BRIGHTON -- Roberto De Zerbi has always been a dreamer. When he was managing at Sassuolo, he used to keep a notepad and pen by his bed. Even when sleeping, he'd dream football and something would click, so he'd wake up and make a note of it.
Those visions naturally change with time and experience. For all the praise levelled in his direction since he took over Brighton in late September, and the teams left in their wake after being exposed by De Zerbi's tactical acumen, he still dreams, reluctant to put a limit on expectations.
"I like to keep the ball, to enjoy the ball, to try every game to be protagonists on the pitch, working with passion, working with ambition and working towards a dream," De Zerbi tells ESPN.
De Zerbi's impact at Brighton has been one of the stories of the 2022-23 Premier League season. Footballing history will note Manchester City's title win -- their fifth in six seasons -- and the trio of clubs relegated. But for those who have watched every weekend, memories of De Zerbi's Brighton will endure. Eight months since replacing Graham Potter, Brighton have secured European football for the first time in the club's history.
"The dream is to do every day one step more," De Zerbi says. "It's one step you didn't expect to make at the start of the day."
For a man who moves quickly, De Zerbi got off to a slow start on the south coast. His tenure started with two draws and three defeats, but then they hammered Chelsea 4-1 and his vision for this team seemed to click. There have been some remarkable results, including their recent 3-0 trouncing of Arsenal at the Emirates that spelled the end of the Gunners' title challenge. At one stage, Brighton were involved in the race for a Champions League place next season, but with one league game left this weekend, they have their spot in the Europa League all but secure. And all this after losing a host of key players last summer.
"The Premier League is a great competition," De Zerbi says. "It's a tough, tough competition. Every game is very difficult to make points, to win the game. I'm lucky to be coach of Brighton and it's a great experience."
His peers have taken notice. The praise proffered to De Zerbi has been fulsome, though laced with cautionary admiration. In March, Man City's Pep Guardiola said "We've an Italian coach in Premier League, De Zerbi ... he's changing many things in the English football. He's producing wonderful football." (Brighton held City to a 1-1 draw Wednesday in a pulsating game either side could have won.) Julen Lopetegui said in late April that Brighton were playing the best football in the world; two days later, Lopetegui's Wolves lost 6-0 at the AMEX.
Having watched that obliteration, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said "Mr. De Zerbi: wow! That was incredible. They played one of the best games I have ever seen in my life." Brentford's Thomas Frank said De Zerbi is doing a "top job," while Arsenal's Mikel Arteta said before their 3-0 defeat in May, Brighton are a "joy to watch."
"One quality is to accept the praise and I'm honoured to receive these congratulations from very important coaches, bigger coaches," De Zerbi says. "But I don't change my passion, my attitude.
"Maybe it's an honour and it's right to work more after these words." After that comes clarification and deflection.
"When the people speak about our style of play, they are not speaking about De Zerbi," he adds. "De Zerbi doesn't play on the pitch. The people speak because I have very great players, but I was a player and understand very well the good words I receive ... but I know the credit is with my players."
As a player, De Zerbi, 43, was a promising attacking midfielder who began on AC Milan's books before embarking on a nomadic career across 10 clubs up and down the Italian football landscape -- including Monza, Napoli and Salernitana -- and CFR Cluj in Romania. He'd play just three Serie A matches across a 15-year career, all of them for Napoli in the 2007-08 season.
After retiring from playing in 2013, De Zerbi started his coaching career at Darfo Boario in Serie D. He then switched to Foggia and won Coppa Italia Serie C, which earned him a leap up to Serie A club Palermo in September 2016. But it was a poor fit, and he lasted just 13 matches. Later he'd say he jumped at the opportunity too soon, nervous that it might be his only shot at managing in the topflight. He rebuilt himself at Benevento, where he failed to save the club from Serie A relegation and garnered a standing for playing attractive, attacking football.
Sassuolo came calling in 2018 and it was soon clear that players wanted to be part of his project.
"I've always wanted to work with De Zerbi, and I think he is a genius in his vision of football," Kevin-Prince Boateng told ESPN in 2018. "Everybody speaks very highly of him, which is not normal: usually, 50 people talk highly of me and 50 people talk really badly, so to have 100 percent of people talking so well of him is really something."
Over three seasons at Sassuolo, he honed his philosophy to switching between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations with plenty of attacking football, leading them to eighth-place finishes in his second and third term. He switched to Shakhtar Donetsk in 2021 and steered the team to the top of the league before Russia's invasion of Ukraine halted everything. He'd spend his final five days in the country waiting for his players to be evacuated to safety until he made his passage back home to Italy, where he waited for his next challenge.
After officially leaving Shakhtar in July 2022, he turned down a job offer from Bologna out of respect for Sinisa Mihajlovic. The late Mihajlovic was sacked in September 2022 but was battling leukaemia at the time, and De Zerbi, out of respect, did not want to be the man who replaced him. (This story was corroborated by Mihajlovic's wife, Arianna, in an Instagram post. Mihajlovic died in December 2022).
