Brighton announced Roberto De Zerbi as the new head coach on Sunday and the Italian brings a track record of aesthetic, possession football with youth development.
The 43-year-old will rank inside the top 100 youngest managers in Premier League history when he takes charge of his first game against Liverpool. He is the 13th Italian head coach / manager in Premier League history and no country has exported more managers to the division.
Despite his relative youth, De Zerbi offers a wealth of experience, having managed over 280 games across his last five clubs, including 120 Serie A games at Sassuolo and more recently Champions League football with Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk.
Roberto De Zerbi at Shakhtar Donetsk:— Albion Analytics (@AlbionAnalytics) September 18, 2022
30 games in charge (6 UCL)
20 wins, 5 draws, 5 losses
Outscored opponents 64-26
13 clean sheets
Won league + Ukrainian Super Cup
The new head coach. 🇮🇹 #BHAFC pic.twitter.com/MNWwWjBUiv
The Italian first gained attention for facilitating a style transformation at Sassuolo. He took over ahead of the 2018/19 season and, as per data analysis from The Athletic, Sassuolo’s possessional play showed the greatest one-season improvement (increase) of any top five European league side of the last five years. Second place was Graham Potter’s Brighton and Hove Albion in 2019/20.
Don’t know how he does it, but @johnspacemuller worked out that only one team across the top 5 leagues in Europe improved possession more than Brighton did in Graham Potter’s first season. #BHAFC— Andy Naylor (@AndyNaylorBHAFC) September 20, 2022
Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo. pic.twitter.com/x2Mehte775
The raw, unmodelled numbers demonstrate the contrast. Sassuolo jumped from a 43% possession average and 73% pass accuracy to 54% and 82% in those figures — relatively, that took them from a bottom two Serie A side, in both metrics, to the top seven. Their number of through balls doubled between the 2017/18 (17) and 2018/19 seasons (34), with the share of long passes dropping by 7% (24.4% down to 17.5%). In his final season, 2020/21, Sassuolo had the highest possession in Serie A (60.8%)
Roberto De Zerbi at Sassuolo:— Albion Analytics (@AlbionAnalytics) September 18, 2022
120 matches across 3 full seasons
43 wins, 36 draws, 41 losses
Outscored opponents 195-187
28 clean sheets
Consecutive 8th placed finishes with +7 and +8 goal differences
The project continues. 🔵#BHAFC pic.twitter.com/QAgnfAyqpp
While De Zerbi makes a point of prioritising what his teams does with the ball, and stresses that they do defending largely through positioning and keeping possession, to overlook his abilities as a defensive and pressing manager would be unjust.
In his final season at Sassuolo they had the second-most final third tackles (105) in the league but overall applied the fewest pressures, though as they average the most possession they were offered the fewest out-of-possession opportunities.
When broken down by pitch zone, they were near the bottom for pressures in the defensive and midfield zones but top five for final third pressures. This is arguably demonstrative of a high-risk, high-reward high-press strategy which may have left them more exposed in deeper positions when the press was broken, but has the capacity to turnover the ball desirably close to the opposition goal.
Sassuolo 20/21 vs Brighton 21/22:— Albion Analytics (@AlbionAnalytics) September 20, 2022
60.8% v 54.7% possession
26.5 v 26.2 yrs avg age
59.2 v 46 xG
64 v 42 goals
+8 v -2 goal difference
62 v 51 points
8th v 9th
54.9 v 45.4 xGA
56 v 44 goals conc
8 v 11 clean sheets
105 v 119 final 1/3 tackles
30.6 v 32.3% press success#BHAFC pic.twitter.com/lSm4fLwKpl
Such a play-style revolution will of course not be necessary at Brighton, who have rightly developed their reputation as an expansive, high-pressing side. Rather than needing to repeat such a project at Brighton, this further reinforces Chairman Tony Bloom’s point about the “exciting and courageous brand of football” played by De Zerbi sides, so the “style and tactical approach will suit our existing squad.”
Of course, footballing success is measured by points and position rather than possession but De Zerbi has delivered here too. He led Sassuolo to consecutive eighth placed finishes in Serie A, their best position across two seasons and only once (sixth in 2015/16) have they finished higher.
More recently with Shakhtar, De Zerbi was on track to lead them to the title, having already won the Ukrainian Super Cup, and boasted one of the best passing sides in the 2021/22 Champions League. Though Shakhtar were eliminated at the group stages, they ranked among the top five sides for passes attempted per game (637). Only Paris-Saint Germain (2.13) successfully completed more through balls each match and Shakhtar actually passed the most accurately of any side (88.9%).
Notably all of his above success was achieved while playing and developing young talent. In three seasons at Sassuolo he handed 24 league debuts to players aged 23 or younger at the time, giving a further three Champions League debuts to such youngsters whilst at Shakhtar. His eighth placed 2020/21 Sassuolo side were the fourth youngest in Serie A (26.5yrs), while his Shakhtar side last season were the third youngest in the Champions League (25.2yrs).