Brighton & Hove Albion have been the favourite team of offensive trainers since Roberto De Zerbi arrived and took control. De Zerbi’s Brighton team has become a joy to watch for football purists, with a heavy focus on positional play and rapid, complex passing. The team’s ability to transition from defence to attack with intelligent movement and precision ball circulation demonstrates their well-practised tactics.
In this article, I want to look at their build-up play and how I gave an especially insane strikerless spin to this concept. Please note that this is in no way an actual recreation of De Zerbi’s tactics. I want to look at the underlying principles and give my own twist to things. Let’s put it like this: if De Zerbi had a fever dream about football, it might look a little something like this.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Invite the pressure
Building up under pressure can feel risky for some trainers. De Zerbi has a completely different way of thinking. In his opinion, playing the long ball is a risk. When possible, he prefers to train his squad to build from the back. That works because it gives you more control and lowers your chances of making mistakes.
In many matches, Brighton faces a highly aggressive opponent who presses high up the pitch. Instead of panicking under pressure, De Zerbi’s team deliberately invites the pressure by positioning their players deep in their own half, luring the opponents forward, and creating space behind their defensive line.
With Brighton, De Zerbi attempts to create circumstances that mimic a counterattack. The aim is to draw opponents in by baiting them with short passes inside their half. In this respect, De Zerbi is quite extreme. His central defenders, for example, frequently place their foot on the ball as if it were a futsal match.
The intent of these delaying tactics is simple: to entice opponents to walk out of the organisation. So that spaces are created elsewhere on the field.
The above moment visualises the theory. By dwelling on the ball, the defenders draw in the forwards, instead opening space for one of the midfielders.
In my setup
Before I get into my personal ideas and how to make this work, I’d like to go over the history of this entire topic. An image in an article I read inspired me to pursue this style of play and formation. I’ve included a link to the image below.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not looking to recreate De Zerbi’s work. I am using it as inspiration to use the same principles and add my own twist to them. I believe that incorporating elements of De Zerbi’s play style and formation will allow me to enhance my own team’s performance. By studying the image and analysing the tactics employed by De Zerbi, I can adapt them to suit the strengths and preferences of my own players. This way, I can create a unique style of play that combines the best of both worlds, drawing inspiration from De Zerbi while also adding my own creative touch to the formation.
I have opted for an attacking shape that resembles the image that started this whole process. At the back and in midfield, I have opted for a slightly different configuration. Three at the back, with a half-back in front of them, two central midfielders, attacking wing-backs, two wingers, two central midfielders, and no one in attacking midfield or as a striker. This formation allows for strong defensive coverage while maintaining width and creativity in the attack.
This formation has two advantages when it comes to luring the opposition in. On the one hand, there’s the regular lure of a strikerless setup. By purposefully leaving certain areas of the field empty, you force your opponents to make a decision.
They can stay back, stand off, and wait. That means our most advanced midfielders will generally drop back a bit, and we will outnumber the opposing team in midfield. We can pass our way around them because we have a numerical advantage and then attack the remaining defenders.
The defenders can also opt for a more proactive approach; they can step up, push forward, and take on the threat. This removes the threat of a numerical disadvantage for the defensive side. It does, however, open up their defensive line to the threat of through balls or long balls over the defensive line for my players to run onto.
This traditional strikerless lure is not important in terms of De Zerbi’s thinking. It’s not that it’s ineffective, but it’s irrelevant to the notions I’m attempting to work with.
I’m mostly interested in the way the backline and halfback function and interact to draw in the opposing team. Instead of four players at the back plus two defensive midfielders, I am using a setup with three central defenders, two wing-backs, and a halfback. There are still six players involved, just distributed differently across the pitch.
In theory, even without the halfback, this back three should spread rather wide throughout our build-up phase. I was concerned about stacking the libero and halfback on top of each other as they might be simultaneously in the same zone. Over the past year of playing, I noticed such stacking is uncommon in FM23; therefore, I assumed he would drop to the left or right of the libero or retain his position. I must admit that it was a bit of an educated gamble. A counterargument to this input could be that stacking the libero and halfback in the same zone can be advantageous. It creates a compact and solid defensive structure, making it difficult for the opposition to break through. As it happens, the halfback did in fact drop to the right or left of the libero, depending on which side the ball was on.
