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Brighton’s trip to Roma a chance for Roberto De Zerbi to show he is still a coach on the rise

Roberto De Zerbi cheers on his players
Brighton's season has been consistently undermined by injury issues - Reuters/Dylan Martinez

The first European campaign in Brighton’s history was never going to be a straightforward one, given the demands it would inevitably place on Roberto De Zerbi’s squad. The Italian still had big plans for the season, though, and he carries with him a sense of disappointment that Brighton have not been able to kick on from last year.

“Before the season started, I thought we could compete in a different way,” De Zerbi said at the weekend, after his side had lost 3-0 at Fulham. “But now I am wasting time if I speak about it. I am disappointed but it is not important now.”

This week De Zerbi returns to Italy, his home country, for an enormous occasion in Brighton’s history: a knockout tie against Roma in the Europa League. For Brighton’s fans, it is yet another pinch-yourself moment. For De Zerbi, it is an opportunity to keep alive his hope that this campaign might yet become another one of meaningful progress.

After 27 games of the Premier League season, Brighton are ninth in the table. It is by no means a bad position for a club of their stature and history but, for a man as ambitious as De Zerbi, it is below expectations. De Zerbi wanted more.

When compared to this time last year, the extent of Brighton’s stagnation is obvious. They began 2023 with a run of just one defeat in 15 matches. In 2024, they have lost four of 11 matches.

Especially frustrating for Brighton and their head coach is the fact that they have been consistently undermined by injury issues this season. Brighton are not used to juggling Premier League football with European commitments and the task has been made much more difficult because of the amount of key players that have been missing.

Kaoru Mitoma, Solly March, Ansu Fati, Julio Enciso, Joao Pedro, Danny Welbeck, Simon Adingra, Jack Hinshelwood, James Milner, Joel Veltman, Adam Webster, Tariq Lamptey and Pervis Estupinan have all suffered significant injuries at various points of this season. There are 26 senior players in the Brighton squad, and half of them have had long-term injuries.

Up front, the absences of Mitoma, March and Enciso have prevented Brighton from attacking in the way that De Zerbi wants. The Italian has had to rotate heavily to protect players and to compensate for all these injuries, and he is currently doing so at a record rate.

Kaoru Mitoma is fouled by Mason Holgate
The absence of Kaoru Mitoma (right) is a body-blow to Brighton - Getty Images/James Gill

So far this season, Brighton have made 103 changes to their starting line-up in the Premier League – at least 28 more changes than any other side. That is an average of 3.81 changes per game, which is the highest of any team in Premier League history. Last season, by contrast, De Zerbi made the seventh most changes to his team.

Has De Zerbi’s own reputation been damaged by Brighton’s drop-off this season? Probably not, given the style of football he has imposed on the south coast and the glowing way in which his players, and indeed his rival managers, speak about him. Pep Guardiola recently described the Italian as “one of the most influential managers of the last 20 years”.

But, as vacancies open up at Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona (and perhaps others) this summer, it would be fair to ask whether he is quite as attractive a candidate as he was a few months ago. Especially when one considers how expensive it would be to remove him from Brighton – Telegraph Sport reported this week that the compensation costs would be upwards of £12 million.

To be clear, De Zerbi is still regarded as one of Europe’s brightest up-and-comers. And the same is true of Brighton as a club, even if this season has been more patchy than planned. A trip to Rome is a chance for both coach and club to remind the rest of the footballing world that they are still on the rise.

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