Brighton & Hove Albion are ninth in the Premier League table, they are through to the last 16 of the Europa League and they visit Wolves at the same stage of the FA Cup later this month.
It is a good situation to be in, but Roberto De Zerbi is far from content. The head coach, reverting from English to Italian at one point during his press conference on Friday for Saturday’s home game against arch-rivals Crystal Palace, said: “Nothing can satisfy me, so it’s not my problem.”
De Zerbi was answering a question from The Athletic about what would represent a satisfactory league finish in May, bearing in mind that most clubs suffer in that respect when they are also competing in Europe — for the first time in Brighton’s case after finishing sixth last season.
He has Enrico Venturelli, head coach assistant, by his side at every press conference to chip in with translations when he is not entirely certain about the question he is being asked. That can lead to the answers not always being as precise as he would probably like, but on Friday the mood music was clear throughout from De Zerbi.
His responses reflected his mood off the back of a January window in which he wanted more midfield options, not fewer; crippling injuries to key players which are only gradually easing; and Tuesday’s shocking 4-0 defeat at Luton, which stretched the run without a league goal to three games.
De Zerbi’s spikiness came against the backdrop of him being continually linked with a move away from Brighton. There will be a clutch of high-profile managerial vacancies in the summer — including Liverpool and Barcelona — and De Zerbi’s outburst is unlikely to dampen that speculation.
But what exactly did he say — and mean?
The midfield situation
When asked about Brighton’s midfield resources, De Zerbi said: “I spoke with the club, but they decided a different way.”
He wanted another midfielder and they tried to deliver one with Premier League experience — Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall from Leicester — but the clubs were too far apart in their valuation of the 25-year-old. Brighton steadfastly refuse under owner-chairman Tony Bloom to pay much more for a player than they believe he is worth.
Instead, De Zerbi is a midfielder down, although he can hardly complain about Mahmoud Dahoud’s return to the Bundesliga on loan to Stuttgart for the rest of the season.
Dahoud was a player De Zerbi wanted when he was signed on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund last summer, but the move has not worked out. The 28-year-old has not featured in the last nine matches.
Brighton’s transfer policy
De Zerbi expanded on his frustrations when he was asked by The Athletic during the embargoed section of his press conference — reserved for the written media — to clarify his remark about the club deciding a different way.
“I can answer all your questions, but transfer market is closed,” he said. “It’s not my business. It’s finished. It’s not a problem. With new players or without new players, my ambition, my passion, my energy can’t change.
“I want to reach the highest target we can and my focus is very strong on the target. It’s not important if I had a different expectation. Everyone can think what they want.”
Targets for the season
De Zerbi stated before the transfer window opened that he would not talk about targets until the window closed, so the natural next question was to wonder what is realistic for the rest of the campaign?
He lamented points shipped in eight draws — the highest number in the division — stating that “we could have eight points more, easily”. De Zerbi’s demeanour became increasingly passionate when pressed about what would be a satisfactory league position, banging the table with his hand at one stage and referring to the extent to which he is having to rely on young players such as Facundo Buonanotte, 19.
The Argentinian was substituted at half-time at Luton, days after scoring a spectacular opening goal in last Saturday’s 5-2 win in the FA Cup at Sheffield United.
Wishing for a full squad to select from, De Zerbi said: “I am not used to speaking about how many players are injured, but if we speak honestly there isn’t another (Solly) March (out for the season with knee damage). Facundo Buonanotte is great, I love Facundo. But Facundo is 19 and he is from Argentina, not Southampton, or Bournemouth or Brighton.
“And he needs a lot of time. At Sheffield he played very well and three days later he was a kid on the pitch (at Luton). Why? Because if you play with a 19-year-old you have to accept the mistakes, because to be happy when he scores into the top corner is too easy. And we are playing without March, without Ansu Fati, without Julio Enciso, Tariq Lamptey, Pervis Estupinan (the latter pair are just back from injuries).
“It’s very, very tough to compete with the big teams in this condition. But it’s not an excuse. We lost a bad game. I took responsibility for the defeat. We could have played better, for sure, but we have to analyse the squad, we have to analyse how many injured players we have, we have to analyse the age of the squad, because if we have to compete with the big teams we have to have the chance to compete. Otherwise it’s very tough.”
Quizzed once more about the league target, bearing in mind all of the injuries he has been coping with and trying to juggle three competitions, De Zerbi added: “Our dream is to reach the semi-final, to reach the final, to win the trophy (Europa League or FA Cup), to reach again a European position in the table — better the Champions League than Europa League — but they are words and I don’t love words. When I speak I want to speak with the facts and if I am sure we can compete.”
De Zerbi is evidently not convinced at this sensitive moment in the season that Brighton can.
(Top photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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