Advertisement

Chelsea next manager truth explained as brutal Roberto De Zerbi reality clear before appointment

Roberto De Zerbi
-Credit: (Image: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)


Just over 12 months ago Chelsea were linked with Roberto De Zerbi as a possible option to replace Graham Potter. The Brighton narrative was sky-high after moves for Marc Cucurella and Paul Winstanley as well as interest in Moises Caicedo and Evan Ferguson. He was subsequently not considered for the job that Mauricio Pochettino went on to get after an 'exhaustive process' to identify and hire him.

It came after De Zerbi won nine of his first 22 league games in charge, drawing another six and losing just seven. For a side that had seen their plans ripped apart, plunged into mid-season chaos with the exit of Leandro Trossard and Caicedo attracting suitors, it had been a strong start.

At the time his methods were all the rage. Brighton's attacking and flexible football under Potter had gone to new levels as De Zerbi ripped through sides and took dangerous ball-playing to different levels.

He was engaging with neutrals across the league and went on to reach the FA Cup semi-final, only to lose on penalties to Manchester United. De Zerbi did this all on a small budget compared to those that he was competing against, thriving with a group of young players, beating Chelsea twice in the process, finishing six places higher and also above Tottenham.

It made sense that the decision-makers would be considering his name. Outside of being comical of Chelsa to go after yet another Brighton body, De Zerbi was showing plenty that Stamford Bridge regulars would have liked from their own side.

Back to modern day and his stock has dropped significantly. Since he was ruled out of the running to be Potter's replacement on April 4, 13-and-a-bit months ago, he has lost more matches than he has won (23-24) and the record in the Premier League is stark.

READ MORE: Kieran McKenna has hinted at Chelsea playing style amid Mauricio Pochettino replacement rumours

READ MORE: Inside Chelsea's new manager search amid latest Kieran McKenna update and Thomas Frank twist

Brighton have just 17 victories in their last 49 and finished De Zerbi's first (and eventually only) full year in charge 11th. They conceded 62 goals, won one of the last 10, and only four away from home all season. Between October and May outside of the Amex Stadium it was two wins in 17.

This is not the record of a coach Chelsea would normally be eyeing up. The brief, given the four-man shortlist that Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart are picking from, is clearly about more than results, and the club appear to be admitting as much.

Chelsea want a young manager to play possession-based football. They want excitement and someone to be a part of the structure that has been formed over two years of Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital ownership. In this they see De Zerbi as an ideal fit.

The story of the Italian gives a vastly different impression though. Although certainly geared towards keeping the ball, focusing on short passes to bait a press, springing through the lines, and creating overloads for the wide-men, De Zerbi's Brighton were often reckless.

It only takes a glimpse of their defeat to Manchester City on the south coast earlier this month to witness the pitfalls of the approach. Brighton played relentlessly backwards and inside their own box against a strong press, failing to break through and often handing Pep Guardiola's side chances on a plate.

The defence to this is that the Seagulls have been hit a spate of injuries in the same league as Chelsea's own problems. They lost Caicedo, Levi Colwill, Alexis Mac Allister, and have been without a first-choice XI almost all year.

The issue here is that he failed to compromise and find a way with those available. Is a manager's remit not to get the best of his tools? If so, De Zerbi either failed to find an alternative way of playing to bring success or he misjudged what those he had were capable of.

The failure to adapt does not demonstrate crisis management that has often been needed at Chelsea - something Potter quickly found out - and only invites pressure. Being stubbornly stuck to one style of playing is restrictive in a way that is not admirable or impressive, but actually worryingly rigid.

For De Zerbi, and managers of his ilk favouring circuit training with the grooving of specific patterns from back-to-front with little room for creative player freedom, are often only as good as the tactics they employ. When they go wrong the house of cards falls down.

It seems to be a way of helping a certain level of player to be protected from weaknesses but not a way of scaling up at the very highest level. Is this what Chelsea are after?

The argument for many is that he would be able to improve Chelsea's young players, and the evidence of 2022/23 performances from Caicedo, Pervis Estupinian, Colwill, Ferguson, and others supports this, but often his methods do not empower those to express themselves and find answers. He is mechanical in his demands but it can leave teams looking one-dimensional and naive, as Brighton have at stages.

It is not to say that Chelsea would not look good under him, but the longer-term benefits of De Zerbi are lost when taken out of his management at times. Distances between players are limited which puts a high strain on attackers in unsustainable ways, and by committing men heavily to the build-up phase there is an element of surprise lost in the final third.

This is the risk-reward of De Zerbi. When he is good he can be very good. His skill of improving results and implementing a style quickly have shown, but how this fits in at Chelsea is questionable and unclear.

Roberto De Zerbi
Roberto De Zerbi is one potential option to replace Mauricio Pochettino at Chelsea -Credit:Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

The co-sporting directors are after a figure to align with their ideas, willing to be the coach and not much more. But De Zerbi left Brighton because of disagreements. He spoke out numerous times about transfers and demands that couldn't be met. Tony Bloom and Paul Barber were unable to keep moving forward with him.

It is at this point worth asking just why Chelsea need a new head coach after all. They parted ways amicably with Pochettino. He is one of the least combustible characters in the game, far less so than De Zerbi, and still wasn't the right fit for Winstanley and Stewart.

If the suggestion is that De Zerbi will be the man to align then he will need to tone down some of the very fabric to his being that make him adored by supporters at his best. The fire and spike to his celebration and touchline antics - often things Chelsea fans have taken to in their managers - will get people onside if results go his way, but Chelsea's last heavily automated manager didn't go down like this

It was Maurizio Sarri. Although De Zerbi is certainly more animated than Sarri, some of the fears over systems and tactics, playing style and methods, are all comparable.

What this is to say is that at his peak last year De Zerbi looked an obvious candidate for Chelsea and they went elsewhere in search of a different type of manager. In the meantime, his results do not seem to warrant the interest Chelsea hold.

Even the mitigation and factors going against him at Brighton are not enough with his body of work to show just why Chelsea think of him as the last piece of the jigsaw. If appointed he will have a task to level up his output from 12 months ago at Brighton but the track record of those who have gone before him and asked to do the same thing has not been inspiring.

De Zerbi at this stage in the Chelsea project says more about the club than it does the manager. Neither of these looks particularly strong given recent performances though.