It was the Brighton project that tempted him back into management and to the Premier League. Before taking on the role, he hadn't any crystalised expectations of the task awaiting him.
"When you're working in other countries, you're only focused on your team and players," De Zerbi says. "It's an honour for me, working here. I have to understand the league better. I would like to speak proper English to understand everything, no? Different country, different players, different style of play, different coaches. You need one or two years, or 100 games to understand it all well."
De Zerbi had just finished a 40-minute news conference when he sat down with ESPN in early May. He started the media duties with an assessment of his ability to speak English -- he says speaking Italian is "like drinking water," while English is tougher -- and De Zerbi's interpreter and assistant coach Enrico Venturelli is nearby as we talk. De Zerbi occasionally turns to him for clarification over questions, but through his answers, there's one recurring word, anchoring how he sees both the world and himself.
"Passion? If you work in football without passion, I think you can't work," he says. "The fans understand and know if you are working with passion or not."
It's true that De Zerbi's passion on the sidelines has perhaps gone too far at times this season, with two red cards and four yellows to his name. "I was worse in the past! I'm better now. I understand that to stay at the right level, you have to stay more relaxed." Then comes the clarification: "Sometimes I'm back like the past, though. No?"
His second red came after their controversial defeat to Tottenham on April 8, a match after which the PGMOL apologised for a referee error. After that game, De Zerbi stood in the changing room and saw a group of angry, disgruntled players. He told them that they'd lost nothing -- yes they hadn't got three points, but as a group, they'd lost nothing at all. "Normally, I'm stronger with the players when we are winning," he says.
Midfielder Mac Allister told ESPN about the half-time team talk De Zerbi delivered in their FA Cup quarterfinal against Grimsby. They were up 1-0, but De Zerbi was furious. He wanted them to finish as 5-0 or 6-0 winners. They'd go on and win 5-0.
"Straight away from day one he's been impressive with his charisma and his passion for the game," Danny Welbeck tells ESPN. "He's got an eye for fine detail, with every single pass and movement. He's really improved a lot of players -- he gives everybody the opportunity to get on the pitch and show what they can do."
However, it all comes back to his identity and who he is. De Zerbi says his best friends would describe him as "Crazy, honest..." He pauses. "Crazy, honest and with passion, no?"
Staying true to himself is the most important thing "not only as a manager, but in my life," he says. "I believe in this value; I want to be always clear and honest. I want to be myself in every situation: when we win, when we lose, when we are in a good time, when we are in a bad time."
The fans have grown to love him too; so do the former pros. "I just love his relentlessness, his energy on the touch line. I think he's everything that a football club wants [in] a manager," Brighton legend Glenn Murray (103 goals in 259 appearances) tells ESPN. "I would've loved to play under Roberto. I think even though the way and the brand of football they play is incredibly impressive, I think it simplifies the game and as a striker it would've been perfect to have all those opportunities to try and gobble up. It would've been very nice to play up front for him."
Before our interview, De Zerbi is presented with a bespoke scarf one of the fans has made for him. It's black with gold lettering reading "Goalfather" embroidered across the centre of it. He lets out a small laugh, eyebrows raised in approval and then switches to the next task.
Just like the praise from other managers, he's keen to keep himself out of Brighton's improvement. Talk to others at the club, though, and they put the praise at De Zerbi's door.
"The difference has been Roberto," Mac Allister tells ESPN.
"He's had a huge impact," Welbeck says. "It's not easy as we had a good manager before. But Roberto's been unbelievable with the lads, with the dressing room and everybody around the club -- his charisma and passion -- you only get to see 20 percent of what we see. We see it in everything he does: it's a joy to be working for this manager right now."
Above all else, Brighton's playing style has been lauded. Sometimes it resembles football's equivalent of rope-a-dope, with all 11 players waiting for the opposition to swarm and then unpick their scrambled defence by shifting the ball quickly from back to front. "Everybody has to be in sync," Welbeck says. "He doesn't want us to make too many mistakes, but he does allow it to happen -- he knows we're human so there's a margin for error. But every single player knows what each player needs to be doing in each role. If we're dropping deep, we're still looking to attack quickly from goal kicks.
"It's an amazing, beautiful style of football and everybody loves it. But there are a few more elements we haven't showcased yet, and we're looking to get better at those on the training pitch and show that in the games."
Brighton have one match left in their 2022-23 campaign, away to Aston Villa on Sunday. After European qualification was secured thanks to their 3-1 win over Southampton at the weekend, De Zerbi addressed the crowd. "You have been fantastic," he says. "We need another point for the Europa League, we want to play there, not in [the Europa Conference League]." (They got that point against the league champions on Wednesday night. Mission accomplished, then.)
This is where dreams intermingle. De Zerbi has his own idealistic hopes, based around the footballing equivalent of a surfer's perfect wave -- "Perfection is still close here," he says -- but he is aware of the bigger vision. The first part, European football, has been realised, but there's still time for more, with or without him.
"The dream is that when I leave, I left the club higher than when I started."