De Zerbi snubs compromises as Brighton’s highwire act pays off

<span>Photograph: Andrew Kearns/CameraSport/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andrew Kearns/CameraSport/Getty Images

As Johan Cruyff pioneered the use of the sweeper keeper with Stanley Menzo at Ajax, he argued that he didn’t care if his side conceded a couple of goals a season from lobs into an empty net with his goalkeeper caught upfield; far more important were the gains made by being able to play a higher offside line, squeezing the play, in the knowledge that Menzo was there to mop up behind. It made it harder for opponents to attack, and meant that Ajax more regularly won the ball back higher up the pitch in dangerous areas.

The problem, said Cruyff, was that football culture was too obsessed with the obvious and with apportioning blame. A goalkeeper being caught out of his goal looked bad and so drew criticism, whereas the incremental gains, which outweighed the small handful of glaring losses, were ignored. It’s not just a football issue. It’s a truism in spread-betting that punters’ fear of occasional big losses means their tendency is to overlook the small regular gains to be made on the other side of the spread.

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Almost four decades on, it feels as though the polarities have flipped in football. Playing high is so essential to modern goalkeeping that David de Gea remains without a club, left behind by the game at the age of 33, despite his obvious shot‑stopping capability. The majority of elite sides pass out from the back, almost inviting pressure to try to create space further up the pitch. Provoking the press is a conscious part of Roberto De Zerbi’s football.

The former Argentina striker Jorge Valdano was exaggerating to make a point when he observed in his column in El País that these days teams are more prepared to take risks in their own box than the opponents’, but not extravagantly so. Data tells us that long-range shots (Pervis Estupiñan may be exempt, or maybe it was just the space he was afforded that made his 25-yard drive into the top corner worth taking on) or moments of improvised flamboyance are bad but that passing out from the back is worth the gamble. The result is not merely significant numbers of goals conceded from the loss of possession playing out from the goalkeeper or a goal-kick, but also a surprisingly phlegmatic response. Only the old-schoolest of old‑school football men still rail against such things; De Zerbi is to them as Richard Arkwright was to the hand-weavers of Derbyshire.

And yet, are the dinosaurs entirely wrong? No side has made more errors leading to a goal than Brighton this season. Their 2-2 draw against Liverpool, for instance, was shaped by four errors, all of them induced. The term “error” starts to feel misleading; it implies a negative when in fact what is happening is intelligence of pressing, possession being won by the attacking side rather than lost by the side playing out. Watching that match, it felt as though the game’s entire semiology had fallen behind what was actually going on.

But still, as Brighton’s league form has declined, the brilliance of late summer and early autumn dwindling to a run of two wins in 12 games before this one, it’s been hard not to wonder whether a slightly more conservative approach – fewer goals given away, an actual clean sheet (their last came at Arsenal in May, five games before the end of last season) – might yield better results.

Then again, it’s never easy for clubs of Brighton’s stature to cope with the twin demands of the Premier League and Europe. Add in the lengthy injury list (itself perhaps partly the result of the packed schedule), and it’s perhaps not a surprise. If that is a result of prioritising the Europa League, it seems an entirely reasonable one: beating teams such as Marseille and Ajax, even if they are not great iterations of those sides, will live in the historical consciousness of the club and their fans far longer than run‑of‑the‑mill Premier League fixtures.

And the flip side of the glitches is performances such as the first half here. Open at the back they may have been at times, and there were misplaced passes from Pascal Gross and Billy Gilmour that threatened to cost a goal even before Lewis Dunk was caught in possession before Spurs’ first goal but, at the other end, they were thrillingly quick and direct. João Pedro’s running, rangy and targeted, was a joy. Danny Welbeck is a wise old campaigner these days, good in the air and adept at finding space. And Facundo Buonanotte is yet another member of Brighton’s phalanx of brilliant 19‑year‑olds, rapid, enthusiastic and terrifyingly adept at pressing. By half-time, poor Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had the air of a game septuagenarian struggling to keep up with his tearaway grandkids.

Whether they have the balance of risk and reward quite right can be debated but, high as the risks sometimes are, the rewards can be magnificent.