Black shirt, white socks, white shoes, black hair. This week marked the one-year anniversary of the arrival of Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton & Hove Albion, tactical tyro, disruptor of the Premier League overclass, fever pitch influencer, and all-round south-coast ace face.
This last bit comes from the clothing retailer Jacamo, which posted an urgent press release in midweek detailing a dramatic rise in sales “inspired by De Zerbi’s suave sideline style”. Black crew-neck jumpers are up 116%, white trainers 55%, black slim-fit stretch jeans 15%! De Zerbi wears a black jumper, white shoes and tight black trousers. He’s like the Strokes, if the Strokes were football managers. Either that or it’s now autumn.
De Zerbi looks good with it too: the insolent charisma, the tender but piercing eyes, good hair, good beard, a look that feels part Renaissance frieze depiction of Beelzebub, part artisan cupcake entrepreneur at an elite urban food quarter.
But this is of course about substance, and right now De Zerbi is probably the most interesting person in elite-level English football. Pep Guardiola is a fan. The AEK Athens manager, Matías Almeyda, described Brighton’s football as the most beautiful in the world. The way they play feels significant, disorientating, off the beat. So what exactly are they doing? And why does it seem to matter?
Trying to explain this often involves the use of complex abstract language. Phrases like “matador football” have been used. The internet has a great many videos decorated with blobs and squiggles with a droning robot voice saying things like “in this slide the third central pivot pins the retreating block into a wedged atonal transition”.
In simpler terms the basic movement involves drawing your opponent back towards your own goal. De Zerbi knows that most teams will respond with an attacking press. This is seen in turn as an opening, a code to be hacked, a place to wait while your opponent blinks first and leaves a gap. To make this work Brighton have players at the back who are supremely comfortable on the ball, two deep midfield pivots and the best dribbler in the league to drive those swift breaks. So deep possession play becomes not a shield but a sword, your own retreat across the Russian steppes, weakening the enemy’s lines of supply, tugging apart the stitching behind.
Just as significant is the way this feels, the textural change that Brighton embody, a profound shift in the place where football now happens. This is football’s great leap backwards, a journey felt most simply in the angle of the neck.
Historically there have been three broad stages to this. The first one, football that happened for most of the last century, was played in the attacking zone of the team in possession. The ball tended to travel forward, passes lofted into the channels or the centre. The neck could be confidently angled that way.
The rise of possession football required a rotation of the neck to the centre of the pitch. Elite-level football became, for a few intense years, a game of opposed midfields, intricate planes of central passing. It could be deathly. Spain 2010 were a form of frictionless perfection, but also, at times, a bit like watching the final stages of the world competitive knitting championships.
A key consequence was the use of drilled team pressing to combat this. In turn the best possession-based teams dropped deeper, refusing to be cowed, finding other spaces to keep the ball. English football was changed profoundly by Guardiola’s insistence that his Manchester City team would not stop passing the ball out even during an up-and-down first season, that it was more dangerous to kick it away and cede possession, which at the time really did seem like a revolutionary insight.
Others mimicked the tactic. And so the neck craned even more that way, into the spaces where elite club football tends to happen now. This season seven of the Premier League’s top 10 passers are defenders. Last season nine goalkeepers made more than 1,000 passes (10 years ago that figure was zero). Short deep passes are up. Sustained periods of possession are up. The top five possession teams in the Premier League are ticking along at an average of 65%. Ten years ago this was 55%. How’s that neck feeling?
On the face of it this is all good. Elite club football has never been so dizzyingly high grade, so free from the old confused periods of not much happening. But it is still true that the spectacle has shifted, unannounced, that it has a different emotional resonance, has become football of the spleen, the colon.
Watch any top-level game and you’re basically going to spend a lot of time looking at people fiddling around in that box in front of the defending team’s goal, a whirl of half-turn bounce passes and minutely engineered attempts to “pin” an opposition shape. An intensely complex system of interplay and tempo shifts is deployed, incredible work done, just to move 30 yards upfield and into the centre circle.
Brighton’s version continues to work beautifully because it is De Zerbi’s baby, because they have wonderful players tailored to the system, and because it seems to speak to a joined-up vision that runs through every part of the club.
Dutch-Catalan possession play, German pressing and Pep-mimesis led us here, to a super-smart model where everything feels like a kind of hack. From the panicky short-termism of big club recruitment, to the pressing plans of other mangers, Brighton always seem to be playing on patterns of behaviour, finding the mark in the room.
No doubt other teams will adapt, refuse to stride on into those spaces, as West Ham and AEK already have this season. For now it feels like a moment of beautiful synchronicity, a high-wire act, perhaps even the end point of something.
There is no deeper space in which to retreat, no further twists in the neck, no more give inside those tight black tactical slacks. For all the joy of Brighton’s football there is also a note of caution in the fact it takes such sustained coherence to infiltrate the elite; a mark of just how rare a feat it is to beat the bank.