Roberto De Zerbi’s stock has fallen – staying at Brighton is the best way to build it back

Roberto De Zerbi's stock has fallen – staying at Brighton is best way to build it back
Roberto De Zerbi was one of the most coveted coaches in football - Getty Images/Ben Stansall

As Roberto De Zerbi took his seat behind a microphone at the Amex Stadium on Tuesday night, in front of a room full of Brighton supporters, he must have known it was only a matter of time before he was quizzed on his future.

The moment arrived around 30 minutes into the evening, and the question itself — “has the speculation about your future impacted you and your motivation?” — was met with a round of applause from the many fans in the room.

De Zerbi’s response was to pause for a few seconds, take a breath, and then ask a question of his own. “You want the truth?”

The reaction from the room was emphatic. “I am not working for the career,” De Zerbi continued. “I am working to wake up happy in the morning. And if I will be happy in the future in Brighton, there is not one team who can bring me.

“But if I am not happy in the morning — if I don’t feel the motivation to work like last season or this season — it can change, because I am not able to give my best. I think if I am able to give my best I can push the players. Otherwise, it is tough. Because I can’t change my face. If I don’t believe or feel something strong, more than football, more than [a] job, it is tough for me.”

Was it an answer that will reassure those supporters who fear he might leave? Probably not. But that was not the point. De Zerbi’s message was instead that he is not plotting an exit. He is not scheming for a new job. He is not trying to climb the ladder, using Brighton as a rung. It is all so much simpler than that: if De Zerbi is happy, De Zerbi will stay.

The question for Brighton, then, is whether they can keep him happy without straying from their model. Paul Barber, the club’s chief executive, joked at the fans’ forum that “every morning I am taking him cappuccino, croissants, whatever he needs”, but there is a serious point here. De Zerbi is an ambitious man and Brighton’s challenge, from the moment he arrived, has always been to align his short-term desires with the club’s long-term strategy.

At this point in time, Telegraph Sport understands, Brighton’s first-team players have no idea whether their coach will stay or go. Many of them are enamoured of De Zerbi and some of them might even consider their own futures if he is to leave. Brighton must therefore prepare carefully for both scenarios.

Roberto De Zerbi's stock has fallen – staying at Brighton is best way to build it back
Roberto De Zerbi is well liked by his players - Getty Images/Mike Hewitt

Not so long ago, it felt inevitable that a bigger side would make a move for De Zerbi. As winter rolled into spring, vacancies arose at Liverpool, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Gradually, though, those roles are filling up. Arne Slot is heading to Liverpool, Xavi Hernandez is staying at Barcelona and Bayern have so far prioritised alternative options.

It is now entirely possible that De Zerbi will remain where he is. And if he were to start thinking more strategically, or “working for the career” as he puts it, he might even reach the conclusion that staying at Brighton for another year could be the best decision to take.

Why? Because this season has spiralled horribly, in large part because of injuries, and his stock has started to fall as a result. In the Premier League, Brighton have won only once in their last nine matches.

Many clubs have suffered with injuries this season, of course, but Brighton’s run of fitness problems has been especially hard to stomach. De Zerbi has been without both of his first-choice wingers, Kaoru Mitoma and Solly March, for much of the campaign. Julio Enciso missed a huge chunk of the year. Pervis Estupinan, so crucial to last season’s success, and Evan Ferguson have both been dogged by injuries. Jack Hinshelwood came in, impressed, and was then ruled out for months.

Earlier this week, Brighton announced the appointments of a new head of medicine, Professor Doctor Florian Pfab, and a new head of performance, doctor Gary Walker. Both will join the club ahead of next season, with Brighton hoping to get a grip on the injury crisis that has so undermined their hopes of back-to-back European qualification.

Lack of European football can help Brighton next season

The sales of Alexis Mac Allister (to Liverpool) and Moises Caicedo (to Chelsea) also hurt. Brighton never wanted to sell Caicedo, and indeed were planning for young Carlos Baleba (signed from Lille for £23 million) to learn from him this season. When Chelsea offered £115 million, though, the deal was simply too good to turn down.

With Europa League football to navigate on Thursday nights, and all these players in the treatment room, the squad has struggled for consistency. They now look shattered, with De Zerbi saying after Sunday’s loss at Bournemouth that the players lacked “soul” in their performance.

Crucially, for De Zerbi as a coach and for the club as a whole, there is good reason to believe that next season will be much more enjoyable.

Brighton neither need nor want to sell any of their key players this summer and will continue to invest in new talent, as they did in spending a combined fee of around £100 million on Joao Pedro, Baleba, Bart Verbruggen, Igor and Valentin Barco over the last two windows. Ibrahim Osman, a thrilling young winger, has already been signed for £16 million from FC Nordsjalland.

Without Thursday night football taking its toll on the squad, with more investment in the first-team this summer and with their star players fit again, there is every reason to believe that De Zerbi can reinstate Brighton as genuine challengers to the elite. That would no doubt make him happier than ever when he wakes up in the mornings — and all the more attractive to the biggest clubs in Europe.

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