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De Zerbi’s Anfield audition: Are Liverpool daring enough to hire him?

The style with which Roberto De Zerbi has established Brighton in the top half of the Premier League table, this season and last, demands that the 44-year-old coach be considered for the biggest jobs. This weekend, live on Super Sunday, he takes the stage for what could be his Anfield audition.

Pep Guardiola has called De Zerbi “one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years” because of his brand of football. The three-time Champions League-winning coach said: “There is no team playing the way they play. It is unique.”

With De Zerbi, there is an unusual trajectory in his career path though. Big clubs haven’t come knocking. Yet.

When Sam Allardyce and Sean Dyche took unfashionable teams into the upper reaches of the Premier League, the concern was that their approach would not be ambitious enough for the very best.

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In De Zerbi’s case, could it be too ambitious for cautious owners?

The good news for Brighton is that those are the whispers following reports that he is under consideration for the soon-to-be vacant role at Liverpool when Jurgen Klopp departs. Xabi Alonso has less coaching experience but it is De Zerbi whose fascinating football is seen as a risk.

In full flow, his teams find angles that others do not, triangles all over the pitch, controlling the rhythm in possession and pressing man-to-man out of it. At its very best, watching his Brighton side can feel like watching the future of the sport, evolution in action. Brighton put down the feather dusters used under Graham Potter and replaced them with battering rams under De Zerbi.

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When Brighton are hot, they are hot.

From January 2023 to the end of last season, Brighton led the way for expected goals (51.3) in the Premier League, bettering Manchester City’s tally of 46.18 for the same period. No team had more shots (605) or shots on target (228) than the scintillating Seagulls. It took them to Europe for the first time.

De Zerbi’s courageous and exciting attacking style does lend itself to his defence being exposed but even if including their expected goals against record, their overall expected goals difference (expected goals – expected goals against) of 21.6 ranked them second only to Pep Guardiola’s team during that period last season. Brighton’s process was frighteningly impressive.

De Zerbi speaking on his future in February…

“When I listen that the big teams are interested in me, it is an honour and makes me proud My focus is the work day by day. About the future, I’m going to speak with the owner and the club because I want to compete in the best way I can. I want to understand their plan and then it is not a problem to work in a big, big team. I would like, in my career, to compete to win the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, LaLiga, Champions League.”

Perhaps there are parallels here with Marcelo Bielsa, the celebrated Argentine coach who has inspired so many but been overlooked for Europe’s biggest jobs. He too is regarded as a maverick who changed the way coaches think with his interpretation of the game.

De Zerbi’s own vertical approach focuses more on possession than pressing but it is similarly eye-catching when it works and alarming when it does not. Naturally, surrendering the ball in your own defensive third of the pitch is more likely to result in conceding.

The dark side of De Zerbi’s football has been more of the narrative this campaign, where Brighton have struggled with their added workload of European football. Tired minds are leading to more mistakes.

Brighton have made eight errors leading to goals this season, the joint-most by any team in the Premier League along with bottom club Sheffield United. No team have faced more shots from individual errors either (18). That commitment to playing out from the back comes at a price.

De Zerbi’s admirers would argue, with some justification, that the risky football it is worth it.

When Brighton play through the opposition, it is both beautiful and brilliantly effective. However, the facts are this: Brighton are having a mediocre season. De Zerbi’s stock has fallen.

Out of all cup competitions and work still to do to nab a European qualification spot in the Premier League, De Zerbi’s intense style and himself admitting the club weren’t ready for European football has led to Brighton’s squad being decimated by injuries at various points of the season.

For instance, heading to Anfield on Sunday, Brighton will be without Kaoru Mitoma, Solly March and Joao Pedro – De Zerbi’s starting front three. No club would be expected to thrive under such restrictions.

There will always be doubts whether a coach can adapt to the demands of a bigger job. Klopp and Xavi Hernandez are walking away from Liverpool and Barcelona respectively in the summer, citing their energy levels. The pressures are vast.

De Zerbi has an aura though – one you associate with top managers. He plays off emotions on the touchline. And he treats his players like family. When he talks, you can see that determination. He makes you want to follow.

As Sky Sports‘ Melissa Reddy writes in her in-depth column about who could replace Klopp, “De Zerbi’s ability to innovate and communicate unique concepts to his players, who absorb it so quickly and effectively, is a core weapon.”

Roberto De Zerbi

The spotlight at Liverpool tests character, the profile of player challenges man-management. These are factors worthy of consideration. The odd thing about the De Zerbi conundrum for football’s risk-averse super clubs is that they know the football that he plays is beautiful.

They just have not yet seen anyone try it – and win.

De Zerbi has a chance to impress the decision makers on Sunday.

His Anfield audition awaits.

Liverpool’s next six fixtures

March 31: Brighton (H), Premier League, live on Sky Sports, kick-off 2pm

April 4: Sheffield United (H), Premier League, kick-off 7:30pm

April 7: Manchester United (A), Premier League, live on Sky Sports, kick-off 3:30pm

April 11: Atalanta (H), Europa League, kick-off 8pm

April 14: Crystal Palace (H), Premier League, live on Sky Sports, kick-off 2pm

April 18: Atalanta (A), Europa League, kick-off 8pm

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