Solly March has always had talent. Five Brighton managers over the past decade have acknowledged that by having him as a mainstay of their Albion sides, from Oscar Garcia who handed March his debut in 2013 through Sami Hyypia, Chris Hughton, and Graham Potter to Roberto De Zerbi in the present day.
What March has missed in the past is belief, sometimes to the frustration of Seagulls supporters. Yes, he is a great player. But he could be even better. This lack of self-confidence could be used to partly explain why March had scored only 14 times for Brighton from 157 starts and 95 substitute appearances prior to the break in Premier League action for the World Cup.
March himself has acknowledged that belief may have been a problem in the past. After scoring twice to lead the Seagulls to a 3-0 win over a shell-shocked Liverpool, he said: “I love playing for Roberto, he’s great. He puts his arm around you and tells you you’re a good player. Maybe that’s what I needed.”
There can be no doubt how highly De Zerbi thinks of March. When the Italian arrived at the Amex in October, the two players he talked about in most glowing terms were Leandro Trossard and March.
Trossard began the De Zerbi era in a blaze of glory with a hat-trick at Anfield, part of a five-goal haul under the new head coach prior to the World Cup. The less said about what has happened since Trossard returned from Qatar the better, with player and agent trying every trick in the book to engineer a January move.
While Trossard faltered and was dropped after the winter break, March flourished. A six-week period on the training ground during the World Cup learning the intricacies of DeZerbiBall has done wonders for this Brighton squad as a whole – attested to by recent results – but especially March, whose form in the past month has been nothing short of sensational.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that March missed a pivotal penalty when the Seagulls were eliminated from the Carabao Cup at the hands of League One strugglers Charlton Athletic in their first game back from the winter break. With Jason Steele having saved two Addicks spot kicks, March had the chance to send Brighton through to the quarter finals of the competition for only the second ever time by converting the Albion’s fifth penalty.
Unfortunately, he produced an effort more suited to Twickenham on the other side of London than the Valley, sending the ball miles over the bar. Charlton scored their next two penalties, Brighton missed another and a golden opportunity to make a bit of history was gone. ‘What might such a miss do to the ultimate confidence player?’ disappointed Seagulls supporters wondered as they streamed away from Charlton that night.
The answer to that question arrived in emphatic style on Boxing Day, when March scored a stunner at Southampton good enough to be nominated for the Premier League November/December Goal of the Month award. It ended a barren run of 59 league appearances without a goal stretching back over two years to November 21 2020 and a 2-1 win at Aston Villa.
De Zerbi told the BBC after watching March break his duck: “I don’t know if I am helping him, but I have a big confidence. I trust him a lot and I want always more because I think he’s a good player. He can play better, he can improve. He can be more important for us. I want him to believe more in himself. I think he can score more.”
And score more he has. Everton were on the receiving end of another fierce March strike when hammered 4-1 by Brighton at Goodison Park before the Toffees’ rivals from the other side of Stanley Park were blown away by his double 11 days later – the first brace of March’s career, no less. He now has four goals in his past four league matches having managed three in 81 during Potter’s three-and-a-bit-season reign. Or to put it another way, 22% of March’s career goals have been scored in the last three weeks.
Alongside this new sense of self-confidence, March is also benefitting from a settled position.
He was often a victim of his own versatility and reliability when Potter Roulette was at its height, fulfilling a different role every few weeks when it appeared as if De Zerbi’s predecessor was picking his team via a spin of a wheel or from a velvet bag. Left wing, right wing, left wing back, right wing back, left back, number ten…you name it, March played it. Such chopping, changing and uncertainty never really allowed March to get into a groove, something a confidence player very much needs.
De Zerbi in contrast has used March almost exclusively in his 4-2-3-1 as the right sided player in the three behind the striker. One of the most striking elements of De Zerbi’s managerial career so far is how players in those wide positions contribute high goal totals, from Domenico Berardi scoring 17 times in a season for Sassulo to Tetê notching ten at Shakhtar Donetsk. Four goals for Kaoru Mitoma to go with the improvement in March suggests the trend is going to continue at Brighton.
And where might that lead March? If Gareth Southgate has any sense, then it should be towards international recognition. Southgate is no stranger to March, having awarded him his three England Under-21 caps.
There were also rumours suggesting March was in line for a senior call-up in early 2021 when he was in good form down the Brighton left – coincidentally the one time Potter had him in a relatively settled position. An ACL injury which put March on the shelf for five months put paid to him offering a solution to the dearth of options available to Southgate on that side of the pitch.
Now March finds himself in the form of his life, playing with a belief and confidence he has never had before and, at 28 years old, entering the prime of his career. In helping March unlock an end product, De Zerbi has turned him into a player who is delivering performances to match his talent.
Free-scoring Brighton are reaping the benefits – and so too can England.