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Roberto De Zerbi: A Coach with an Idea

DeZerbilandia. This is how Roberto De Zerbi made his name in Italy. With a certain style of play he turned Foggia, previously a mediocre team in the Lega Pro (third division) into one of the most entertaining teams in Italy. The beautiful football he implemented at Stadio Pino Zaccheria attracted the attention of clubs in higher divisions, however he turned down offers from Crotone and Ascoli to continue pursuing the dream with the Satanelli. Dramatically, the Lombard coach parted ways over disagreement with the club two weeks ago.

New adventure

De Zerbi replaced Davide Ballardini, who decided to leave after only two rounds due to a lack of transfer activity, as coach of the Serie A side Palermo on Tuesday, 6 August. It’s a risky choice for the young coach to accept Maurizio Zamparini’s offer; more than 60 coaches have been sacked by the Rosanero president between his spells with Venezia and Palermo, and the media are already wondering how long De Zerbi can stay at the Sicilian club. He is, after all, the type of coach who builds a team with an idea, something that requires time and patience, both of which have been in short supply at La Favorita of late.

System and style

De Zerbi prefers the 4-3-3 system and he has already started working on it, even though Palermo have been designed to play with three at the back in recent seasons. However, his football is not down to formations, and his 4-3-3 can at times morph into a 3-4-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1.

An admirer of Pep Guardiola’s, De Zerbi visited the Catalan coach in Munich as a student back in 2013. However, he considers Pasquale Marino as his teacher. (De Zerbi played under Marino in three teams, namely Foggia, Arezzo and Catania.)

“My teacher is Pasquale Marino. (He) encouraged me to play attacking football; always in possession of the ball, building the play out from the back, continuously searching for goals, and also movement without the ball, these are the characteristics of my game.”

De Zerbi implemented a unique style with Foggia, trying to dominate the opponent. A ball-oriented team with a high percentage of ball possession, out of possession his Foggia showed aggression and striving to win the ball back with no intention to sit deep and wait for the opponent in their own third.

de-zerbi-style of play

De Zerbi proselytized patience and ball circulation from his defenders to try and find solutions and vertical options. Constant movements were provided by the three midfielders in-between the lines, looking for space and an opportunity to progress the attack, with the target being to reach the final third. The team included a ball-oriented regista who was always in a position to support the two defenders, wingers stretching the field and trying to create one-on-one situations in wide areas as well as moving inside, while the full-backs pushed high and participated in the attacks by providing overlapping runs.



The attacks start with the keeper, who has an important role in De Zerbi’s game in constructing the play.


Use of possession

The use of possession in De Zerbi’s game is with intention and not simply for the sake of it. De Zerbi’s side try to disorganize the opponent and find space behind the lines. Furthermore, he doesn’t prefer to give the ball to the opponent and defend when his side leads, but rather keep it and ‘defend with the ball’.

The third-man runs concept was applied by De Zerbi at Foggia:

Negative transition

Foggia counter-pressing

With a good structure, De Zerbi’s game has another key element – to avoid counter-attacks by having a good number of players around the ball and regaining the ball back as quickly as possible. This is also to avoid running back to recover to a defensive shape, especially when the ball is in a higher area.

Defensive organization


The defence moved according to the position of the ball. The shape was a compact 4-1-4-1 with four lines, all eleven players had to be behind the ball. De Zerbi, installing a ball-oriented scheme, wanted to occupy central areas and force the opponent to move into wide areas.

De Zerbi’s Foggia pressing, forcing the ball towards the sidelines, blocking passing lanes into central and preventing a switch of play:


The key question for De Zerbi and Palermo is: Will the Rosanero adapt to his positional play quickly? As we know, this style needs time to be mastered even with high-quality teams. With Zamparini in charge, he could face the sack at any moment. Hence, he will have to work quickly to implement his idea within the confines of Serie A.

Saleh Azeez believes that the beautiful game should be played beautifully. He can be found on Twitter @salehruba199. You can also check out his blog here.

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