. The right-back played under Guardiola at City before he joined De Zerbi’s Benevento in 2017. “Pep and De Zerbi’s training sessions are not so different: they ask for same kind of things,” he said. “I’m sure De Zerbi will join a top club very soon.”

De Zerbi’s obsession, like Guardiola’s, is to dominate the ball and control games. His Sassuolo team had the second-highest possession statistics in Serie A in 2019-20 at about 59.5% – bettered only by Antonio Conte’s Internazionale – and the preferred structure of his teams has long been clear.

He sets up in 4-3-3, sometimes configured as 4-2-3-1, and likes wingers at the heart of his strategy. Ball-playing centre-backs and a playmaker are, with the goalkeeper’s help, tasked with attracting the press, then playing through it at speed. De Zerbi is described by players, and himself, as “a hammer” – constantly hammering away to find improvements, never allowing energy levels to drop.

It is why he places such emphasis on training. “The game is just the result of the training sessions we have during the week,” he has said. When a player explained he was not pushing himself in training because he wanted to save his energy for match day, De Zerbi’s response was blunt. “If you have this approach, you will never become a top player,” he said.

De Zerbi is more than a taskmaster, though. He creates strong relationships with his squads and at Sassuolo, whom he led to eighth place in Serie A in 2020 and 2021, players recall their readiness to fight for him. It was apparent there that doing his bidding could bring rich reward.

From 2018 to 2020 Sassuolo received more than €150m from player sales, with De Zerbi’s coaching regarded as pivotal. His capacity to identify and improve young talent is captured in two Sassuolo cases. De Zerbi brought a 20-year-old Giacomo Raspadori into the first team when no one trusted a striker now playing for Napoli and Italy and regarded as a national treasure. De Zerbi also convinced Manuel Locatelli to join from Milan; the midfielder has since joined Juventus and plays for the Azzurri too.

De Zerbi relishes involvement in transfers: studying targets and speaking to players to outline the project and how they would fit in. The workaholic is almost scout, agent, director and manager rolled into one. Brighton hope they have a little genius.

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Marta Lopez

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By Marta Lopez


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