Photography: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Shortly after Saturday’s final whistle at Stamford Bridge came a moving gesture from Roberto De Zerbi. Having finished celebrating Brighton’s deserved win against Chelsea with his coaching staff, he walked over to a dejected-looking Mykhailo Mudryk and, in the late afternoon sun, embraced the Ukrainian.
Warm words were exchanged as well and all in all, it seemed like a good time between two men who have spent 16 months working together at Shakhtar Donetsk. It might even have been what Mudryk needed after another game in which he looked to be an £89million winger. After all, it was under De Zerbi’s guidance that Mudryk’s career ignited at Shakhtar, the Italian’s brilliance as a manager unlocked the 22-year-old’s extraordinary talents, and in that meeting may have come the very encouragement that kept him led to repeat the feat in London.
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Who knows, but what is certain is that despite all his current struggles, Mudryk embodies De Zerbi’s ability to get the best out of young talent. He should, and no doubt does, excite everyone at Brighton, and especially when it comes to Julio Enciso, the 19-year-old Paraguayan striker whose rocket-shooting secured three points for the visitors at the weekend. It was a breathtaking strike that capped off an excellent performance by the player in his 11th league appearance following a £9.5m summer transfer from Asunción club Libertad. They all came as deputies, highlighting Brighton’s ability to not only unearth gems but patiently oversee their progress.
As for Enciso specifically, De Zerbi has clearly put a lot of thought into his growth, using the teenager as a substitute in the league and FA Cup as he made his Carabao Cup debut, and following his last and most flamboyant appearance for the club came De Zerbi’s request not only to continue developing but to do it better. “Enciso is improving but he can improve further,” said the coach. “He finished playing after his goal and I don’t want to see him. He has to think about the team first and then about himself. If he wants to become a great player he has to improve his mentality.”
A harsh judgment perhaps given the circumstances but, as De Zerbi continued, he did “the same job with Mudryk” and it went quite well for him. And ultimately that’s what the 43-year-old does: he relentlessly and uncompromisingly demands the very best from his players, something Brighton captain Lewis Dunk believes has been central to their excellent form since De Zerbi arrived on the south coast in September.
“With this manager we work hard on the training ground every day and everyone knows the details,” said the centre-back. “I also know the details of the positions that I don’t need to know because I don’t play those positions.
“This is the way we work and the way we play, which is also to dominate matches. Since this coach has been around, I don’t think there have been many games where we haven’t dominated.”
Brighton certainly dominated on Saturday. They had 26 shots on target, the most Chelsea have ever faced in a Premier League home game. Quite simply the visitors were brilliant, in and out of possession, and what made their triumph particularly impressive was that it came in the face of adversity, namely going behind to Conor Gallagher’s goal in the 13th minute and losing Joël Veltman and Evan Ferguson to serious injury.
In tribute to the defeat to Tottenham the previous week, he was also denied a penalty after Christian Pulisic’s handball in the 21st minute, but there was no panic or loss of composure, and that speaks volumes for the depth of the Brighton, as well as the character and collective flair that were two substitutes who scored their goals, with Danny Welbeck bringing them level before Enciso stole the show.
Brighton continue to develop and are no doubt looking forward to Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United. Chelsea, by contrast, have to fear Real Madrid’s Champions League visit on Tuesday.
They remain a mess, lacking any sense of strategy or commitment to the cause. Frank Lampard insists it’s largely down to fatigue and a lack of confidence, which may be true, but it’s also true that Todd Boehly’s decision to bring Lampard back to the club on an interim basis was a mistake. It’s now three straight losses for someone who is clearly not a very good manager, who was brutally exposed over the weekend by someone who clearly is.
Indeed Chelsea could do far worse than target De Zerbi in the summer. Mudryk, for example, would no doubt approve.