Watching Brighton play Man City, it’s easy to see why Guardiola rates De Zerbi

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When Pep Guardiola compared Roberto De Zerbi to world-renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adria, you’d better believe there was something behind it.

“Johan Cruyff and Ferran Adria — both are real geniuses,” Guardiola said in an interview a few years back.

“It doesn’t matter if you are in the desert, they will arrive and build something and millions of people will follow them.

“The best cooks in the world were in Ferran’s kitchen.

“If you don’t try to be creative, if you don’t ask, ‘Why do we have to do it that way? Why can’t we do it another way?,’ then humanity doesn’t exist in the way we know now. These types of people are necessary to make football much better.”

It was on Tuesday, speaking before Manchester City’s game against Brighton last night, that Guardiola made the seemingly surprising link between the man who has spearheaded the south coast club’s first-ever European qualification this season and the multi-Michelin star-winning chef.

“Pay attention to what I’m going to say, I’m pretty convinced I’m right in what I’m saying: I think Roberto is one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years,” Guardiola said.

“There is no team playing the way they (Brighton) play, it’s unique. They deserve completely the compliments and the success they have, one of the teams I try to learn a lot from. They’re unique, like a Michelin-star restaurant, unique. In Catalonia there was El Bulli with Ferran Adria, the best cook for many years; he changed the cuisine, and Brighton are playing with something special.”

Guardiola is occasionally accused of false praise, of bigging-up coming opponents before beating them comfortably. But in fairness that is going to happen most of the time, no matter how good those sides are, because he and his team are better. So the praise is usually genuine, and it certainly is in this case. Everything else Guardiola said on Tuesday about De Zerbi and Brighton was evident when the match started:

“He creates 20 or 25 chances per game, better by far than most opponents, he monopolises the ball in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. Everybody is involved — the ’keeper is like a holding midfielder. If you don’t play at a high level, he can do whatever he wants against you.”


Guardiola unfiltered: Staying at City, those Premier League charges and praising De Zerbi

Guardiola had also suggested it might have been better for City’s preparations ahead of their FA Cup and Champions League finals next month had they needed to get a result at the Amex Stadium to help them win the title, because he expected a natural drop-off after lifting the trophy last Sunday — but he said it did not happen.

“Always I was a little bit worried about how much we drop (in level of performance), because 40 hours ago we drank all the alcohol in Manchester,” Guardiola said. Instead, he was delighted with his team: “We showed why we are the best team in England.”

City were certainly in a game. Brighton did indeed create plenty of chances — more in one half than any team has created against them all season. City did have more of the ball in both halves but there were times when Brighton monopolised it — most notably after Phil Foden scored the visitors’ opener on 25 minutes, as Julio Enciso whistled in a long-range equaliser 13 minutes later; a goal so good it even brought applause from the City fans behind that goal.

The move, almost as if Guardiola predicted it, with goalkeeper Jason Steele picking out exactly the right ball to centre-back Levi Colwill, who advanced and found Enciso.

“Brighton is the master of passing the ball to the man (who is) free — when to pass to the free man. They move at the right time, they are the best in the world, to do the right tempo to pass to the free man,” Guardiola also said on Tuesday of their willingness and ability to put their foot on the ball, wait, and bait their opponents into trying to come and pinch it. And then pass it around them.

That is a large part of the reason why Guardiola feels De Zerbi is special and, in fact, City seem to have taken on that particular part of the build-up in recent months, with Ruben Dias notably standing with his foot on the ball in the middle of the defence, just like Lewis Dunk and others do for Brighton.

It is not the first time Guardiola has borrowed an idea from De Zerbi: last season, and at the start of this, City’s two full-backs came into midfield alongside Rodri, making a midfield three ahead of their two centre-backs, just like De Zerbi’s then-employers Shakhtar Donetsk had done.

“I saw his football with Sassuolo,” Guardiola said after the match. “I saw him go to Napoli or Milan and I thought, ‘Oh my God’.” So much so that Guardiola occasionally went to watch De Zerbi’s Sassuolo in person.

The two go way back.

When De Zerbi started out in management with Serie D amateurs Darfo Boario in 2013, he travelled to watch Guardiola’s Bayern Munich at a pre-season training camp in Italy.

Six years later, De Zerbi came over and watched City train and then went for dinner in Manchester with Guardiola and other notable figures from Italian football, including Daniele De Rossi, Andriy Shevchenko and Enzo Maresca, who is now Guardiola’s assistant. Maresca and De Zerbi have been close friends since schoolboy days at AC Milan.

De Zerbi dines in Manchester fairly often, a regular visitor to Tast, a restaurant Guardiola part owns.

After last night’s 1-1 draw, Guardiola was asked if any other teams in Europe play like Brighton do.

“There is only one,” he insisted. “The way they play, there is only one in the world; they’re unique.”

“When I am a spectator and Brighton play on TV, I want to watch it,” he said later.

There is a lot to like.

Brighton deserve massive credit for the players they have brought in, the likes of Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo, Enciso, Facundo Buonanotte and many others, and De Zerbi has forged them into a formidable unit, one that will compete in the Europa League next season, since replacing the Chelsea-bound Graham Potter in September and building on his work of the previous three seasons.

Most important is that he has made them play with his own unique style, the mark of a top coach. It is tempting to wonder what he might be able to do with players of even higher quality — players like the ones at Guardiola’s disposal, for example.

Managing a group like that comes with its challenges, of course, a part of football management that is often overlooked. It is just one area that Guardiola truly excels at, but it feels inevitable that De Zerbi might soon get a chance to try his hand at that, too.

He certainly has friends in Manchester.

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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