Roberto De Zerbi said Pep Guardiola is “still No 1” and revealed the Manchester City boss inspired him to become a coach, after Brighton held the champions to a 1-1 draw.
Guardiola lavished praise on his opposite number in the build-up to the game at the Amex Stadium, describing the 43-year-old Italian, who has guided Brighton into next year’s Europa League, as “one of the most influential managers” of the last 20 years.
De Zerbi responded after the pair had gone head to head on the south coast, where Julio Enciso’s stunning goal cancelled out Phil Foden’s opener in a frenetic game, and said he still regards the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich as the world’s best.
“I became a coach because of him,” he said to Sky Sports. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but I became a coach for him because I loved his Barcelona and I studied him a lot.
“I don’t love to copy anybody, but I took [things from him] when I started to be a coach, and before, also, when I finished as a player. Pep is still No 1.”
The draw ensured Brighton will finish in sixth place, making this the best season in the club’s history, and De Zerbi was proud of the “courage” his players showed in going toe to toe with Guardiola’s.
“It was very tough,” he said. “We knew to play against Man City is always tough. We played very well, we deserved to make our point – and we deserve to play in the Europa League.
“When the situation was difficult we didn’t lose our style. To press Man City man to man on every side of the pitch, I think that is courage.”
De Zerbi, who also praised Enciso’s stunning equaliser as “incredible”, admitted he did not feel a Europa League finish was possible when he took the job following Graham Potter’s departure in September.
“No, but I didn’t think about the table,” he said. “I wanted to work and analyse the team, the players, understand a new country, a new league. And then, in February, I started to think about the goal.
“I’m lucky because I found a fantastic group of players. I’m a good coach but without the players… When I have to analyse something in football, I always start with the players.”
Pep: We drank all the alcohol in Manchester
Guardiola, meanwhile, once again talked up De Zerbi’s Brighton after the game and also stated his pride at how his side performed so soon after celebrating their Premier League title triumph.
“Exceptional game,” he told Sky Sports. “Congratulations to Brighton for their deserved qualification to the Europa League.
“The game we played, 40 hours after I think we drank all the alcohol in Manchester, showed the reason why we are the champion. I didn’t see any drop of intensity in our idea. They had chances, we had chances.
“This team destroy the other opponents, the way they play, and they did in certain moments tonight, especially the last 10 or 15 minutes of the first half, when we struggled. But the second half, we adjusted and we did really well.
“It’s normal that we could drop points or a little bit of intensity being champion, but I didn’t see it. Now, during the week, we have to rest and recover mentally.”
Rosenior: De Zerbi an absolute genius
Former Brighton defender and current Hull City manager Liam Rosenior was part of the Sky Sports punditry team, and was left in awe of what he saw from the two sides, describing De Zerbi as an “absolute genius” for how he has transformed Brighton.
“Watching the match as a young manager, the bravery of both coaches, the pressing that they gave to the game, the fact they were willing to go one to one with the best striker on the planet, that’s the bravery,” he said.
“That says everything about the way De Zerbi is coaching this team. I think he’s an absolute genius.
“I know Pep said it yesterday, and I’m going to say it now, there are certain coaches who come along – [Arrigo] Sacchi with Milan, Pep has come along and changed the game…
“What De Zerbi is doing with this Brighton team is something different, something new in provoking the press in the way they build, they scored again from the goalkeeper tonight.”