In the example above, we can see how the halfback, De Maria, drops deep to receive the ball. The presence of the halfback forces the opposing forwards to divide their attention. It either frees up the halfback, the libero, or a player in midfield as one of the midfielders pushes forward. In this example, the halfback has some time on the ball to help the team pass through the high press block of Manchester United. The idea is always to reach a free player facing the opposing goal.
So the distribution of roles and the interaction between these roles, combined with the instruction to pass shorter, gives us this kind of build-up play, where the opposition is drawn forward to see if they can disrupt the flow of play. I hardly ever use a mentality beyond positive, as this means the passing will become more direct, and we will lose that critical moment where we lure in the opposition and create space.
Step 2: Use the third man
De Zerbi uses the inventiveness of his players to reach a free player facing the opposing goal, often using a third-man run. “I don’t move my players with a joystick,” the Italian tactician once said. “I give them the solutions during the week on the training field. But during the game, they have to make the decisions. Then we look at the images together, and we can find alternatives. But the choices are only made by them. I want to give them that responsibility. They must have the opportunity to make mistakes. If I determine everything, then I remove the personality.”
De Zerbi only provides templates. They differ every game, depending on the field occupation of the opponent. The underlying idea is always the same: to reach a teammate with a forward pass so that they can bounce it back to a teammate in space who is facing the opposition’s goal.
The above combination is an example of that concept. As the team moves the ball around, it is passed forward towards a player who is being marked. When an opponent is closing him down, he will play a bounce pass towards a different teammate than the initial passer. This bounce pass is a strategic move to confuse the opponent and evade the opposition’s press.
In my setup
Before I am accused of overcomplicating the game, let me state unequivocally that you cannot force your teammates to play a bounce pass and look for a third man run. However, by adopting a compact formation with lots of teammates around and team instructions that allow for rapid progression of the ball without resorting to hoofing it forward, you may set them up to quickly pass the ball to a teammate who can then play a bounce pass.
I have shown you the formation setup earlier and how it works, so I feel I have already explained how the formation is compact and effective in creating opportunities for quick ball movement and team connectivity. These team instructions match the intended style of play: short yet quick passing and constant movement off the ball are promoted by allowing players as much creative freedom as possible.
In the video example above, you can see how my players are attempting to draw the opposing team forward. It is not quite studs on the ball as Brighton plays, but you can clearly see the defenders delaying play and dwelling on the ball in the hope of enticing opposing players to pressure them. This strategic move is aimed at creating gaps and opportunities for their own team to exploit. In some examples, you can see a bounce pass of sorts, though it’s not always a backward pass.
This second video demonstrates more examples of the third-man bounce strategy in action. As we snuff out an attack, we use the bounce pass and third-man movement to get out from under the pressure of the opposition. One of the bounce passes ends up with our goalie, who starts a new attack. The moment right before we cross the halfway line is also sort of a bounce pass. De Maria passes the ball to Albornoz, who, instead of immediately passing the ball, swivels and launches Perez into space. This clever use of the third-man bounce creates confusion among the defenders and allows us to build up our attack.
STEP 3: Get out wide
After avoiding the initial pressure with short passes between the central defenders, wingbacks, and controlling midfielders, De Zerbi’s team appears astonishingly swift in moving towards the flanks.
In this particular build-up phase, Brighton’s wingers must maintain their position high and wide on the pitch. Because the opponent has been lured into Brighton’s half with several players, these wingers must move with the ball at their feet and attack the defensive line and the remaining defenders.
As the ball is moved around to draw them in, the team uses a bounce pass to launch a third man out wide. As the central forward has dropped deep at this point to strengthen the midfield, the team looks threatening out wide, and there is space to attack the defensive line either directly by running at the defenders or with a cross-pass over the defensive line for runners to latch onto. This gives the team multiple options to create scoring opportunities.
In my setup
I suppose it is not that hard to notice how I have set up the team to go wide as soon as the opportunity arises. With no advanced central presence to speak of, the wings are the only logical attacking outlet. At this point, I want to explain some of the choices I made regarding team instructions and role distribution.
It would have made perfect sense for me to set up the team instructions Focus on playing down the right and left wings. I have opted for a more balanced approach that focuses on utilising the entire width of the pitch, mostly because I do want them to get it back into the central areas once we get near the penalty area. With no other attacking outlet besides the two wingers, the ball is almost automatically played wide when we move forward.
Another talking point is using inside forwards instead of wingers. When you want to keep the pitch wide, it would make sense to use players that stick to the flanks, whereas inside forwards, as their name implies, tend to cut inside and move towards the central areas. The rationale behind this decision is that it helps to create a central presence in the final third of the pitch.
