Brighton were rampant, ruthless and utterly brilliant. They showed many of their former manager’s best traits, playing with style, intelligence and tactical flexibility, but it was no act of tribute. It was Potterball with a Zerbian fanfare and, as Chelsea walked off the pitch to the sound of mockery ringing in their ears full time, no one inside the Amex Stadium could have made the mistake of thinking that Brighton longed for the past.
There was no room for any feelings. Watching from an unknown place in the distant dugout, Graham Potter found himself powerless to silence the mockery. Nothing was going to deprive Roberto De Zerbi of his first victory as manager of Brighton and, once the dust settled, it was up to Potter to question his tactics, to wonder why control had slipped from Chelsea and even to suggesting his use of Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as the wingers had left him looking “a bit silly”.
It was an agonizing way to end the former Brighton manager’s nine-game unbeaten run. Potter’s former employers were seeking revenge and they ruthlessly exploited Chelsea’s weaknesses. De Zerbi had his side primed to attack down the flanks, where the positioning of Sterling and Pulisic exposed an overworked back three, and the approach paid off in an opening spell that ended with Chelsea grateful only to be down 3-0.
For De Zerbi, who had gone five games without a win since replacing Potter, it was vindication of his attacking philosophy. “We played a fantastic game,” Brighton manager said. “We played with courage.”
There was also anger. The curious back and forth between these clubs caused the home fans to start crying blood from the start. There was mockery for Marc Cucurella, vitriol for Potter and his coaches, and the venomous atmosphere lifted Brighton, whose overarching goal seemed to force anyone tempted to call them feeder club Chelsea to think again.
The week, after all, had started with Chelsea looking to sign Brighton director of recruitment Paul Winstanley. The dynamic looked daunting, with one member of the elite using their deep pockets to outwit a smaller rival, and Brighton had a point to prove.
Their football blew Chelsea away. Thiago Silva, whose distribution from the back was poor, cleared goal-line clearances from Leandro Trossard and Pervis Estupiñán during the opening minutes, and the visitors quickly cracked. Soft play in midfield allowed Kaoru Mitoma to find Trossard, who danced around Kepa Arrizabalaga and tapped the ball into an empty net.
With Alexis Mac Allister and Moisés Caicedo outplaying Mateo Kovacic and Conor Gallagher in midfield, Brighton dominated. The stewards had to hold the fans back near the Chelsea dugout and emotion got the better of De Zerbi, who scored the first home goal of his tenure as he charged down the field.
De Zerbi joined a good smart club. Brighton’s creative juices were flowing and they doubled their lead after more chaotic Chelsea defending, Solly March’s corner brushing past Gallagher and Ruben Loftus-Cheek turning the ball into his own net in the 14th minute.
Potter had missed his tactic. De Zerbi had his side in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Adam Lallana plotting behind Trossard, and Brighton continuing to chase past Pulisic and Sterling. Combinations between Estupinan and Mitouma were a threat down the left and March had the time of his life against Cucurella, who had a disastrous afternoon against his former side at left centre-back.
Still, there were reminders of the threat from Chelsea. Gallagher was denied by two brilliant saves from Robert Sanchez and Pulisic missed an open goal. It turned out to be expensive. Brighton pushed for a third and got it just before half-time. Again they broke through on the left, Caicedo releasing Estupiñán, whose reduction was deflected by Trevoh Chalobah.
It was a disaster for Chelsea, who had to replace the injured Arrizabalaga with Édouard Mendy, and Potter made adjustments during the interval. The wing-back experiment was over, Loftus-Cheek switched to right-back and Chelsea had hope when Kai Havertz headed in for Gallagher’s cross.
Yet despite everything Chelsea pushed, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coming on to extend Robert Sánchez, the comeback never materialized. In the end, the occasion was summed up by locals heckling Cucurella when the £62.5m defender went off in the 64th minute. Chelsea had been outplayed and the fourth goal came when Mendy saved a shot from substitute Julio Enciso in stoppage time.
There was Pascal Gross, who had started the day as a right-back, popping up on the left to score the rebound. Ever smart and versatile, Brighton were in no mood for forgiveness.
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