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Friday, June 14, 2024

Roberto De Zerbi wanted to join the best — then they overlooked him

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Football

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It may not be the prize Burnley goalkeeper Arijanet Muric wanted but he should have something to show for his season. Sadly for him, it was Brighton’s goal-of-the-month award for April – by default: Muric’s inability to control a tame back pass at Turf Moor was Albion’s only goal in April. And that, it is safe to say, looked unlikely when Roberto De Zerbi’s buccaneers finished as the Premier League’s fourth-highest scorers last season, or when they reached the October international break with the most goals in the division. Now they have the second-fewest in 2024. And De Zerbi will depart on Sunday, after Brighton’s final game of the season against Manchester United, with both club and manager agreeing to part ways.

Then again, a week of European semi-finals offers an illustration of how things have gone wrong for De Zerbi. These sort of games, it seemed, would be his destiny next season: the only question was whether it would be with Liverpool or Barcelona or Bayern Munich or someone else. Perhaps it would have been a new addition to Brighton’s fixture list this season. Instead, with Albion out of Europe, and at risk of finishing in the lower half of the Premier League, De Zerbi may have a longer wait to feature in the biggest club competitions in European football.

And if there are worse fates, if it is an exaggeration to say he has a reputation to rebuild, for some there may be hubristic element to De Zerbi’s fall. It may only be temporary, given his relative youth, his considerable talents as a coach and the ambition of his tactical blueprint. But a different type of ambition seems to have backfired: like Ruben Amorim, another rising star of the next generation, he gave the impression he had outgrown his current employers, that he deserved better.

Arguably, that can be a problem with the identity Brighton have forged, presenting themselves as a stepping stone and then have a manager too eager to take the next step, De Zerbi has to combat the impression he got ahead of himself. And, more pragmatically, to get the results to suggest he merits a promotion. Compliments from Pep Guardiola can only take a manager so far when, since the October international break, only the bottom four have acquired fewer points. Brighton’s wins can be emphatic and impressive; the issue is that they are too infrequent. The elite clubs could be alienated by the chastening nature of some his setbacks, whether losing 3-0 at Bournemouth or 4-0 at Luton. Or, indeed, by a willingness to criticise his employers.

“Today we paid for our mistakes, from the owner to the coach and the players,” he said after the 4-0 thrashing by Roma. It was undiplomatic, even if it invited the question whether Albion’s slide is primarily the fault of De Zerbi, owner Tony Bloom or circumstances. A host of injuries – those to Kaoru Mitoma, Solly March and Pervis Estupinan, who gave Brighton so much of their threat from the flanks, perhaps the most significant – and the fatigue caused by their maiden European campaign are mitigating circumstances.

The hole at the heart of the team owes less to misfortune. Brighton failed to properly replace Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister, with Carlos Baleba gifted but raw and Mo Dahoud gone already, and De Zerbi has a weaker starting 11 than last season. Equally, Ansu Fati was his signing and has failed. The Barcelona loanee apart, the Brighton model is to unearth the emerging, not to spend big on established talent, and De Zerbi ought to have realised that; Jurgen Klopp is an example of a manager of a major club who is astute enough not to publicly call for signings and not merely because it can seem to undermine the players he already has.

Pep Guardiola is among De Zerbi’s admirers (Getty Images)

And there is also De Zerbi’s culpability for underachievement, whether a wretched away record or a lack of goals. The erratic team selections can form part of a persona that leads to accusations he is being too clever by half: forever switching his goalkeeper is a strategy few others adopt. A policy of baiting opponents to press them so they can pass out from the back can be devastatingly effective, but some of Brighton’s attempts have gone beyond principle and into the realms of silliness. Meanwhile, Brighton’s recent demoralised feel seems to reflect his defeatist mood. There is a danger that they slip down to as low as 13th, should they lose to United on Sunday and results go against them elsewhere. There will be no return trip to Europe.

Which invites questions if De Zerbi will look disgruntled again, if he can reconcile himself to reinvigorating Brighton. Even as he has missed out on some high-profile jobs, there will be a huge shake-up in Serie A this summer, with potential or definitive vacancies at AC Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Juventus and perhaps Bologna. It seems that Brighton may well have had enough of the drama and the despondency, that the risk in his football is allied with a risk in keeping him. Chief executive Paul Barber has described the Italian as one of the world’s best managers. Maybe De Zerbi believed that, too. Yet if the world’s biggest clubs overlook him, as seems likely, then De Zerbi will have to reflect on the lessons of a season gone wrong. Bayern Munich could well grow impatient after being snubbed by several managers and offer De Zerbi a lifeline at the top of the game, but if results have indeed cost him his big move, then his own approach might have also counted against him.

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