Talking Tactics

How De Zerbi must balance risk and reward

4 Oct 2023
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Adrian Clarke analyses the benefits and flaws in Brighton's exciting playing style

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Brighton & Hove Albion

Brighton’s aggressive and adventurous tactical approach will spark debate around the merits of risk versus reward.

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They are the Premier League's top scorers this season, having found the net on 19 occasions, with Roberto De Zerbi’s positive style of play causing opponents a host of defensive problems.

Winning five of seven league matches, their start must be considered a good one.

Yet there is also another side to the story, as Aston Villa so brutally exposed in last weekend’s 6-1 thrashing of the Seagulls.

When Brighton’s man-to-man pressing is a fraction off, opponents can slice through them with ease to isolate members of De Zerbi’s back four in dangerous 1v1s.

In moments where they have committed multiple players forward to support an attack, Brighton leave themselves light in defence and susceptible to quick transitions.

And as goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen discovered to his cost against AFC Bournemouth, their ploy of luring opponents on to them in deep areas can also backfire and cost goals, too.

Although Brighton sit on 15 points, the only three sides to have let in more goals than them are lying in the bottom three.

Brighton are without a clean sheet this season and conceded twice more in their 2-2 Europa League draw with Marseille in midweek. Sunday's opponents Liverpool will fancy their chances of extending that run by scoring at the Amex Stadium.

Flaws come to the surface

De Zerbi’s proactive tactical mindset focuses heavily on creating overloads inside the opposition half.

It’s a ploy that makes Brighton such an exciting team to watch, but every time they set up a 2v1 or 3v2 in attack, it means somewhere behind the ball one of their players is isolated.

When you study the goals they have let in this season, a pattern has developed.

Villa’s second goal last weekend highlighted the need for Brighton not to relinquish possession cheaply.

One misplaced pass in midfield effectively took seven players out, leaving Brighton's centre-backs with a 2v2 against the fast Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins.

Villa v Brighton 1

At home to West Ham United, Brighton were caught by a pair of devastating counter-attacks, but the third goal they conceded came from a goal-kick.

Brighton had pushed most of their outfielders forward for a press, but one long diagonal kick and a sharp piece of interplay by the touchline quickly exposed them to another 2v2.

On this occasion, Jarrod Bowen clipped a pass over the top for Michail Antonio to score.

Brighton v West Ham

Out of possession, De Zerbi demands that his players shrink the space that their opponents can play in, and they are largely excellent at this aspect of the game.

Brighton top the rankings for passes per defensive action (PPDA) with an outstandingly low 8.8 passes made by the opposition before Brighton disrupt a passing sequence.

The downside to playing in this manner is the room it leaves behind the last line of defence.

Callum Wilson’s consolation goal at the Amex Stadium, for example, came from him running onto a clipped pass over the top in a straightforward 1v1.

As Brighton did not press well enough they were undone by a single pass.

Brighton v Newcastle

In their humbling at Villa Park, we witnessed other situations that highlighted the risks Brighton take.

Prior to the opening goal, left-back Pervis Estupinan followed John McGinn tightly infield, hoping a midfield team-mate would also get close enough to apply pressure.

They did not do that, which left Kaoru Mitoma isolated in a 1v1 against rampaging right-back Matty Cash, and because no one was tight enough to stop the pass, the Japanese winger was in trouble.

From Cash’s cutback Villa scored.

See: Estupinan ruled out out for around a month

Villa v Brighton 2

Later on, Brighton continued in their efforts to close down man-to-man and create tight areas.

It is hard to face this tactic but when the defending side are a yard off with their tracking, it can be easy for a forward to get behind the last defender.

On this occasion Watkins’ shot was saved after he was played in, with Douglas Luiz scoring from the follow-up.

Brighton’s central defenders are not especially quick, which only serves to highlight the importance of defending better in front of them.

Villa v Brighton 3

The task in hand this Sunday is to impose their style of play on Liverpool with greater aggression and intensity.

Their midfield and forward line must get closer to Jurgen Klopp’s players and stop them playing passes through the thirds.

If they fail to do this, their back four will be exposed to through-balls for the speedy Liverpool forwards to chase.

In possession they can also ill-afford to lose the ball cheaply when most of their players are high up the pitch.

Will fatigue impact their energy levels moving forward? Possibly.

With extra Europa League matches in the diary, it may become increasingly difficult for Brighton to be as effective with their high-intensity play.

And while another top-six finish feels possible for this talented Brighton team under De Zerbi, their defensive numbers will have to improve.

Brighton's defensive stats 2023/24
Statistic Brighton PL rank
Shots faced 91 9th
Expected Goals against 11.8 13th
Goals against 14 17th

Only four sides have faced more fast breaks than Brighton, who struggled to handle West Ham and Villa in turnovers and transitions.

They remain an excellent outfit, but the Seagulls’ weaknesses will now be targeted by every team they face.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Palace pair can inspire first win over Forest
Part 2: Is it time for Arteta to pair Rice with Partey in midfield?
Part 3: Can Kovacic and Phillips step up in Rodri's absence?

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