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Behind Enemy Lines: Sevilla FC

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Julen Lopetegui’s project in Sevilla still has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as last season. How do they match up against Real Madrid?

FC Bayern Munich v FC Sevilla: UEFA Super Cup 2020 Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

Sevilla 2019-20 turned out to be one of the breakthrough teams of the season. Legendary sports director Ramón Rodriguez “Monchi“ returned to Sevilla in April 2019 after a disastrous spell in Roma. Monchi then oversaw a complete squad rebuild (ten signings!) to fit the possession-and-pressing 4-3-3 of incoming coach Julen Lopetegui. This new and improved Sevilla reached 70 points in the league and a well-deserved 4th place, as well as a record sixth Europa League title.

Going into the 2020-21 season, Monchi and Lopetegui had the big challenge of figuring out how to improve on what had already been an outstanding season. As usual, Sevilla’s transfer market featured many interesting names. In defense, Yassine Bono arrives as the backup goalie while left back Marcos Acuña will try to make fans forget about the excellent Sergio Reguilón. In midfield, Óscar Rodriguez will give some goal-scoring punch to midfield while Ivan Rakitić returns to provide some midfield control and intelligent movements without the ball. In the forward line, Sevilla had the arrival of a tricky goal-scoring winger in Oussama Idrissi from AZ Alkmaar, and the return of youth squad product Carlos Fernández after a great season in Granada.

These signings provide increased squad depth, something vital for a Sevilla who wants to compete well in both Liga and Champions League. However, in my opinion none of these incoming transfers raise Sevilla’s ceiling and make them a better XI than last year, unless Idrissi turns out to be the right fit for Sevilla’s left winger role. All in all, if Sevilla can make it to Champions League quarterfinals while still retaining a top four position in La Liga, the season will have been a resounding success.

The Usual Lineup and Game Plan

No need to fix what isn’t broken. In essence, Lopetegui and co. continue using the same game plan from last year: a 4-3-3 shape that aims to dominate opponents through possession and pressing. Their strong pressing game makes Sevilla one of the best defensive units in the league, with their shots and expected goals conceded being among the five lowest in La Liga.

In possession, their buildup phase is one of the most mature in La Liga. Sevilla like to progress through midfield areas using long diagonal switches of play from their central defenders and midfielders to their fullbacks. While some players are better than others at making these passes (like Joan Jordán), Lopetegui has gotten most of his squad to be pretty competent at executing the diagonal switch.

That being said, even if Sevilla’s possession game is already very mature, the departure of deep playmaker Éver Banega over the summer still hurt them a lot. No one in the current Sevilla squad can match the timing, weight and strategic value of Banega’s passes, so his absence does make their possession game more predictable.

And predictability is THE major issue with Sevilla’s offense. Sevilla are quite good at overcoming the opposition pressing and reaching the final third, but once in the final third...it’s mostly just crosses into the box. The cause of this issue is very similar to Real Madrid’s own problems with crosses. Except for Lucas Ocampos, Sevilla lacks wingers who are really aggressive with 1v1s and movements into the box. This inability to get into the box through dribbling, short passing combinations, and aggressive movement means that, most of the time, the only option for Sevilla fullbacks is to cross into the box. Despite these issues, right back and captain Jesus Navas continues to be one of the best fullbacks in the league and Sevilla’s most consistent chance creator. 35 years of age yet he still gallops down the right wing as if he were ten years younger.

Sevilla v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

When it comes to aggressive movement, Moroccan striker Youssef En-Nesyri has certainly been an upgrade over Dutch target man Luuk de Jong. The Dutchman puts in a good defensive shift, wins many aerial duels, and provides good link-up play outside the box, but he’s not a dominant striker in the box. Lopetegui has given almost equal minutes to both strikers in La Liga, but for now it seems like En-Nesyri is winning the battle for the starting center forward position.

Current Form

Sevilla has just recovered from what was a pretty rough patch in the league, with three defeats in a row (Granada, Eibar, Athletic) followed by three victories in a row (Osasuna, Celta, Huesca). With the need to play tough Champions League fixtures midweek, Lopetegui was forced to do more squad rotations in La Liga games, and this affected the quality and consistency of Sevilla’s pressing and possession. And all three defeats punished Sevilla’s lack of bite and efficiency in the final third.

The Athletic defeat is a great example of what happens when things go wrong for Lopetegui’s Sevilla. The Andalucian side got an early goal thanks to the Ocampos - En-Nesyri connection and controlled the game. However, their stagnant final third play failed to punish Athletic further, and in the second half, Sevilla lost control. A set piece from Athletic led to a goal by Iker Muniain, and the increasingly desperate Sevilla became more disorganized in defense. This gave Athletic the chance to get a second goal and a victory.

Things have improved since the Athletic game. Lopetegui hasn’t done any major changes to the game plan, but in the last few games pressing intensity and effectiveness improved. Most importantly, the forwards have been efficient, with En-Nesyri scoring some key goals against Celta and Huesca. Lopetegui still doesn’t know what to do with his left winger role: the last five games have seen five different players start in that position. For now, Munir El Haddadi seems like the most productive option, but Lopetegui doesn’t make him an automatic starter because he wants to reserve him as the impact sub for second halves.

Matchup against Real Madrid

Zidane has a tough week ahead of him. A loss against Sevilla jeopardizes the team’s hopes for the league title, and a midweek loss against Borussia Mönchengladbach would push Real out of Champions League knockout qualification.

Sergio Ramos and Luka Jović are still absent from the matchday squad, while Mariano also had to drop out due to small injury problems. However, Álvaro Odriozola has finally recovered from his injury and was called up to the match day squad. Knowing how much Zidane trusts Lucas Vázquez, it would not be surprising if he keeps starting in the right back role. Meanwhile, Nacho will likely keep starting in the left center back role. In midfield, Casemiro and Kroos will surely start, and the question is whether Modrić will be rested or not, with Ødegaard taking his place. Up front, my current bet is that Zidane will start Asensio, Rodrygo, and Benzema, even if Asensio hasn’t really earned a status as a starter with his current performances.

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Sevilla have most of their squad available except for two key absences: keeper Tomas Vaclík and both of their left backs, Sergio Escudero and Marcos Acuña. In their stead, Yassine Bono and Dutch center back Karim Rekik will start. The main doubt for Lopetegui is who will be the left winger in his lineup. Munir seems like the most productive option, but perhaps Lopetegui wants to keep him as an impact sub. Another option could to have En-Nesyri start as a left winger, with Luuk de Jong starting as the center forward.

How this game plays out will depend on Real’s ability to overcome the Sevilla pressing. It will be intense and man-to-man, with Jordán and Rakitić trying cut off access to Kroos and Modrić / Ødegaard. If Casemiro can have a good day with the ball and help shut down Sevilla’s attacks when they recover the ball, that will help a lot to nullify the Sevilla pressing threat. If En-Nesyri starts, watch out for his aggressive runs behind Nacho and Varane. He’s in good form right now and can cause trouble to Real’s central defender pair.

Real Madrid v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

On the other side of the pitch, Real has to deal with a solid defensive unit that will be hard to disorder. Rodrygo, Benzema, Asensio, or Ødegaard are not really the types to make aggressive movements without the ball, so it’s unlikely that they will threaten Sevilla’s defense that way. However, Real’s fullbacks (Mendy and Lucas / Odriozola) might be more aggressive about darting behind the backs of Sevilla’s fullbacks.