Analysing the Seagulls’ unique build-up and their adaptability when progressing.
Brighton is one of the most up and coming teams in recent years. They currently rank 7th in the Premier League and are set to face Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final. After taking over from Graham Potter, Roberto De Zerbi was able to transform the Seagulls into one of the most dominant possession sides of the Premier League (something he wanted to achieve, as he mentioned in his first press conference). Brighton registers the fourth highest xG from open play (38,16 xG), the second highest amount of passes per sequence (4,11 passes) as well as the third most build-up attacks (111 attacks) and the third longest sequence time (11,04s) in the Premier League (via TheAnalyst). Moreover, Brighton has 59,77% possession on average and 64,61% field tilt (both 3rd highest numbers in the league) according to markstats.
Especially their build-up and progression has caught the eye of many. It’s unique in that sense, as a lot of their in-possession sequences seem to look like counterattacks. The incredibly quick change of tempo with the ball, from literally standing still to a breath-taking passing combination before attacking the last line with a dynamical advantage is truly astonishing.
The aim of the Seagulls’ build-up and progression is to lure the opponent and ultimately find a free man/player with a forward-facing view in the space created between the lines or someone who is capable of accessing a teammate there. Brighton brilliantly prepares their attacks to eventually create optimal conditions, which enable them to threaten the opposition’s last line (e.g.: numerical equality). Additionally, the way how the Seagulls achieve these scenarios can vary and usually depends on the opponent.
“To start with it’s not tiki-taka for the sake of it, it’s the end goal. The end goal is to create 4v4, 3v3 in a big space to go and hurt the opponents. […] The madness behind the methodology is: find the spare player. Draw the pressure, draw the numbers out, and then find the spare man.” (Lallana)
Structural features of Brighton’s 4-2-4
Brighton sets up structurally in a 4-2-4 when building up deep from the goal kick or in the first third of the field. The aim is to stretch the opposition both vertically and horizontally to create space in between the lines. The Seagulls use deep fullbacks and a narrow double pivot, which is in close connection to the two centre backs. Both strikers occupy each half-space and drop slightly in between the lines, while the wingers are positioned high up the field. The aim of Brighton’s wide forwards is to pin the opponent’s last defensive line and stretch them horizontally by hugging the touchline. Nevertheless, they can regularly move diagonally inside to provide an option in behind and restrict the opposition’s centre backs from moving up on the Seagulls’ strikers.
The strength of Brighton’s build-up shape is their strong/close interconnectedness. Of huge importance here are the two wide diamonds and the midfield box (as illustrated in the graphic below). The wide rhombuses are created through a centre back, a 6 alongside a fullback as well as a striker. These diamonds are key for Brighton’s build-up since the ball-carrier has at least three possible passing options in a short distance. Furthermore, the midfield box (or more like a midfield trapezoid) is formed with the double pivot and both strikers. The Seagulls regularly have an overload in the centre with these four players, which is very helpful to outplay the opposition’s press.
Taking advantage of a ball-playing goalkeeper
As already mentioned, a big aim of Brighton’s build-up is to find a spare man. Of immense importance is the incorporation of the goalkeeper from the goal kick and in settled possession in the penalty area. Using the keeper with the ball enables the Seagulls to create an 11v10, as (obviously) the opposition’s keeper doesn’t press. That’s also why Roberto De Zerbi recently relied more on Jason Steele (rather than Roberto Sanchez), who, as the coach himself stated, fits more into his style of play due to his incredible ability to play line-breaking passes and keep possession under pressure.
It obviously depends on how the opponents press, which player(s) they are leaving free. However, when the keeper has the ball, usually one forward from the opposition will look to press him while keeping a centre back in his cover-shadow. That’s because the goalkeeper is normally the weakest player on the pitch with the ball and therefore a pressing trigger for most. Moreover, the aim of this pressing movement is to “take two players out of the game” and “compensate” the overload. Nevertheless, Brighton mostly outplays this situation with a third man combination by using a player from the double pivot as an alternative route to find a free centre back.
Other common scenarios are when an opposing striker presses the goalkeeper while keeping a pivot player in his cover-shadow or a winger presses from out to in (making a direct pass into a fullback inaccessible with his shadow). The key is always to recognise this free player and ideally find him through quick passes on the ground.
Nevertheless, opponents may at times decide to not press Brighton’s keeper at all, essentially making him the free man. This gives the goalkeeper enough time to pick a pass with more accuracy and allows his teammates to position themselves accordingly. However, long balls in behind are another reliable option for the keeper. With both strikers regularly dropping deep and pulling defenders with them, space is potentially created for the wingers to attack through “out-to-in-movements”. Key here is to correctly time the run with the pass, as the ball travels a fairly long time.
