Sevilla: The season so far and what's to come...
As LaLiga passes the halfway point of the 2021/22 season, two clubs have seemingly pulled away from the rest of the pack to go tit for tat for the title. Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid are an ever-present at the top, usually chased by, or chasing, the likes of Barcelona or Atlético Madrid. However, this season, Sevilla have built on a strong end to the last campaign and are now the main challengers with Madrid, four points currently separating the two sides.
It has been another season which has given Julen Lopetegui further affirmation that he is the man to guide Sevilla to greatness. His tactics and the performances that he gets out of his team have secured Champions League football in the past two seasons, as they look to become regulars in Europe’s elite club competition.
Los Nervionenses have already established themselves as serial winners in the UEFA Europa League, claiming Europe’s second-tier tournament on four occasions in the past eight seasons. Lopetegui coached the side to glory in 2020, capping a successful first season in charge, but if the former Spain and Real Madrid manager were to win LaLiga with Sevilla, it would be the club’s first league title since 1946.
Lopetegui’s current situation is a far cry from that of the summer of 2018, when he was dismissed from his role as manager of Spain ahead of the World Cup after agreeing to become Real Madrid’s new coach. He was announced in his role with Los Blancos on 12th June, sacked as Spain manager on 13th June and presented by Madrid on 14thJune. “Yesterday was the saddest day of my life; today is the happiest,” Lopetegui said when presented. He lasted just 12 weeks at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu before being dismissed from that role too.
Now with that chapter firmly behind him, it is refreshing to see the resurgence Lopetegui is enjoying at Sevilla. He is valued and respected by the fans, reminding all Spanish football followers of his true credentials. If his side were to pip Real Madrid to the post come May, it would be the full circle of redemption that he has been longing for the past four years.
“The king of results,” is how Sevilla’s English-language social media officer, Daniel Magennis, described Lopetegui. As someone who has given Sevilla a new-found steel and resilience in his third year at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, fans of the club, including Daniel, have high expectations: “Under Lopetegui, we have improved every season - 70 points in his first season, 77 last season, which was a club record. As a club we need to be ambitious.”
Ambition is born from high performance and ability-driven belief, something which Alan Feehely understands well: “LaLiga is the true goal for Sevilla and they are in a genuine title challenge with Real Madrid now.” That assertion will be constantly challenged though; after a recent Copa del Rey defeat to Real Betis and draws against Valencia and Celta Vigo, there is some apprehension that Sevilla could have a dip in form and fall off the pace.
Despite this recent stutter, Alan backs the manager to not allow Sevilla to take their foot off the gas, and instead regain their composure to keep the pressure on Madrid: “I don’t think that there is going to be any drop-off from Sevilla and, as Daniel said, that is because of Lopetegui.”
One thing that has done little to inspire Sevilla fans this season has been their performances in cup competitions. In the UEFA Champions League, Sevilla were drawn in a group with Lille, RB Salzburg and Wolfsburg. Many expectedLos Nervionenses to breeze through the group without any issues, instead they were humbled. They finished third after winning one game, drawing three and losing two.
Then in the Copa, that aforementioned defeat to city rivals Betis came during a controversial El Gran Derbi fixture at the Estadio Benito Villamarín, a tie which was abandoned on the back of a missile hitting midfielder Joan Jordán with the game poised at 1-1. A day later, they resumed behind closed doors and Betis progressed 2-1. As a representative of Sevilla, Daniel had this to say on the nature of the defeat and the game:
“The club feels hard done by having the game rearranged for the next day, not even 24 hours later. Especially given the fact that Joan Jordán couldn’t play after suffering a slight concussion from the object and was under supervision for the 24 hours that followed.”
Alan, who was watching the match from the stands before it was abandoned, shared why he thinks Sevilla might feel aggrieved for being knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the manner that they were. He also touched on what atmosphere awaited them as they crossed the city to take on their rivals:
“There was a serious energy in the ground due to the promising game of football that took place before it was abandoned. Betis were in the ascendancy but given Sevilla’s ability to grind out results, it is too hard to say what the outcome of that game would have been if it proceeded in the way that it did.”
If anything, Sevilla’s shortcomings in cup competitions this season have further highlighted how solid their performances have been in LaLiga. Lopetegui is a coach who promotes structure in his teams, a mixture of solidity with finesse and flair. Whilst this tactic came undone in the Champions League and Copa del Rey, it has worked well in the league and enabled Sevilla to climb the table through hard-fought wins.
