Bart Verbruggen exclusive interview: Brighton goalkeeper relishing life under ‘brilliant’ Roberto De Zerbi

Bart Verbruggen tells Sky Sports about excelling under Roberto De Zerbi and his ambition to become the world’s best goalkeeper; watch Brighton vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

Image: Bart Verbruggen joined Brighton from Anderlecht for £16.3m in July

Bart Verbruggen’s sprawling save from Mohamed Salah late in Brighton’s 2-1 loss to Liverpool has just been nominated for March’s Premier League save of the month but it is typical of the 21-year-old that he does not actually rate it that highly.

“It was good to not let them score a third,” he says. “But we were rushing to get the equaliser at the time, so I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, what a nice save’. Yes, it’s great to be nominated, but the standout saves for me are the ones the team needs most at the time.”

Happily, there have been a few of those lately too. Verbruggen has kept three clean sheets in his last four games for Brighton, conceding two goals fewer than he should have, based on the quality of shots faced. Not that he is patting himself on the back. “I still think I can help the team even more with saves,” he smiles.

He hopes to do that against Arsenal, live on Sky Sports on Saturday, with Roberto De Zerbi confirming the Dutchman will start in goal for a fifth consecutive game, strengthening his claim to be viewed as first-choice goalkeeper after a season of rotating with Jason Steele.

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Watch Verbruggen’s brilliant save from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah

“I’m happy I get to play the games,” he adds to Sky Sports in a first-floor meeting room at the club’s training ground. “I think for every player it’s nice to get momentum going. I’m in a good period. It’s really important for me to stay grounded, to keep working hard. That is the challenge ahead of me now.”

He admits De Zerbi’s rotation policy took some getting used to following his £16.3m arrival from Anderlecht in July, but he is full of praise for 33-year-old fellow goalkeeper Steele.

“I had to find my way a little bit at the beginning, because I’d never done it before, but now I’m more used to it. We know we have two good ‘keepers. He plays games; I play games. Whenever he plays, I try to prepare him as well as I can; whenever I play, he is the same.

“Ultimately, the team comes first. We both realise that. We try to be the best team-mate possible when we don’t play, and the best goalkeeper possible when we do play.

“Jason is a very, very good guy, always ready to answer my questions or help me if he sees something. I’ve learned a lot and picked up on a lot of details from him just by watching him in training and in games. He pushes me and I’m grateful for how much he has helped me.”

Image: Brighton have a better record when Verbruggen plays

De Zerbi insists he still views them equally and there seems little danger of complacency from Verbruggen – “nothing is for certain,” he says when asked about keeping his place in the team – but his record stands up to scrutiny. Brighton concede fewer goals and lose fewer games when he starts.

At only 21, his performances have earned him a place in Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands team ahead of this summer’s European Championship. De Zerbi, meanwhile, has described him as having the potential to become one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.

It is an ambition he shares. “I think everybody has dreams and my dream has always been to be the best in the world. But I do also realise how far away from that I am at the moment.

“I’m so privileged to be in this situation where I am now. I am just trying to develop here, day after day, getting better and better and trying to help my team.

“If I continue to do that for the next seven or eight years, then we will see where it ends. Of course, I have dreams. But I’ve got such a long way to go to reach them and I have to keep working hard.

“It just makes me hungry and excited for the future.”

His rise to prominence has happened quickly. Verbruggen only broke into the Anderlecht team midway through last season and only won his first Netherlands cap in October.

The move to Brighton was the catalyst and he describes the decision to join them as an “easy” one. “There were a couple of other clubs interested, so, of course, you consider all of them, but Brighton was the one I wanted most so I was very happy I could sign here.

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Brighton were controversially denied a penalty in their goalless draw with Brentford

“I think this club, in general, is run really well. There are only good people here in the building, which I think is really important for me as a person to be able to perform.”

