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The rise of Brighton: Seagulls flying high in Europe

Brighton continue to surprise the pundits and their impressive progress shows no signs of letting up, after winning their Europa League group.

Roberto De Zerbi has certainly increased his stock since arriving at the Amex Stadium, starting by leading the Seagulls into Europe for the first time in their history.

Not content with just playing European football though, Brighton went on to win Group B – which included Marseille, Ajax and AEK Athens.

The Italian saw his team lose just one of their six group games and amass 13 points, following a 1-0 home win over their French opponents in their final match.

De Zerbi stated afterwards that his team "deserved to top the group" and that he has aspirations to go deep in the tournament.

The Brighton boss added: "This is the best moment in my time [here]. We want to dream. We want to prepare for that game for our best to win another step."

Finishing top of Group B means that the Seagulls will avoid the Europa League knockout play-off round and head straight into the last-16 in the spring. 

High-profile exits don't impact Brighton

After over a decade of significant progress, even losing Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister in the summer has not derailed Brighton's progress, adding experience through free agents Mahmoud Dahoud and James Milner and providing extra excitement through the signing of Carlos Baleba.

After fluffing their lines on their European debut against AEK Athens, De Zerbi's side responded by coming from behind to draw 2-2 at Marseille before announcing themselves with last month's 2-0 home win over Ajax.

A 2-0 win in Amsterdam was a profound statement and another example of how far they had come, outplaying one of the great, albeit currently struggling, names of European football.

The result in Amsterdam and then the home success over Marseille were by no means accidents or luck, but the culmination of years of progress and the Seagulls' current trajectory hints that they are far from finished.

Steady progress for the Seagulls

Football clubs are often criticised for their extravagant spending, seemingly happy to gamble on players to help push them to the next level. Brighton's recent history is hardly an experiment in thrift, but they have always been sensible.

The Seagulls looked set to go out of business in the late 1990s but were saved by Dick Knight, who chaired the club between 1997 and 2009, steadily growing the Seagulls before Tony Bloom took over and successfully secured funding for a new stadium.

Bloom immediately set about installing structure across the club, with succession planning and long-term vision the cornerstones of his approach. After a nomadic existence, which saw them at one stage play their games in Gillingham, the Amex is an established Premier League ground and has become a lightning rod for exciting, young coaching talent.

The chairman's bravery in identifying and backing Gus Poyet, Oscar Garcia, Sami Hyypia, Graham Potter and now De Zerbi on the promise that they will play attacking football has paid off. 

Of those, only Hyypia struggled, but Bloom responded by adapting his style to appoint the more experienced Chris Hughton, who guided the club into the Premier League and established them in the top flight before making way for Potter in 2019.

What do young coaches need? Young players, of course, but the Seagulls have made excellent use of the free agency market to inject experience into their side. More importantly, their scouting system and ability to identify talent in lesser leagues is the world's envy.

Few would have heard of Caicedo and Mac Allister before they signed for a combined £12m, only to be sold for around £150m.

Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma, Ben White and others have also come in for low fees before being sent on for big money and relative bargains Joao Pedro, Simon Adingra and Kaoru Mitoma all featured in Amsterdam alongside free signings Dahoud and Milner.

De Zerbi dares to dream

For all their previous progress under Potter, his demeanour often demonstrated an uncertainty about whether the club could make the next step. He was perhaps unfairly criticised for joining Chelsea in September 2022 and he might have gained a glimpse into the future on his first return to the Amex.

The almost unknown De Zerbi was named Potter's replacement soon after his departure to Stamford Bridge and drew 3-3 at Liverpool in his first game in charge. A mixed run followed before Chelsea turned up on 29th October and were duly dispatched 4-1 in a swashbuckling performance. That fearlessness and readiness to challenge the bigger clubs have defined De Zerbi's reign.

Potter had already departed Chelsea by the time his former side won April's reverse victory 2-1 and that contributed to the Seagulls finishing sixth in the Premier League, the highest in the club's history.

De Zerbi's side also lost on penalties to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and their success even led to suggestions he could replace Potter again, this time at Chelsea.

Momentum maintained

That was never going to happen, with the 44-year-old clearly onto a good thing on the south coast. His steady success at Sassuolo and Shakhtar Donetsk shows he knows how to build a team and mentor young talent.

Brighton's excellent scouting system and determination to give youth a chance has set them apart, with the scorers in their two wins over Ajax being perfect examples. 

They moved early to buy Joao Pedro from Watford last May, while Adingra remains a relative unknown, whom they brought in from Danish football and sent out on loan last term to Belgian partner club Union SG.

Ansu Fati is arguably the poster boy. Would Brighton really have been able to sign a La Masia graduate if Barcelona were not 100 percent sure that he would be playing under a manager who would utilise him in what they perceive to be the right way?

Injuries cost Fati his confidence at Barca and even though fitness issues have also impacted him since his move, he looks to be rediscovering his belief under De Zerbi, who also seems to know how to handle him.

Big 2024 ahead for Brighton

A major trophy has to be Brighton's goal. They are 18/1 to win the Europa League and, having been knocked out of the EFL Cup, are 16/1 for FA Cup glory.

The signs are that De Zerbi's squad can handle fighting on different fronts and qualifying in Europe via the league again will be another target.

The Seagulls are 12/1 to claim a top-four finish in 2023/24, with a Premier League top-six spot available to back at 11/4.


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