Hitting it “at a good height for the goalkeeper” is passé. In 2022-23 the fashionable way to miss a penalty is to miss the target altogether. Everyone is doing it – Harry Kane, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Mo Salah, Bukayo Saka, Erling Haaland ... and now Solly March. The Brighton winger’s unfortunate miss in the seventh round of penalties sent Manchester United to the FA Cup final. That Brighton, whose wage bill is barely a quarter of United’s, felt robbed to have lost in a shoot-out is testament to the sensational quality of the season they have produced.
When Roberto de Zerbi replaced Graham Potter at Brighton last September, Graeme Souness hit him with an early reducer on TalkSport. “They said he impressed with his knowledge of Brighton, what they’ve done and the way they attempt to play. He could’ve got that off Google, most of it. He’s gone for an interview, so he spends a couple of hours on the internet, gets as much information as he possibly can. That’s not the work of a genius.” It was as solid an Our Leaguing as any new import to English football has received.
De Zerbi would not deny that learning from others – maybe even via Google – is a part of his story, but it’s not the full story. “Coaches are all thieves, but we have to have one new idea,” he says. These days he only gets good reviews. A particularly glowing one came from an unexpected source after Ireland beat Latvia in March. Stephen Kenny – in the course of explaining how Evan Ferguson’s role for Ireland differed from his role at Brighton – ended up rhapsodising about de Zerbi’s novel 4-2-4.
“I haven’t seen anyone coach that system before,” Kenny said. “That’s new to me. It’s 4-2-4, the two centre-forwards sit in either side of the 6, and the wingers are higher than the centre-forwards. So both centre forwards go either side of the 6, just stand there, the wingers go that way, so the center backs have to pick them up, the forwards can get the ball in space in midfield, lay it to overlapping full-backs and get in the box. Other teams haven’t worked them out at all. It’s a genuinely new way of playing.”
In the 31st minute at Wembley Brighton gave a demonstration of what Kenny was talking about. Brighton had a goal kick, with the team set up as the Ireland manager had described – two centre backs inside the box, two central midfielders just outside, two strikers ahead of them in midfield, two full-backs out wide on the touchline and the two wingers the furthest players forward.
The following choreographed sequence of passes unfolded: goalkeeper Robert Sanchez short to centre back Adam Webster, quickly out wide to left-back Pervis Estupiñan, back inside to Danny Welbeck in central midfield, and again quickly forward to the winger, Kaoru Mitoma, accelerating towards the box. Aaron Wan-Bissaka managed to tackle Mitoma as he ran along the edge of United’s penalty area but Julio Enciso arrived to shoot powerfully just wide of the far post. United hardly knew what was happening to them at any point in the move. You could glimpse a developing idea of football as a series of set pieces in open play – successive flurries of preprogrammed moves, rather than the continuous flow or “battle” it used to be.
What De Zerbi is doing has caught the attention of Pep Guardiola. “We’ve an Italian coach in Premier League, De Zerbi. He’s changing many things in English football. He’s producing wonderful football. People said you can’t play the ball out from defence in the Premier League. But he’s doing that, and incredibly well.”
Nobody actually says that you can’t play the ball out from defence in the Premier League any more, at least not since Guardiola’s team started winning the title nearly every year. But De Zerbi’s team plays the ball out from defence in a quite particular way.
If you want a snapshot of how much the game at the top level has changed, watch Brighton’s center backs Webster and Lewis Dunk loiter in possession, sometimes literally putting their foot on the ball as they wait for an opponent to close them down before playing their passes. It’s not that there’s anything new about drawing in opponents before releasing the ball to team-mates in space – that in a sense is what football is all about – the difference is the areas in which these players are doing it, right in front of their own goal. What would have seemed insane even 10 years ago is what coaches such as De Zerbi now demand.
The team doesn’t take these risks just because De Zerbi likes dancing with death. This kind of build-up is a response to an earlier development that had changed the game. De Zerbi was still a player when Jürgen Klopp was winning successive Bundesliga titles with Dortmund with a new high-pressing style that nobody could get to grips with. Teams that got stormed by high-energy counterpressing would come off the field saying it felt like their opponents were playing with 15 men.
But that was more than a decade ago. De Zerbi is part of a generation of coaches who have grown up with pressing and have thought hard about how to counter it, how to turn an opponent’s strength in pressing against them. The game of provoking the press is about drawing several opponents into small spaces at the back then releasing your attackers into the big spaces created in behind. In three matches against Klopp’s Liverpool this season, Brighton have won twice, drawn once, and scored eight times.
Potter left De Zerbi a useful team to work with, but he has transformed them. Guardiola’s analysis: “Always Brighton have been aggressive since Graham Potter ... [but] in the last years with Potter the build-up was always long ball. Roberto doesn’t do it. Because the holding midfielders are so close, they attract you, they make really well in the pockets, they make good runners and an extra pass in the final third.”
There are certainly plenty of extra passes. Last season under Potter, Brighton averaged 431 passes per Premier League game, completed 500+ passes in 10 games, and completed 600+ once. In 23 league games under De Zerbi they are averaging 542 passes per game, have completed 500+ passes 18 times, and 600+ passes seven times.
To put those numbers in context, Liverpool are averaging 519 completed passes per game this season, league leaders Arsenal 491, and Brighton’s FA Cup conquerors Manchester United 429. Guardiola knows now that if his team wants to win the Treble they’ll have to win a Manchester derby at Wembley. United have history as Treble-wreckers going back to 1977. But Brighton would have given City a harder game.