After a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham in his first home game as Brighton manager, Roberto De Zerbi faces a challenging start to his career by the coast, but what did the loss tell us about how he compares to his hugely influential predecessor?

Graham Potter led a massive footballing and cultural revolution at Brighton. In his 3 years, he rebuilt the Seagulls from relegation favourites, and created a top 10 side, even giving fans dizzying aspirations of European nights. However, following Potter’s departure, Roberto De Zerbi has been deemed the man who can best develop an already fast-developing club. To further his predecessor’s work, whilst adding his own personality, is seemingly the biggest test for the man who was quick to declare that ‘Potter has worked very well – but I’m not Potter’.

De Zerbi’s first game at the Amex immediately gave an idea of how his footballing philosophy will build upon Potter’s. Faced with a Spurs team still growing under his fellow countryman, Antonio Conte, De Zerbi started unchanged from his impressive draw at Anfield. This consistent starting XI, featuring personnel regularly used by Potter, is the first sign of similarity between the two. It suggests that both managers appreciate similar qualities in players- technique, composure and the ability to possess and move the ball- qualities that show how close their passing styles of football are.

As the game progressed, however, De Zerbi’s style appeared to be even more committed to short passing and playing out from the back than Potter’s. The first few phases of the game saw goalkeeper Robert Sanchez often taking possession of the ball with Harry Kane pressing less than 10 yards from him, and playing the ball to one of his 3 central defenders, who were also frequently inside the 18-yard box. This often brought about the anxiety of some Brighton fans, but clearly evidenced De Zerbi’s philosophy. Italian football expert James Horncastle has said that ‘[De Zerbi] will not go long, if needed, he will double down, he will look to play through, because he believes that inviting teams onto you and playing through them gives you the possibility to have numerical superiority further up the pitch.’ This commitment differs to ‘Potterball’, which occasionally featured longer passes to quickly find space in other areas of the pitch, a tactic, for example, used in their 2-1 win at Old Trafford in August.

Throughout the game, De Zerbi’s commitment to this short passing football continued further up the pitch, with his team often playing quick, one touch football, passing the ball into the feet of players who then ‘bounced’ it back. Adam Lallana’s 82nd minute introduction to the game seemed to give Brighton an extra spark, as he turned these ‘bounce’ passes into receipts on the half-turn, to then pass forward, especially between the deep, compact defensive lines formed by Conte’s team.

Lallana’s substitution may have answered a question that many Brighton fans were asking. How adaptable is Roberto De Zerbi? Can a man so committed to his footballing ideas react to the opposition and change accordingly when needed? The change saw Solly March slide back into the left of a 4-man defence to create a 4-2-3-1 with Lallana in the number 10 role. This shows De Zerbi’s ability to be pragmatic, similarly something that Potter showed, often being reactive and adapting to the opposition.

The game saw Brighton frustrated by a deep-lying Tottenham, happy to absorb pressure from Brighton, who couldn’t find a way through the congestion. Despite this, there were clear and frequent signs that De Zerbi’s style, whilst very similar to Potter’s, is unique and will take the squad time to fully express it. If De Zerbi’s tenure is a success, after time, Brighton fans will undoubtedly come to adore watching this new style of football, whilst fondly recognising shades of what Potter grew before.

The game felt as though the type of meeting in which the team with more personality and drive could take control and win, if they put their minds to it. This could be something that De Zerbi prioritises as a part of his football team far more than his predecessor did.

Roberto De Zerbi’s character and personality is perhaps the biggest difference between him and Potter. Football journalist Guillem Balague has said that De Zerbi ‘is 5ft 10in but when he walks into a room it is like he is 6ft 5in – he looks bigger, he has aura and a great personality’. Arguably, through interviews and statements, De Zerbi has shown more of his character and personality in 3 weeks than Graham Potter did in 3 years. This is no slight on Potter, who preferred to avoid controversy by offering the press very little to work with, communicating in a very practical and coy fashion. But perhaps De Zerbi’s biggest influence on Brighton players will be the importance he places on personality and passion in football.

This difference in the extent to which the two express their character is something that will likely be reflected in the football of each coach. Where Potter’s football seemed to be extremely practical and based on the process, De Zerbi’s Brighton may come to play the game with more passion. Whether this will be to the Seagulls’ advantage is yet to be seen, but it will surely please fans to see their players show even a fraction of the desire and intensity that De Zerbi does. Balague has said that the Italian ‘lives through emotion…he doesn’t want robots’, suggesting players will have to match their manager’s fervour to get the most out of his system.

Another example of his personality and his passionate love for football came when De Zerbi ended a press conference early to go and watch Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds play. Graham Potter’s press conferences were far less eventful. De Zerbi will no doubt speak his mind, giving honest opinions and perhaps raising the eyebrows of a press box and fan base used to Graham Potter’s safe, ‘corporate’ responses. Brighton fans will be hoping that their new manager is equipped to deal with the British media, a famously difficult but important part of the job.

In these early stages of the new era at the Amex, the biggest difference between the two managers seems to be their contrasting personalities and the extent to which they express them to the public. The effect this has on the football the Seagulls play is yet to be fully seen, but will no doubt be fascinating.

Regardless of any of these similarities or differences, one of the biggest comforts to Brighton fans surrounding their new manager will be the influence and backing of Chairman Tony Bloom and his board. 

This backing is something Potter benefited greatly from, having set a club record for 14 home games without a win earlier in his tenure. This suggests that De Zerbi has something incredibly valuable in his bid for success: time. As Potter took 3 years to grow the squad to the level it is at now, De Zerbi will also have time to instil his footballing philosophies, grow the personalities of his players, and perhaps even, as transfer windows come and go, work towards building his own squad.

De Zerbi will inevitably have the same support and belief with him that Potter had, something that he may not have found at other clubs and surely something he will appreciate.

Through a nurturing and growing of already-sewn seeds, Roberto De Zerbi will not just continue Potter’s work but further it, developing his similar but unique tactical influence and ensuring his players play with fervent passion and personality. Perhaps, over time, this will give them the edge on their trajectory to European nights and beyond.

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