Mitoma’s recent goal against Brentford is a perfect example, where the Bees pressed in a man-oriented manner and only kept Brighton’s keeper free. Steele then found Mitoma’s movement in behind (exploiting the space created by the dropping strikers) and ends up scoring:
Another variation is a high ball into one of the strikers (especially Ferguson due to his physicality and height or Welbeck), who are then regularly well-supported with lay-off options.
Even though Brighton wants to build-up short and advance through quick passes on the ground, it’s not always possible or the best option. Using long balls from time to time is a good alternative and shows their adaptability and unpredictability. As Adam Lallana said: “[..] it’s not tiki-taka for the sake of it, it’s the end goal” and maybe using long balls in a specific situation is the more effective way to achieve the end goal (attack the last line with optimal conditions).
In the clip below, De Zerbi brilliantly talks about why he prefers to build-up through short passes but also mentions that he doesn’t always want his teams to do so. You can find the link to this video here.
After this little digression on long balls, let’s get back to Brighton’s aim of finding a free man and accessing the space in between the lines through short passes. To increase this aforementioned space in between the lines and generate this unmarked player, Brighton looks to lure the opponent through various methods.
Baiting the press
“The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.” (Guardiola)
The key to successfully attract the opposition is to make him think that he can win the ball and therefore trigger him to press but then also to find the right timing of exploiting the space created. The Seagulls make use of press-baiting to increase the gap in between the lines by enticing the opposition’s first lines of pressure to move up, while their defensive line is pinned back (essentially disjointing their defensive shape and reducing vertical coverage). Moreover, if just one opponent is attracted and leaves his direct opposition without being backed up by his teammates accordingly, Brighton eventually created a free man.
Simply the high number of players in deep positions (the back four with deep fullbacks and the close double pivot) forces more aggressive oppositions to also use a lot of players to put Brighton under pressure sufficiently, reducing their ability to cover the spaces in deeper zones.
Nevertheless, Brighton uses various mechanisms against more passive oppositions to lure them out of position and make them believe that they can win the ball or make them lose patience and press without being backed up enough.
Provoking with the sole
Everyone who watched Brighton recently has probably noticed that the defenders and the goalkeeper regularly put their studs on the ball. What seems like an observation without much intention at first, turns out to be an effective method for the Seagulls to bait the press.
Putting the sole on the ball regularly provokes the opposition, as the stance alone appears provocative or even arrogant. This then leads to opponents moving out of the defensive structure to engage the ball-carrier because they don’t want to “endure” this seemingly lordly posture.
However, there’s also another aspect of using the sole on the ball, which is not necessarily press-baiting related but more on controlling the tempo, as Roberto De Zerbi talks about in this brilliant video below:
This facet of total control appears, as the ball-carrier is able to play in any direction by standing with his sole on the ball. That’s because his follow-up action is disguised, meaning the opponent can’t anticipate a potential next pass and already move in that direction. On the contrary, if a player uses the inside of his foot to control the ball, his next possible passing options are reduced (making it easier for the opposition to predict it).
Jack perfectly describes the thinking behind using the sole to control the ball or a directional touch within the context of dynamics:
“When you have the dynamic edge, continuing the transition, using the directional pace of a ball to your advantage makes sense; however, in consolidated possession, it grants the opponent the greater benefit of foresight and reduces in possession flexibility and thereby control.” (McCormack)
When coming back to the little video, where De Zerbi talks about the sole control, he mentions that the usage of the sole is once again not the end goal (which is to invite the press and essentially create a free man). It’s therefore important that the players understand the right time to put their studs on the ball and when for example the inside of the foot may be the more effective option.
Another possibility for the centre backs to attract pressure is through short dribbles, as most opponents aren’t well-prepared to deal with these little advancements. This regularly leads to players leaving their opposition to press the centre back without being backed up. The defenders can possibly evade the pressure with a dynamical advantage and access teammates higher up the pitch more easily due to improved angles and shorter distances.
Passing backwards to go forwards
Passing backwards is often seen as unbeneficial, as the ball travels further away from the opponent’s goal. Nevertheless, it’s obviously not always possible to play forwards or a back pass can be the better option in a specific situation. So, what are the advantages/aims of playing the ball backwards?