The De Zerbi factor explained

Verbruggen credits the club’s wider staff for his development this season, mentioning goalkeeping coaches Jack Stern and Ricard Segarra specifically, as well as goalkeeping analyst Josh Morris. But his warmest words are reserved for head coach De Zerbi.

“From the moment I arrived I have felt his faith and trust,” he says.

“What I really appreciate about him is that he always supports me, even in moments when I’m not so good. No matter if I play a good game or a bad game, he gives me his trust.

Image: Verbruggen receives advice from goalkeeping coach Jack Stern

“But then he is also always demanding more from me and he is consistent with that. I think that is something I thrive off and get better from. It is a privilege to work with him.”

Brighton are fighting to achieve European qualification for a second consecutive campaign under the Italian, whose outstanding work on the south coast has made him one of the most coveted managers in the game. What makes him special in the eyes of his players?

“It’s tough to name one specific thing,” says Verbruggen after a pause. “Firstly, I think the love he has for the game and the love he has for his players, and how he treats his players.

Image: Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi has been linked with Liverpool

“He makes you want to work harder and harder and harder. And that’s not just me. I see it happening for everybody around me in the team as well.

“He also prepares you for the games so well. He says stuff to you, like ‘You can expect this, you can expect that’. And then, come gameday, you see it happening in front of you.

“Those are just a couple of things but there are loads more. I’m just trying to take in as much as I can and learn as much as I can from him. He is a brilliant manager.”

'Arsenal strong in every aspect'

Of Brighton’s opponents on Saturday, Verbruggen said: “They are such a good team. I think they have shown that time and time again this season. Them contending for the title says enough.

“They have got a brilliant side with brilliant individual qualities, but also they play well as a team and are very strong in almost every aspect of the game. Their pressing is good, their possession is good, their set-pieces are good. It’s going to be a fight but we are ready for it and we are confident we can get a win.”

Verbruggen loves his style of play, too. Remarkably, only Manchester City have averaged a higher share of possession than Brighton in the Premier League this season. The goalkeeper’s role in their build-up play is vital and it is an area in which Verbruggen excels.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” he says. “It was a part of the reason why I wanted to come here. The way we play is the way I enjoy football most and we win games because of it.”

Verbruggen’s quality on the ball can be seen in the fact he has a higher passing accuracy rate than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League this term. He offers an insight into the extent of the preparation that goes into choosing the right passes.

Image: Verbruggen ranks highly both in terms of his passing and for saves

“It’s a lot of tactical understanding. At the end of the day, you can prepare for the game, but the game is so fast, so sometimes you have to make decisions on instinct.

“What is important is that the instinct is formed by understanding the way we want to play, and by the gaffer being so clear to us in what he expects from us and what he wants to achieve with certain passes. It’s just about understanding the game plan.

“It’s also important to understand what your team-mates expect of you and what you expect from your team-mates, so we are all on the same page.

“I think we’ve had loads of games this season where you have been able to see that, if we are on it, and we are having a good day, it is just beautiful to watch.

“I’ve watched a couple of games from the bench this season where I have just enjoyed it, and thought that it’s crazy how good this team can be.

Image: Verbruggen started in Brighton's 2-0 loss to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in December

“It comes from a lot of tactical understanding and preparation, but it’s also a lot about the principles in the team and people knowing what to expect from each other.”

Verbruggen has of course had to adapt to Brighton’s style of play all while adjusting to a new country and a new league. But it is a challenge he has relished.

“I think I have improved in every area,” he says. “This league brings some challenges with it. I can only compare it to Belgium, but the crosses come in quicker, the shots come in harder, the strikers are sharper, the pressure comes stronger.

“I think it has just been about getting used to a different speed of the game, feeling comfortable with that speed, and feeling in control. That has been the main thing this season.

“Now, I just want to keep going and keep progressing, to be better on the ball, be better at shot-stopping, be better at crosses, be better at coaching my team-mates, be better in everything. I’m still young. I just want to keep improving and see where I end up.”

Watch Brighton vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm


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