There can be a downside to being the “next big thing” in football management — just ask Graham Potter, Julian Nagelsmann and Steven Gerrard. Roberto de Zerbi, however, might just be the real deal.
The former Shakhtar Donetsk, Sassuolo, Benevento, Palermo and Foggia coach’s appointment as Brighton & Hove Albion manager this time last year was mocked by former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness.
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“I think it’s a risk,” Souness said. “You are bringing in someone who doesn’t know our game. Paul Barber [Brighton CEO] said he was impressed with his knowledge of Brighton and what they have done and the way they attempt to play, but he could have got that off the internet. I think it’s a risk bringing someone with his CV, seven jobs in nine years. If you’re an outstanding coach then people want to hold onto you.”
One year on, it’s safe to assume that Brighton really want to hold onto De Zerbi, but how long can they do so?
This weekend marks the first anniversary of his appointment as Brighton boss following Potter’s departure to Chelsea last September. The 44-year-old will celebrate his one-year milestone with a trip to Manchester United on Saturday, and with it, the prospect of ending the day in the Premier League top four.
It was the same fixture last season that propelled Potter towards the Chelsea job. On the opening day of the campaign, in Erik ten Hag’s first game in charge of United, Potter’s Brighton outplayed, outran and out-thought the home side to emerge with a 2-1 victory that gave an early glimpse of the potential within the Seagulls’ squad.
That Brighton realised their potential by qualifying for European football for the first time in their history last season was down to the arrival of De Zerbi. The Italian has averaged 1.70 points-per-game during his time in charge compared to Potter’s 1.28, but it his personality — steely and abrasive — which has given Brighton a tougher edge than under his mild-mannered predecessor.
Potter laid the foundations and headed to Chelsea, only to lose his job at Stamford Bridge within seven months, but De Zerbi’s success in making Brighton a more potent attacking team secured their highest-ever league finish and a run to the FA Cup semifinals, and it is he who is now the coach that has become the next big thing.
Since the end of last season, De Zerbi has reportedly rejected approaches from Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli, despite seeing Brighton lose midfielders Alexis Mac Allister and Moisés Caicedo to Liverpool and Chelsea respectively during the summer transfer window.
You can be hot one minute and tipped for stardom, but one wrong turn can leave your reputation in shreds, so perhaps De Zerbi assessed the bigger picture at Spurs and Napoli and decided that a more suitable, maybe even bigger opportunity will emerge sooner rather than later.
Potter could never reject the chance to manage Chelsea, but he was too inexperienced for the job and lacked the personality required for coaching such a big club. The same could be said of Nagelsmann, who left RB Leipzig to become Bayern Munich coach aged just 34 but was fired within 18 months due to bad results and rumours of unrest within the squad.
Gerrard, meanwhile, was positioning himself to become Jurgen Klopp’s eventual successor at Liverpool after guiding Rangers to a first Scottish title in a decade. But the former Liverpool captain left too soon for a Premier League opportunity at Aston Villa and was out of that job in less than a year. After being overlooked for the manager’s jobs at Leicester City and Leeds this summer, Gerrard is now attempting to rebuild his reputation in Saudi Arabia with Al Ettifaq — hardly an obvious stepping-stone back to the Premier League.
De Zerbi has already built an impressive body of work at multiple clubs, however, so his climb to prominence has been gradual. He won plaudits for the style of football he introduced at Benevento and Sassuolo, who he guided to successive top-eight finishes in Serie A, before his time at Shakhtar was cut short following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Brighton had already earmarked De Zerbi as a potential replacement for Potter even before he moved to Shakhtar due to his tactical philosophy of high-energy, attack-minded teams. So when Potter was tempted away by Chelsea there was only one choice within the club, even if his appointment was a surprise to most outside the Amex Stadium.
“Roberto coming in has been pretty amazing,” Brighton owner Tony Bloom told the club website this week. “He is an elite head coach. His track record, when we looked into it in a lot of detail, was exceptionally good in the latter years at Shakhtar Donetsk and at Sassuolo, but I didn’t quite realise the impact he would have when he came in.
“I think it is very difficult for everyone, whether it’s a player or a coach coming into the football club. He has been hugely influential for so many players, and he is so good at improving individual players. Across the board, they were all very good players. Graham [Potter] also did an exceptional job in terms of raising the levels, raising the standards of the players, but Roberto has taken it that one step forward.
“And the quality of the play, the risk-taking at the right times to create opportunities and his tactical abilities are superb, so we are very fortunate to have him at the club. We love having him at the club, so long may that continue.”
Having seen Mac Allister and Caicedo leave for bigger clubs this summer, though, just as Marc Cucurella (Chelsea), Yves Bissouma (Spurs), Leandro Trossard and Ben White (both Arsenal) did before them, Bloom and Brighton will know that their manager will be coveted by every big club in Europe.
At some point, a job at a Champions League team will open up and there is nobody in Europe right now who is hotter than De Zerbi. Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel are the coaches at the top of the tree with trophy cabinets to prove it, but De Zerbi can be the one who leads the next wave of elite coaches.