During the build-up phases, you can see that the inside forwards maintain a wide position, only moving into the half-spaces and more central areas as we get near the penalty area of the opposing team. Despite the natural tendency of an inside forward to move inside, they will remain wide during the earlier stages of the build-up play due to their positioning on the formation screen.
STEP 4: Get into the half-spaces
Because the dribbling ability of the wide players lures opponents to the flanks to counter the immediate threat of a dribbler running at the defence at pace, gaps often form on the inside, in the half-spaces, which can be exploited by players making runs into these areas.
The example above demonstrates how teams can strategically create and take advantage of gaps in the half-spaces to create scoring opportunities. It is not about generating a specific pattern of movement; it is not about always doing the same thing; rather, it is about creating options and opportunities to do so. The video example is just one of many ways we get into half-spaces. You can clearly see that there are many players flooding forward, so we have options here.
In my setup
This is where my crazy strikerless setup really shines; we have plenty of movement and runners from deep positions penetrating the half-spaces. Besides the two wide forwards cutting inside, you also have the inverted wing-backs contributing in that regard. It could look like the video below.
Again, it is all about creating options—possibilities for the player on the ball to launch a teammate into the half-space. By selecting four roles that have a tendency to get into the half-space, I ensure that there will always be a player doing exactly that. The two central midfielders are present for a more central presence.
Initially, I was afraid that the inside forwards and inverted wing-backs might end up occupying the same spaces on the pitch, thus clustering and being easily marked out of the game. As the video above shows, there is nothing to fear in that regard. While they occasionally cross paths, the lack of a central presence in attacking midfield and upfront means the player attacking the half-spaces can move into a central position as well, which frees up space for the other player on that flank to move into the half-space again.
As the video above shows, the inside forward on the right side, Uchino, crosses all the way to the left side before moving into the half-space again to flick it back for a clean finish by the onrushing midfielder. My point is that an inside forward will normally not move that far inside as there are usually teammates occupying that space. This formation allows for more freedom of movement in that area of the pitch, and the players will make use of it.
I have experimented with mezzalas instead of regular midfielders on attack duty to see if adding three players to a half-space would work. I can be brief on that experiment; it did not work. The mezzalas could not effectively utilise the space, mostly because the inverted wingback and inside forward were often positioned too close to them, restricting their range of movement. This lack of space hindered their ability to contribute effectively to the team’s attacking play.
As the video above shows, by maintaining a more central presence, they act as late runners into the box, providing a target for a low pass backwards for a running midfielder to pounce on. In some cases, the midfielders even end up being the main focal point of the attack. This usually happens when one of the wide players plays a cross pass that beats the defensive line.
The video above shows scoring opportunities available where the central midfielders are the most advanced players on the pitch. This usually happens when one of the wide players plays a cross pass that beats the defensive line, creating opportunities for the central midfielders to be the most.
STEP 5: Bomb the box
Around the opponent’s penalty area, the improvisation of the players completely takes over from De Zerbi’s plans. The most important thing for Brighton is that a lot of men go to the penalty area. They will try to have a presence in or near the box across the entire width of the pitch.
This “bomb the box” theory is all about overwhelming the opponent’s defence with a mass of attacking players. Brighton’s strategy revolves around flooding the penalty area with as many players as possible, creating chaos and confusion for the opposing team. This approach is based on the belief that with so many players in and around the box, there will always be someone in a good position to receive a cross or a rebound and score a goal. By spreading their presence across the entire width of the pitch, Brighton aims to stretch the defence and create gaps for their attacking players to exploit.
In my setup
I think my setup is very self-explanatory. With the addition of the wing-backs, there are five to six players looking to get into the penalty area, providing plenty of options and opportunities.
Any of the videos I linked to earlier will show you the same. There was a lot of movement, and many players bombed into the box.
A variation; more control
Is this tactic foolproof? Nope. Resoundedly not. It works because I have the players to make it work, and even then, there is no guarantee we will defeat stronger opponents. In some of the Champions League games with Maccabi Tel-Aviv, I resorted to a variation of this tactic.
The extra defensive midfielder offers us an additional pivot to evade high-pressing sides. Yes, it lacks some offensive prowess, but it significantly strengthens our defensive structure and minimises the risk of conceding goals. After all, what good are offensive options when you cannot get past the high press to actually get those offensive options involved?