During the 2022-23 season, Roberto De Zerbi's Brighton team has stunned the Premier League with a totally original brand of football that's helping them charge toward the European places. Competing against clubs with star names and far bigger budgets — this season alone, they've claimed scalps including Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea — they've shown that there's an alternative path to success; however, it's one that's taken a while to be built, with lots of intelligent decisions made year after year.
It wasn't long ago that Brighton & Hove Albion were in financial ruin, without a home stadium of their own, and at risk of dropping out of the professional leagues altogether. However, under the stewardship of owner Tony Bloom, who took over the club in 2009, the Seagulls have experienced a steady rise up the football pyramid. In 2023, the club looks set to record its highest-ever finish — but what's the story behind this success?
In this article, we'll take you through the key principles and processes that have been implemented at Brighton to ensure that they can punch above their weight and compete admirably in the Premier League. We'll discuss tactics and strategy, the chairman's influence, scouting and recruitment of players and staff, and the all-important question: will the Seagulls be playing European football next season? But before we start discussing on-pitch performance in detail, we're going to start from the very top of the club: the ownership.
Tony Bloom's takeover of Brighton & Hove Albion in 2009 marked a serious turning point for the Sussex club. The English sports bettor, poker player, and entrepreneur is a lifelong Brighton fan, and this, coupled with the great work he's done since becoming majority owner, has endeared him to the Brighton faithful. Add to the mix the fact that Bloom's takeover was preceded by a disastrous period in the club's history — in the late 90s and early 00s Brighton were homeless and financially stricken, playing at Gillingham's Priestfield Stadium, then the dilapidated Withdean, after the forced sale of their home stadium the Goldstone Ground — and you can see why Seagulls fans can regularly be heard chanting his name.
After securing his 75% shareholding, Bloom invested £94m into the development of the club's new ground at Falmer, now called the Amex Stadium for sponsorship reasons. His investment and shrewd decision-making allowed the first team to knock on the door of the Premier League for successive seasons in the mid-2010s, before finally gaining promotion in the 2016-17 season. Since then, they've established themselves as a strong Premier League club as well as reaching two FA Cup semi-finals, thanks to the work of managers Chris Hughton, Graham Potter, and now the aforementioned Roberto De Zerbi. Over this period of time, a massive part of their success has boiled down to their advanced scouting network.
Tony Bloom's background in sports betting has played an important role in Brighton's strategy in recent years. In order to compete with clubs that have far bigger budgets than them, staff at Brighton & Hove Albion have adopted a 'Moneyball' approach to recruitment that focuses heavily on data, analytics, and untapped potential. In a similar way to Brentford owner Matthew Benham (another businessman who made his fortune from professional gambling), Bloom has followed a philosophy of using data-driven analytics to predict player potential and scout out talent that other clubs are missing. Expected Goals is used heavily, with people hired to analyse chances created in matches, diving deeper into key performance indicators rather than surface-level performance.
"If we are going for a 25-26-year-old who is Premier League ready, I'd say two-thirds of the Premier League would be able to outbid us from a transfer fee and wages point of view," former Brighton Technical Director Dan Ashworth told The Athletic in 2021. "Our recruitment strategy has got to be a bit different. Hence, we've tended to either go to a different market or buying potential rather than performance." With Brighton widening their gaze to South America, East Asia, and the European lower divisions, they've been able to highlight talent that other clubs are missing.
This strategy is risky, as if you're not signing players that have been proven to perform at the highest level, they may not be able to cut it. However, this system has allowed Brighton to pluck gem after gem out, seemingly from nowhere. The talented players they've unearthed from countries across the world including Ecuador, Paraguay, and Japan include Moises Caicedo, Alexis Mac Allister, Yves Bissouma, Marc Cucurella, and Kaoru Mitoma. And crucially, the club has been excellent at selling their top players at the peak of their market value; last summer, they made huge profits on Cucurella (sold for £62m to Chelsea) and Bissouma (£25m to Spurs), while academy graduate Ben White left for £50m to Arsenal in 2021. Meanwhile, the club's clever recruitment model means there is always a ready-made replacement (Caicedo, Estupinan, or Ferguson, for example) who can slot into the starting XI when high-profile players depart.
It's not just playing personnel that are scouted heavily at Brighton — the club also place a lot of focus on exactly what staff they're hiring, and in what roles. As Albion CEO Paul Barber told Jobs In Football in a 2021 interview: "We have a brilliant team of people who buy in to the club's values and treat all our fans and our visitors well. That mentality has been ingrained into our staff and I still think that's unusual in football." The atmosphere Barber is talking about has partly been achieved by the hiring of staff members from within Bloom's betting businesses, which ensures that incoming members of the background staff are fully invested in the stats and data-influenced approach the club has to football. And in the scouting department, which as discussed is closely linked to this interest in data and analytics, the Seagulls have taken a seriously innovative approach to things.
