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Roberto De Zerbi's Brighton tactics explained: Provoking the opposition press by becoming the possession kings

With insight from Brighton’s players, we look at how Roberto De Zerbi has doubled down on possession football and ‘provoked the opposition press’ to turn his team into one of the best in the Premier League – and maybe even better since Graham Potter left

Roberto De Zerbi has added his own ideas to the Brighton success story
Image: Roberto De Zerbi has added his own ideas to the Brighton success story

When Roberto De Zerbi arrived at Brighton in September, he was joining a team on a high. It was suggested that Graham Potter may have taken them as far as anyone could. Such has been the Italian’s impact since then, Brighton might actually be better now.

It is six wins in nine games in all competitions since Christmas. The Seagulls are soaring in the Premier League, on course for European qualification and the highest finish in the club's history, while also beating Liverpool to progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

But De Zerbi's influence is not just about the results achieved but the manner in which his team are achieving them. Brighton have long been able to play a passing game. Now, total domination of the football is becoming the norm. The numbers are startling.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brighton's controversial draw with Crystal Palace

Their recent game against Crystal Palace was the fifth time that they had enjoyed over 70 per cent of possession since De Zerbi took over. In that time, Manchester City have done it four times. The rest of the Premier League have done it five times between them.

Pep Guardiola had predicted this. "His impact in England will be massive in the future," he said upon De Zerbi's appointment. Mikel Arteta is a fan. "He is someone I have followed." Jurgen Klopp described him as "very influential" before expanding further.

"Pushing through your ideas by changing what probably everyone at Brighton thought had worked out pretty well and still putting on your stamp is a really good job he did. You see the difference. They played Potter-ball. Now they play De Zerbi-ball."

The styles are not so different. That was the whole idea, the reason why Brighton chief executive Paul Barber spoke of the new man being a cultural and technical fit. De Zerbi himself had noted the similarities between Potter's approach and his own ideas.

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Any shift was supposed to be subtle. The emphasis is still on possession. "We have got the players to do that," Alexis Mac Allister tells Sky Sports. "Roberto came here because he knew that he had the right players to be able to play the idea that he wants to play."

De Zerbi continued with a back three initially, a nod to the success Potter was enjoying, and still dabbles with that formation, despite favouring his own 4-2-3-1 system. The movements remain fluid. No team in the Premier League has scored more goals from midfield.

"I can't tell you too many secrets but you can see it in the way we are playing. Everyone is enjoying their football and long may it continue," Tariq Lamptey tells Sky Sports. "We have similar ideas to under the previous gaffer. It is just a case of building on them a bit."

Mac Allister also draws comparisons between the two coaches. "I think they are similar managers because both want to have possession of the ball and press high," he adds. There was a perfect example of that for the opener in the 3-0 dismantling of Liverpool.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brighton’s 3-0 win against Liverpool in the Premier League

Evan Ferguson pressed Joel Matip and Mac Allister was there to nip in ahead of Jordan Henderson. Seven touches later, from four different Brighton players, and the ball was in the back of Alisson's net. It was slick and it was swift, far too good for Liverpool.

Brighton rank third in the Premier League since De Zerbi took over for high turnovers ending in a shot. They are still a pressing team. But it is not the key aspect of his football. He has even called pressing a gamble. He prefers to encourage it from the opposition.

"Yes," says Mac Allister. "He tries to attract them."

Provoking the press is the hallmark of De Zerbi's approach. It demands players be comfortable on the ball in their own half because he is happy to draw the opposition there. Back off and Brighton dominate. Become sucked in and Brighton play through.

"The possession always depends on the opponents' pressure," De Zerbi once explained. "The tougher the pressure, the more vertical further development. The less opposing pressure, the greater our control of the match and possession of the ball will be."

Without that pressure, Brighton can appear passive. But it is all part of the art of provocation. When the spaces do appear, they play forwards - and quickly. Watch the second goal against Liverpool. Pervis Estupinan to Ferguson to Solly March. Goal.

"Roberto likes more the idea of building up from the back and you can see that in our games," explains Mac Allister. "He loves to have the possession and then when we can find our wing-backs and our strikers we can try to be direct and score."

Sanchez's passing

Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez has directed 74.4 per cent of his passes inside his own half this season compared to 64.5 per cent last season.

By drawing the opposition onto them, Brighton can isolate defenders. That is the point of all that passing. Once in one-on-one situations, De Zerbi encourages more expression. It becomes more about the ability of the individual and that means more freedom.

"Everyone knows what we have to do in our position and he expects different things from each position," says Lamptey. "He gives you enough information to choose the right decision for you. That is good as a player. You can see which decision fits."

The statistics tell the tale.

Since De Zerbi's appointment, Brighton rank second behind Manchester City for the number of sequences of 10 or more passes from open play. They also rank second behind the champions for such sequences that end in a shot or a touch inside the box.

However, in terms of the efficiency of converting these pass sequences of 10 passes or more into sequences that end in a shot or touch inside the box, Brighton are even more effective than City. In fact, only Premier League leaders Arsenal are better at it.

This is important. It shows that Brighton's build-up play works.

Under De Zerbi, they make more progress towards the opposition goal per sequence and play with more width per sequence. An elite team without an elite budget, only the top three in the Premier League complete more passes in the final third of the pitch.

No team makes more lay-off passes - defined as a one-touch first-time pass away from goal when there is pressure on the passer. The third goal against Everton featured just such a pass. The opposition were provoked. Brighton played through.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Brighton's 4-1 away win over Everton in the Premier League

Clearly, there is buy in from the players.

"He definitely gets you motivated for the games," says Lamptey. "He gives you the confidence to go out and play because he has given us the tools in the week on the training pitch. He gives us all the information that we need to go out and get a result."

De Zerbi has the personality to put his ideas across.

"He is intense, he is passionate, but he is a really nice guy," adds Mac Allister. And those ideas are impressing everyone.

"From the very beginning, we knew that his idea was amazing. We are really enjoying playing how he wants us to play."

They are not alone.

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