The statistics show a clear blue-print that Lopetegui has opted for; minimise any leaks in defence. Sevilla have conceded the fewest goals so far this season in LaLiga, just 16 goals from 22 games; four fewer than leaders Madrid. Their xG conceded is at 0.88 per game, significantly less than the league average of 1.08. This means that not only do Sevilla concede fewer goals each game, but also their opposition have fewer clear chances to score.
As Daniel put it: “Sevilla are a side that concedes few chances, but the ones that we do concede, Bounou is always there.” Placing a focus on defence, it is clear that Lopetegui has built a strong unit at the back which lays the foundations to their game plan. He went on to mention some of the players that make Sevilla a hard side to break down and score past:
“Jules Koundé is a ‘Rolls Royce defender’ and plays in a back two. He is often found in the opposition’s final third too. I think he is superb and has a great partnership with Diego Carlos. Marcos Acuña had a big task to replace fan-favourite Sergio Reguilón, but he has done so with flying colours. It’d be hard to find a player who is harder to win the ball off than Acuña. I think the standout players of this Lopetegui side have been built upon defence.”
Given the emphasis that Lopetegui places on Sevilla’s defensive structure, it can be easy to forget the work done by the midfield and attack to work equally as hard in defending as getting up the pitch to win games. After all, that is what they are there to do.
Lucas Ocampos, Papu Gómez, Suso and Youssef En-Nesyri provide those all-important goals and moments of creativity that complement the strong foundations laid by the defence. In midfield, Sevilla also rely on steel-like reinforcements to help transition the game, as explained by Alan:
“Fernando and Joan Jordán are tireless in midfield. You want a player like Jordán in your team, he’s narky and snappy, doesn’t stop running and he is creative when on the ball. Ivan Rakitić had a hard first season and has looked really good this season, leading the team in Jesús Navas’ absence.”
A team with this level of talent in each department makes for an exciting watch. However, this ability to entertain and succeed is not down to individuals; in contrast Sevilla are a successful side due to the unison and togetherness of their dressing room. It is a family club that attracts like-minded players who click as well on the pitch as they do off of it. In turn, this element is one of the underlying influences when it comes to recruitment.
So far in the winter transfer window, Sevilla have signed Jesús ‘Tecatito’ Corona and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial to bolster their attack. Monchi is the main man behind transfers at the club and operates as the highly-regarded director of football at Sevilla.
Known for his smart recruitment and ability to spot a bargain, as well as a potential future star, Monchi has a good relationship with Lopetegui and the two work well to bring in the best they can on a tight budget. Daniel explained Monchi’s usual transfer strategy before now altering that in order to bring more personalities and experience to the squad:
“His policy is normally to sign younger players, with the intention to sell them on for a profit - the ‘80/20 principle’, where 80% of players are young and have a potential to raise future profits, whilst the remaining 20% are ready now to perform, regardless of future sales. Just look at [the recent signings of] Jesús Corona (29 years old), Thomas Delaney (30 years old) and Fernando (34 years old) to see the difference.”
One of the players who has been rumoured to leave Sevilla is centre-back Diego Carlos. The Brazilian defender has been linked with a move to football’s wealthiest club, Newcastle United, among others. Should he depart, Sevilla will have to bring in a replacement and that is where Alan thinks that Monchi will go back to what he knows best; invest in youth:
“We’ll bring in someone that nobody knows, that’s what Sevilla will do. I think they’ll bring in a centre-back from Portugal or France, someone who is undervalued with high potential,” Alan stated before adding how much of a blow Carlos’ departure would be to the club’s aspirations.
“However, if Sevilla do lose Carlos in January it would be disastrous given the lack of depth in that position. They can kiss their title challenge goodbye if they let him go. I don’t think a €20/30 million profit would be worth sacrificing a title challenge for.”
It has been a season of LaLiga highs and European woes so far this season, but their fans still have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. In the Europa League, the final is to be played at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in May 2022, where Sevilla could make more memories for their fans.
However, as Daniel and Alan emphasised throughout, Sevilla have one of the best opportunities in recent memory to go against the odds and win their first LaLiga title in 76 years. It will be a long and tumultuous journey if they are to achieve it, but Sevillistas know best - ‘nunca te rindas’. ‘Never give up’.
To stay up to date with Sevilla's title challenge, follow us on Twitter at @LaLigaLowdown.