Firstly, it acts as a pressing trigger for most opponents since the ball doesn’t directly threaten their own goal, giving them “safety” to move up. Because of the press-baiting nature of this pass, Brighton regularly uses it to lure the opposition. Secondly, the receiver of the back pass can have a better angle to continue the attack or find another player, who initially wasn’t accessible before. Thirdly, passing the ball backwards can enable the team to get out of congested zones or relieve the pressure in a specific area.
“[…] a back pass does not indicate fear, but the beginning of another, better play.” (Guardiola)
Brighton applies this principle regularly by staggering their centre backs on different horizontal lines. If one central defender has the ball, the other one positions himself slightly deeper beside him to create a diagonal angle backwards. A common scenario if one centre back has the ball is that he waits with his sole on the ball to attract the opposition before playing the ball backwards to his partner. This back pass then usually increases the pressure as another opponent might engage the new ball-carrier and Brighton eventually generates more space in between the lines or in behind.
Moreover, the diagonal backwards pass takes slightly more time to travel than a simple horizontal pass between the centre backs and initially moves away from the opposition. This gives the receiving central defender a little bit more time to orient himself and watch out for possible following options. Additionally, the centre back already receives with an open body rather than a side-one orientation, which makes further progression faster to execute.
The centre backs can also simply play the ball backwards to the keeper if pressure gets too high. This could potentially attract the opponent as well and stretch him vertically. However, the Seagulls use it more like a safety measurement.
Attracting through the double pivot
Brighton looks to keep the ball in the middle between the centre backs for as long as possible and aims to attract the opposition there, as it’s easier to outplay the pressure in the centre due to the higher amount of passing options than on the wings.
If an opposing striker tries to split the centre backs with his pressing movement, the Seagulls will – as already mentioned – simply use the double pivot to find the other centre back (3rd man combination). It depends on how the opposition presses, but the ball-near 6 is usually open to connect with the other central defender through a wall pass. Nevertheless, the ball-far 6 drops back in the middle slightly just as much, acting as an alternative route to find the free centre back. Key is the little diagonal dropping movement (at times a double movement as well) from the 6s to create a slight separation from their markers and play the pass under less pressure. In addition, this movement from a 6 also increases the space in between the lines even more by dragging the marker with him in deeper zones.
However, rather than using the double pivot to keep the ball in the middle, they can regularly bait the press as well. Simply passing into them usually triggers an opposition to press because of their negative body orientation (facing towards own goal) and letting them turn would enable Brighton to continue the attack in various directions from a strategically valuable area. That’s why the centre backs play regularly into a 6 (even under pressure) “just” for a lay-off back again.
Vital in this context is that the players in the double pivot possess enough press-resistance and are well-aware of their surroundings. They may also use a second touch at times to entice the opposition even more towards them. Generally, using more touches than forcefully playing everything first time in the build-up is an important principle from Brighton (something Julian Nagelsmann propagates as well). Not just because it attracts more pressure and increases the space in between the lines, but the following pass can also be played with more accuracy.
This following pass is, as already mentioned, usually backwards to a centre back (a trigger for most opponents to press). It occurs regularly that after the 6 plays the ball back, his direct marker will press through and engage the centre back. Then it’s about outplaying the pressure, which is possible due to Brighton’s structure but also the forward-facing view of the central defender and their adaptability to the opposition.
Progression – accessing the generated space
Now, after successfully baiting the press (which isn’t the end goal but rather a tool to achieve it), it’s about finding the right timing to progress and access the generated space in between the lines. Brighton doesn’t use any fixed patterns to advance. It always depends on how the opposition presses and which spaces/players are available. Even though there are some recurring passing combinations, these only happen due to the opponent’s decision on how to pressurize and Brighton’s structure (which enables them to solve the situations).
Ahmed’s quote from his article on Brighton’s techno-tactical principles fantastically underlines the Seagulls’ way to build-up and progression subordinated on the opposition:
“Rather than automations, the carrier will adjust and apply his own interpretation, meaning that the opponents are limited in how well they can prepare for the fluctuating tendencies of Brighton’s build up and progression.” (Moallin)
The techno-tactical abilities from the Seagulls are one of the key components, which enable them to play how they want to. Principles such as communicating with the pass and playing into the correct foot are vital to keep the flow. Moreover, the timing and pace of passing the ball as well as the correct positioning depending on various factors (such as teammates, opponents, open/closed spaces, and the current dynamics) are big factors too.
