Roberto De Zerbi must succeed at Marseille if he wants an elite job

Roberto De Zerbi’s move to Marseille will prove defining when it comes to his future as a top-level manager.

This move is the now 45-year-old Italian’s fourth new job in six years (in four different countries) and it will shape the trajectory of his career. He joined Sassuolo in his homeland in summer 2018, before moving to Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine just under three years later, then to Brighton & Hove Albion in England 16 months later. Now Marseille have presented him with an opportunity to re-establish a reputation that has lost some of its shine.

How it pans out in the south of France will determine whether De Zerbi gets employed by a truly elite club further down the line or whether he is destined to keep coaching at a slightly lower level.

De Zerbi had been linked, with varying degrees of validity during and after his 20 months at Brighton, with giants like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Guiding Brighton to a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League in 2022-23, helping the club qualify for Europe for the first time, all while employing an exciting, daring style with an emphasis on playing out from the back, made the Italian hot property. However, his star waned in the final three months of his tenure at the Amex Stadium.

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De Zerbi acknowledges Brighton’s fans after his final game (Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

A 4-1 defeat on aggregate against Roma in the Europa League’s round of 16 in March (including a 4-0 first-leg demolition in his homeland) was followed by one win in the last 10 Premier League games, a run which saw Brighton drop to a final position of 11th. De Zerbi left by mutual consent in May.



What now for Roberto De Zerbi?

But after spending a month out of work, Marseille’s club president Pablo Longoria has landed a coach he wanted to hire in 2022, when De Zerbi’s time at Shakhtar was cut short with domestic football at a halt following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that February.

Marseille and De Zerbi could not agree personal terms then, and former Croatia international Igor Tudor was appointed.

De Zerbi, speaking before Brighton drew 2-2 away to Marseille at the Stade Velodrome in the group stage of the Europa League last October, said: “Yes, it is true, there was the possibility to come here, and for me it was a dream solution, but we didn’t find an agreement.

“I felt sorry about it, because the stadium and these fans would have been a big motivation for me. The club reminds me a bit of Napoli when I was there as a player, in terms of the passion.”

Modern-day Marseille are not the European heavyweights they once were.

They were crowned champions of Europe in 1993, the old European Cup’s first season rebranded as the Champions League, having reached the final two years earlier, and have been runners-up in the UEFA Cup/Europa League three times (1999, 2004 and 2018). Domestically, their nine titles are third-most after the 12 by Paris Saint-Germain and Saint Etienne’s 10 (though their most recent came in 2009-10, under the management of former Marseille club captain and now France national-team manager Didier Deschamps) and they have lifted the Coupe de France 10 times, albeit their most recent triumph was in 1989.



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They finished eighth in 18-team Ligue 1 last season, 26 points adrift of champions Paris Saint-Germain — which in some ways will be an advantage for De Zerbi as there is scope for significant improvement and the chance to restore former glories.

However, there are pitfalls as well. Working for Longoria could be one of them.

The 38-year-old Spaniard, a former scout at clubs including Newcastle United, Atalanta and Sassuolo (he had moved to Juventus before De Zerbi was appointed six years ago), has been a key figure under Frank McCourt, the American who bought the club in 2016 for €45million (£38m/$48.2m at the current exchange rate).

Tudor lasted one season as Marseille’s coach, which is a long reign by recent standards.

Replacement Marcelino, Longoria’s countryman and a long-time friend, lasted just seven games at the start of last season — the 58-year-old had a tense relationship with Marseille’s notoriously demanding fans.

De Zerbi’s compatriot, Gennaro Gattuso, appointed shortly before Brighton’s visit, did not fare much better. His five months in charge, spanning 24 matches with nine wins, eight draws and seven losses, included a 1-0 defeat in the return at the Amex in December.

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De Zerbi and Gattuso embrace on the touchline (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

That result meant Brighton went straight through to the last 16 of the competition as group winners, while Marseille were condemned to the knockout round play-offs as runners-up. However, the French club ended up going further in the competition than Brighton under Gattuso’s French successor Jean-Louis Gasset.

Famously sacked after the Africa Cup of Nations’ group stage in January by an Ivory Coast side who went on to win that competition under interim manager Emerse Fae, Gasset took Marseille to the semi-finals, via victories over Shakhtar, Villarreal and Benfica, before losing 4-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Atalanta. Gasset retired at the end of the season at age 70.

Marseille were particularly poor when deprived of the intimidating atmosphere in their 67,000-seater Stade Velodrome last season — winning just three times in 17 league games on their travels, the fourth-worst away record in the French top flight.

There is another warning sign flashing for De Zerbi. In February 2021, Andre Villas-Boas resigned as their manager due to a disagreement regarding transfer business. His replacement, Jorge Sampaoli, left 16 months later citing frustrations with transfer policies as the reason for his exit.

At this point, it is worth remembering the main reason for De Zerbi and Brighton parting company was fundamental disagreements over the profile of players being targeted by the club.

Despite all of this, De Zerbi is entitled to regard Marseille as an upgrade on Brighton. They regularly feature in the top 20 of the Deloitte Football Money League — at the end of the 2022–2023 season, it said they had the 20th-highest revenue in the world at approximately £218million ($276m at the current rate) — and they have an illustrious history.

Gattuso, speaking about De Zerbi when the clubs met in December, said he was “driving the biggest teams in England crazy”.

If De Zerbi gets it right with Marseille, European football’s elite will be crazy about him again. If it goes wrong, his reputation may well be permanently tarnished.

(Top photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

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