Would Roberto De Zerbi be the right kind of manager for Liverpool? – The Athletic

By Simon Hughes, Andy Jones and moreMar 31, 2024

Today, Roberto De Zerbi will take his place in the manager’s dugout at Anfield.

He will do so as head coach of Brighton & Hove Albion, Liverpool’s visitors in a key match in the Premier League title run-in, yet when Jurgen Klopp’s departure from Merseyside was revealed in January, plenty wondered if he would take up permanent occupancy at Anfield.

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The news that Xabi Alonso — who had been the early frontrunner to be Klopp’s successor — is staying with Bayer Leverkusen duly prompted a fresh wave of speculation on Thursday. 

De Zerbi’s record might suggest he should be part of the conversation. He led Brighton to European football for the first time last season, having previously impressed at Sassuolo and Shakhtar Donetsk, and has made a habit of toppling elite Premier League opponents. The fact that he is unbeaten in four games against Liverpool is a testament to that.

His comments yesterday about wanting to know more about Brighton’s “plan” before committing his future to the club also suggests De Zerbi — who has also been linked with Bayern Munich — may be considering his options. 

As The Athletic reported at the time, De Zerbi scored highly on the data produced by Liverpool’s analysts as they searched for Klopp’s replacement. Yet he was also deemed unlikely to make Liverpool’s final shortlist. 

But why?

True, Brighton’s form in 2024 has been erratic. In the last couple of months, they have been eliminated from the Europa League and FA Cup, and suffered heavy defeats at Luton Town and Fulham, while also recording resounding victories over Crystal Palace and Sheffield United.

Over a longer period, though, the results De Zerbi has produced since arriving at Brighton, along with the style he’s implemented, might ordinarily make him one of the contenders for the Liverpool job.

The involvement of Richard Hughes, Liverpool’s newly appointed sporting director, in the hiring process would surely help any claim he might have. In his previous role at Bournemouth, Hughes would have hired De Zerbi after he left Shakhtar Donetsk, only for a change of ownership to shift Bournemouth’s priorities.

Hughes is a big admirer of De Zerbi, and the Italian has the self-belief and powerful personality that would not have him fearing the prospect of following a manager as powerful as Klopp.

Yet that spiky, confrontational style, illustrated again yesterday but which has been particularly prevalent when it comes to player recruitment, could also be one of the factors counting against De Zerbi when it comes to bigger clubs appointing him. 

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There was a moment — after Brighton had lost 4-0 to Roma at the Olympic Stadium in March — which illustrates the potential problem.

Having been asked to explain the heavy nature of the defeat, De Zerbi replied: “Today, we paid for our mistakes. From the owners, to the coaches, to the players.”

It was a short statement, but one of potential significance given the supposed interest in him elsewhere.

The businessman who runs Brighton, Tony Bloom, has been credited for a strategy in the Premier League of buying relatively cheap and selling big.

Brighton has debt, much of which is owed to Bloom — though he is largely viewed as the stable hand behind a smaller club that has enjoyed an upward trajectory since he became chairman 15 years ago.

Roberto De Zerbi has had a more challenging second season at Brighton (Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

Yet here was De Zerbi, targeting the person who appointed him in the summer of 2022, without detailing exactly what his problem was — although he had hinted at frustrations over the club’s transfer policy around signing midfield reinforcements a month earlier. “I spoke with the club, but they decided a different way,” he said.

A crushing loss in his home country will have hurt De Zerbi’s pride — which, in keeping with many other managers, is not inconsiderable. It is possible that he would have seen the experience in Roma’s team and wanted a bit of that for himself.

Perhaps it is understandable if he feels that Brighton need to keep hold of their best players, recruiting more often those who are a bit further along in their progression. Targeting Bloom in public, however, will surely have been noted by other owners.

Restrictions do not just impact clubs with a lower profile. At Liverpool, a manager as powerful as Klopp has not always got what he wanted. Klopp, however, has never criticised Fenway Sports Group for their careful approach in the transfer market, which is comparable to Brighton’s, albeit on a bigger scale.

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It underlines why De Zerbi’s combustible character — also evident at some of his previous clubs — may be a hindrance if and when he decides to move on from Brighton.

Simon Hughes, James Pearce, David Ornstein and James Horncastle

Would his football be a good fit?

During his eight years in charge, Klopp’s aggressive style, incorporating electric attacking play and intense high pressing, has become ingrained in Liverpool’s culture.

Whoever arrives as the new manager should be tasked with following a similar framework. It is difficult to see how a defensive-minded coach could arrive and overhaul a risk-taking side into a risk-averse one — even if the results were just as effective.

Winning is the most important ingredient to keeping supporters happy, but Klopp’s teams have done it in a thrilling manner. It is no surprise that the recurring names linked to the job involve young, innovative managers who are deemed to play the “right way”.

It is not about a replacement trying to be Klopp 2.0, but maintaining key principles — and it is why De Zerbi has been part of the debate around who may take over from the German. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola doesn’t just call anyone “one of the most influential managers of the last 20 years”.

Brighton’s Solly March scores the opening goal against Liverpool in January 2024 (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

From the moment De Zerbi took his place in the dugout as Brighton manager, his unique style has impressed many. Anfield got the first look at it following his appointment in September 2022 and watched on bemused as Brighton swept into an early 2-0 lead, which could have been more.

They played through Liverpool with dynamic passing, clever movement, speed and a flowing control that left Klopp’s side chasing shadows. When Brighton are at their best, the combination play is rhythmic. Passing angles are carefully manufactured and spaces are manipulated and moved into.

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Liverpool are not the only team to suffer against De Zerbi’s style but they remain without a win against the Italian in four games (two defeats and two draws), including the 3-0 defeat in January 2024. It was one of the most comprehensive losses in Klopp’s era to any team not named Manchester City.

Whether it has been passing through the lines, out-to-in runs or focusing their attacks down Liverpool’s right-hand side (as illustrated in the graphic below, which shows where Brighton launched their attacks in that 3-0 win), De Zerbi has repeatedly found ways to cause them problems. 

In the most recent meeting between the teams in October, Brighton also scored from a set piece, an area their record had been poor in previously.

De Zerbi’s possession-based approach, which encourages extended passing sequences, aims to draw the opposition out and then pass vertically through the invited press, cutting teams apart with dynamic attacking play. It does, however, carry risks in their own defensive third. Liverpool’s two goals in the 2-2 draw earlier this season came from high turnovers.

His playing style has many similarities to Klopp’s, highlighted by the fact he has profiled well in Liverpool’s data model. It translates out of possession, too, with De Zerbi committed to a high-intensity, man-to-man pressing system carried out cohesively.

Brighton’s playstyle wheel from last season (the terms are explained in full here) shows they ranked in the 91st percentile across Europe’s top seven leagues in possession, and 93 out of 99 for deep build-up (essentially, the goalkeeper is rarely asked to launch the ball forward). However, their chance-prevention rating of 64 out of 99 was not at the same elite level. 

Nonetheless, De Zerbi builds strong connections with his players, which helps embed his ideas quickly and effectively. Development is another core asset of his, both collectively and individually. Alexis Mac Allister is a prime example.

Tiredness due to European commitments, injury problems and the loss of three key players last summer have meant De Zerbi’s attempts to build on his impressive first season have been difficult.

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After an excellent start, winning five of their first six games, a run of six league wins in their last 22 games underlines their inconsistencies and problems. It has taken some of the shine off the job he is doing but they still sit eighth, two points behind West Ham with a game in hand. That is no mean feat. 

Andy Jones

(Top photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

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