Rather than organising recruitment based on geography, which is what most clubs do, Brighton's scouting model is structured around player positions. This change was implemented by Dan Ashworth and Head of Recruitment Paul Winstanley. At the club, four Senior Scouting Managers oversee different positions, instead of overseeing scouting in different regions or countries. For example, Pete Blumer is in charge of scouting centre-backs for the first team — a particularly important job given De Zerbi's specific possession-based style (more on this shortly). Senior Scouting Managers will oversee a pool of scouts, who produce player reports and work closely with recruitment analysts at the club. Brighton & Hove Albion have consistently advertised jobs for player positional scouts, and as you'll see in the next section of this article, that positional focus seems to have had some impressive results.
If you've watched even a handful of Brighton games this season, you'll have been struck by the emergence of a distinct style of play, one which the Premier League has never seen before, at least not exactly. Since arriving on the south coast in September 2022, Italian coach Roberto De Zerbi (formerly of Shakhtar Donetsk, Sassuolo, and Benevento) has implemented a style of football that's based on patient, controlled possession, built up methodically from the very back. His goalkeeper, whether it's Robert Sanchez and Jason Steele, is expected to be comfortable with the ball at his feet, and his centre-backs (captain Lewis Dunk and one of either Levi Colwill or Adam Webster) even more so. Every single attack starts with those two central defenders, whose patient possession then shifts quickly to midfield as fast-paced, precise passing is used to beat the opposition press, exploit the space left by advancing opponents, and launch devastating attacks.
A recent article by Guardian football writer Jonathan Liew examined the benefits of De Zerbi's tactical approach. Liew explained how after playing the ball out from the goalkeeper, "Brighton will often continue patiently recycling the ball in their own danger zone, often for up to 10 or 15 passes. The idea of this possession tightrope is to provoke opponents into overstretching, committing one too many to the press, at which point Brighton neatly play their way out… and wreak havoc in the open spaces." It's a marvellous strategy to watch — when Dunk picks his moment and fires a pass through a gap in an opposition midfield toward Caicedo or Mac Allister, Brighton are able to cut multiple players out of the game and leave attackers with tons of space to attack into.
With average possession stats of 62.3%, 55 goals scored, and an Expected Goals (xG) of 60.22 (at the time of writing), this tactical blueprint has clearly caused serious problems for opposition teams in the Premier League. And De Zerbi's system has also had a profound impact on other well-respected coaches in the EPL. According to Pep Guardiola, "They propose a type of game we're not used to. His impact in England will be massive."
Brighton's unique, forward-thinking combination of outside-the-box player scouting, smart staff recruitment, analytical acumen, long-term thinking, and tactical innovation means that they're well on the road to establishing themselves within the upper echelons of the English game. At the time of writing, they have a very strong chance of securing European football for the first time in their history, either by qualifying for the Europa League with a 5th or 6th-place finish, or by finishing 7th and grabbing a spot in the Europa Conference League.
Given everything that we've discussed in this article, you'd be bold to write them off. With De Zerbi's risky, enticing brand of possession-based football taking the Premier League by storm and causing real problems for opposition players and coaches, it's hard to overstate what their ceiling might be. However, they face a tricky run-in, with games against Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Newcastle all coming up in the next few weeks.
For more information about Brighton's rise up the leagues, check out our in-depth interview with club CEO Paul Barber, who has played an important role in shaping the club's culture, values, and daily operations over the last few years. Or, if you'd like to find out more about a similar club using data and analytics to compete with the country's biggest clubs and drive an exciting charge up the Premier League, you might want to check out our guide to Brentford FC and their innovative set piece strategy. The work of specialist coaches like Gianni Vio, Nicolas Jover, and Andreas Georgson over in West London has forced people to sit up and take notice of the Bees. Don't be surprised if, like Brighton, they're soon competing seriously for European qualification.
About The Author
Fred Garratt-Stanley is a freelance football writer, Norwich City fan, and amateur footballer for South London side AFC Oldsmiths. For Jobs in Football, he's covered subjects including the rise of set-piece coaching, the role of xG in football, and the growth of tactical ideas like gegenpressing and zonal marking. He's also written about football for publications such as British GQ, VICE, FanSided, Football League World, and more