Roberto De Zerbi's lack of substitutions shows that Brighton will need to invest heavily in the summer
This time they entered the City Ground cauldron, to face a Nottingham Forest side ready to give the blood and thunder required to survive relegation. Brighton had the better side on paper, but would need to match the home side’s desire and desperation to gain the three points.
De Zerbi named eight of the same players that started at Wembley, seven of which played the full game, and it showed. Especially in the second half.
Drawing 1-1 at half-time, Forest eventually ran out 3-1 winners. Their second goal perfectly summed Brighton’s night. Dunk’s pass into Caicedo saw the midfielder caught on his heels and had the ball pinched off him by Danillo, who drove towards goal and put Forest in front.
While Caicedo can take the blame for that goal, he is easily forgiven. Not only because he has countless man-of-the-match performances already in the bank from this season, but also for the fact that by that point he had played three hours of football in three days.
Brighton’s core group of players are some of the best in the league, but even they need support from their peers. Right now, it is not something De Zerbi is allowing them to have.
The Italian has clear objectives for the club to achieve by the end of this season, but seemingly only trust a select number of players to help him achieve it.
Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister both played the full game on Sunday and Wednesday, despite central midfielders Billy Gilmour and Yasin Ayari being named on the bench for both games.
You would assume as some point at least one of them would come on? Bearing in that Brighton’s usual midfield duo had started nearly every game for the club this season and featured heavily in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Following Wednesday’s defeat, De Zerbi said: “We lost energy in the second half to play a football game. We didn't change too many players in the first eleven. It is a difficult period for us because we are not used to playing three games in a week. We have to fight to reach our target.
"We have a lot of injuries. Today, we played without [Adam] Lallana, [Jeremey] Sarimineto, [Evan] Ferguson. I didn't want to take risk, with [Joel] Veltman, [Danny] Welbeck and [Adam] Webster. We payed for it.
"We will speak with Tony [Bloom] at the end of the season. We are suffering too many injuries. We have a lot of young players, who are very good, but the young players need to play and make mistakes and you have to give them the right time to progress and improve.”
De Zerbi has made it clear, the squad is too thin to compete at the highest level, a few injuries and a once formidable-looking team looks feeble around the edges.
This is not a shock, Brighton have had to be cute and clever in building a team that could compete some of England and Europe’s biggest clubs this season, and a number of years of work have go in to creating such a squad.
But what the Italian has made clear is that the Brighton boss demands for the club to remain at this level whilst he is in charge.
Therefore, he is not willing to take key players off in games for the sake of resting their legs and bringing on a player he deems to be weaker. A Caicedo at 60% is better then Gilmour at 100%.
This is the top-level mentality De Zerbi believes in. A ruthless perfectionist whose first and only focus is winning, every single minute of every single day.
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He clearly sees a lot of the Brighton players, but maybe not enough for them to be competing in Europe next season.
He said: “It is tough because we are not used to playing so many games in a row. I’m 44 years and I knew Sunday evening the game today was tough.
"It was very tough for the energy, but for the head too. The big teams are used to playing today, tomorrow, at four in the afternoon and nine in the morning. With rain, with sun, we are working for it. I think we can reach this level. I am speaking with Tony [Bloom], if we want to reach this level, it’s bad to say I know the way. But I think I know. I will work hard to reach this level. Not speaking about the table, but the mentality.”
Eight games are coming up in the next thirty days for Brighton, with the squad already feeling the wear and tear of a demanding season. Eight first-team players are either out injured or carrying knocks, leaving De Zerbi stretched and replying on youth to prop up his bench.
You would feel that at some point he will have to rely more and more on these youngsters before the season finishes. But in the 2023/2024 campaign, he will want investment into deepening the quality of the squad for the present day.
This may buck the trend of Brighton’s transfer model, but if the club's boardroom want to keep this talented manager on the south coast, they will have to trust him and roll the dice in order to maintain and improve on their current position.