To continue, the centre backs are usually the ones who initiate the progression with their forward-facing view. It’s key to find the right timing and have enough patience before playing in between the lines (which also enables the forwards/midfielders to position themselves accordingly). These passes are ideally played against the grain of the opposition, who is just moving forwards to press, giving Brighton a dynamical advantage, and making it harder for the outplayed opponents to press backwards.
The centre backs have various options to choose from to progress the ball: Both 6s are possibly accessible, the ball-near fullback or potentially both strikers. Further options are a pass back to the centre back partner or the goalkeeper to recycle the ball and get out of the pressure. Additionally, long balls in behind into the runs of the wingers or isolating them in 1v1s through a diagonal switch can be other options (especially against passive opponents, where the centre backs are given a lot of time and space).
Which option the centre backs eventually choose and are even available depends – as now often mentioned – on the opposition. The aim is to access the space in between the lines and find a player with a forward-facing view to continue the attack.
The importance of the double pivot
Brighton’s double pivot plays a big role in the build-up to attract pressure and keep the play centrally by connecting as an alternative route to find a free centre back. However, they are also of immense importance in the Seagulls’ progression.
The centre backs – first and foremost – usually look for the double pivot to progress the ball into higher zones. That’s because of the close connection but also since Brighton aims to progress through the middle of the pitch. These short distances enable quick passing combinations but also make counterpressing easier. Moreover, the double pivot is positioned narrow to not block vertical passing lanes into the strikers.
The Seagulls regularly combine their way through and access the space in between the lines after a centre back finds the ball-far 6 dropping centrally (alongside the ball-near 6 moving slightly forward to increase the passing lane but also create a better staggering for further progression). The at least side-on body orientation of the 6 then allows him to pick between different follow-up actions.
If the 6 receives freely, he will simply turn into this space and look to exploit it with a dribble. Furthermore, if he is under pressure, he can possibly find his midfield partner, who – depending on oppositional pressure – either exploits the space in between the lines himself by turning or finds another player there. Key here is that the initial ball-far 6 turns his body within the right timing to access the other 6. De Zerbi apparently refers to this specific passing sequence as the “S-combination”. Even though this pattern seems like an automatism, as it’s regularly visible in Brighton’s play, it’s a result of the opponent’s pressure and their structure, which acts as a tool and even enables this specific combination in the first place.
Moreover, the ball-far 6 (but also the ball-sided one) can also act as an alternative route to find a fullback. That’s usually done if the fullback has space and can directly exploit it with a dribble (but more on that later). Lastly, the 6 can simply play the ball back to the centre back or find the other centre back if progressive options aren’t available. Therefore, pre-orientation to recognize which follow-up actions are possible and the most effective ones is vital.
I’d like to recommend to you an article from myself on my personal medium page specifically about Brighton’s double pivot under De Zerbi for a more comprehensive analysis.
Usage of the strikers
Looking for the strikers in the half-spaces is usually the next option for the centre back if the middle is closed and a pass into the double pivot isn’t possible. Key here is that the centre backs are capable of playing these vertical balls with sufficient pace and are also brave enough to even attempt them.
However, the forwards also regularly act as a passing option for the double pivot to combine through. In these situations, they might even receive in more space, as the opposition usually looks to suppress Brighton’s central combinations. Therefore, if the Seagulls are able to progress past the pressure, bigger gaps between the lines appear.
Even though the strikers normally occupy deeper positions for long periods, they’ll ideally also at times move forward into the last line to then dynamically occupy the spaces in between the lines again (making them harder to mark). Moreover, their dropping movements create a dilemma for the opposition: following the striker à space in behind for wingers to exploit; remaining to defend the depth à striker can receive with space and turn (leading to forward-facing view). Additionally, the strikers can at times move slightly horizontally into the centre to receive from a centre back passing through the double pivot. Brighton’s forwards are clever enough to recognize situations when it’s better to occupy the half-spaces or to move into the middle. The key is to adapt their positioning on the opponent and offer a passing option by moving out of cover-shadows.
Furthermore, even if spaces in behind are generated when the strikers drag defenders with them, these gaps aren’t easily accessible for Brighton’s centre backs if they are under pressure. Therefore, the Seagulls’ central defenders still regularly play into the strikers even if they have a touch-tight marker behind their backs.
The strikers are capable of playing with their backs to the goal, but they still need to be well-supported to continue the progression and eventually attack the last line with optimal conditions. The receiver of the lay-off has a forward-facing view, which allows him to choose between various options. The nature of vertical passes is that they usually attract a lot of pressure around the ball’s end location. That’s because the receiver has a negative body orientation and the ball moves nearer to the opposition’s goal, which is perceived as dangerous and therefore needs to be stopped. In turn, different dismarking movements and shadow-manipulations from the teammates are vital to outplay these scenarios.
After the vertical pass from a centre back to the respective forward, a set of players will dynamically occupy positions to support the backwards-facing striker. Usually, both 6s would move forward to provide options, the ball-near fullback advances or his striker partner drops diagonally inside to support. These various follow-up options for the striker (on different vertical and horizontal lines) enable Brighton once again to react to the opponent and solve different situations. The support from the ball-near 6 occurs ideally in a diagonal manner, meaning the striker’s direct opponent can’t easily press through on the 6.
The aim is always to find a player with a forward-facing view in between the lines, which can either be the striker himself by turning or one of his lay-off options. The player with the forward-facing view would then either look for a runner in behind, isolate a winger in a 1v1 situation, switch the point of attack or simply dribble into that space.
Furthermore, another option for the centre back if the middle is closed is playing it wide to the fullback.
Advancing through the fullbacks
The fullbacks are rarely employed from Brighton in the build-up to move the opposition horizontally but are regularly used for direct progression and can receive in big spaces. As most opponents aim to restrict the Seagulls’ central advancements, spaces obviously open up in the wide areas.
Especially Pervis Estupinan is an attack-minded fullback, who continuously moves past his opposing winger (especially against narrow wingers) to receive in between the lines in the wide areas directly and eventually exploit the space with an aggressive dribble. Vital here is the constant occupation of the strikers in between the lines, which can force the opponent’s wingers to stay narrow (cutting out passing lanes into the half-spaces), meaning the fullbacks can receive with more time and it’s easier to advance on the blind-side. If the opposing wingers decide to stay wider or move out too early, the vertical passing lane is opened to the striker. Again, a dilemma is created.
However, it’s more common that Brighton holds the ball in the centre of the pitch and then finds a fullback in even more space out wide after the middle got congested through the short passes. Methods of finding the fullbacks have already been mentioned with either a 6 or a striker acting as an alternative route to access the wide defenders (3rd man combinations).
“The principle idea of Positional Play is that players pass the ball to each other in close spaces to be able to pass to a wide open man.” (Lillo)
Nevertheless, just using the fullbacks to find them in big spaces isn’t always possible. Even though they are mostly the last option for the centre backs, they can still be valuable. Sometimes, they are even the only progressive option. Brighton then likes to use the fullbacks to progress from out to in. The wide defenders can regularly find a 6 or a striker from this different angle.
Another option for the fullbacks is to then play the ball further forwards to the wingers and isolate them in 1v1 situations, where they can outplay their individual dribbling brilliance. The fullbacks ideally occupy a slightly narrow position, leading to diagonal pass into the winger (not a long line ball, where the winger receives with a suboptimal body orientation to take on his direct opposition). Key is also that the fullbacks support their wide forwards instantly after playing the ball through over- and underlaps, giving them options in behind or dragging opponents with them to open spaces. Long balls from the fullbacks in behind into the runs of the wingers to use their pace aren’t uncommon either.
The ability of being able to progress sufficiently both through the centre and the wide areas makes Brighton an unpredictable team, who can flexibly react to the opposition.
This article only focused on Brighton’s build-up and progression methods within their 4-2-4 shape. The Seagulls however mostly transition into another structure against low blocks or generally after advancing into the middle third (depending on the opponent and sometimes more often or earlier). That’s usually a 2-3-5 with narrow fullbacks and one 6 pushing into a half-space or a 3-2-5, using asymmetric fullbacks and an inverted winger. The principles in possession remain mostly the same but they are having an extra player in the last line and a more compact rest-defence to counterpress quickly. In addition, they’ll look to create a lot of chances through up-back-through-combinations and in the wide areas (using different passing patterns and player rotations).
To conclude, Brighton’s build-up and progression is one of the best in the world or, according to Pep Guardiola, even the best in the world. Their principles of attracting pressure and finding a free player with a forward-facing view are fantastically executed. The Seagulls are well-drilled – and possess the technical qualities – to deal with each different situation to eventually achieve the end goal of attacking the last line with optimal numerical conditions (as Adam Lallana mentioned in the beginning of this article).
I hope you enjoyed this analysis, and I was able to provide a good overall insight into Brighton’s tactical approach under Roberto De Zerbi. Lastly, I’d like to leave you with a beautiful build-up and progression sequence, which contains a lot of the methods mentioned in this text: