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Behind Enemy Lines: Sevilla FC

The same Lopetegui style with a deeper squad and an improved Rakitić

Levante UD v Sevilla FC - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Sevilla's deeper squad

The third season of Julen Lopetegui's Sevilla is going as strong as ever. They have finished comfortably in fourth place for two years in a row, getting closer and closer to the established top three. This season they are racking up points at a pace that could allow them even to reach 80 points by the end of the season, and in this kind of crazy La Liga, it might just be enough to win it.

Sevilla's improved consistency comes in part from their solid summer transfer window. Sporting director Ramón Rodriguez "Monchi" did not improve the quality of the starting XI through the new signings. However, Sevilla's squad has significantly improved in depth through a series of intelligent signings:

  • Keeper Marko Dmitrovic from Eibar
  • Right-back Gonzalo Montiel from River Plate
  • Left-back Ludwig Augustinsson from Werder Bremen
  • Central midfielder Thomas Delaney from Borussia Dortmund
  • Winger / attacking midfielder Erik Lamela from Tottenham
  • Striker Rafa Mir from Huesca

To summarize, Lopetegui's Sevilla has not improved their ceiling through signings, but the deeper squad has raised the team's floor. Now it's easier for Sevilla to play at a similar level every week irrespective of player injuries.

Lopetegui doesn't change his style

I wanted to check how much Sevilla had changed compared to last season, so I compiled several of their metrics in attack, defense, and possession. Lopetegui's Sevilla remains stylistically similar to last year, but their offensive and defensive numbers are a bit better now compared to last season.

Sevilla is one of the most effective defensive units in the league, ranking among the top three defenses in the league over the last two seasons, both in goals and expected goals (xG) conceded. They are an intense team that excels at breaking up play, allowing the opponent only 7.4 passes per defensive action. Their defensive line consists of very hard players to beat in individual duels, such as Jules Koundé, Diego Carlos, Gonzalo Montiel, and Marcos Acuña. Lopetegui's men will not hesitate to use tactical fouls if required: last season, they were the most frequent foulers among the big five European leagues, as shown in the chart below.

In ball progression, central defenders, midfielders, and left-back Acuña provide the most passes and carries into the final third. Sevilla still relies heavily on crosses to generate chances from open play, so it does not come as a surprise that the stats show their fullbacks (Navas, Acuña, Montiel) to be the leading chance creators. Most of Sevilla's entries into the box and shot-creating actions come from the fullbacks.

Even though Sevilla's attacking style is somewhat predictable due to their heavy crossing approach, it looks like it is working for them. Remarkably, Sevilla has improved their offensive numbers this season without their primary scorer, Youssef En-Nesyri, and their primary assist-provider, Jesús Navas. Injuries have sidelined En-Nesyri for most of the season and Navas since the start of November.

Sevilla's deeper squad has mitigated the injury problems, with Rafa Mir and Gonzalo Montiel capably replacing En-Nesyri and Navas. Rafa Mir and Lamela have four goals each, further showing the value of Sevilla's signings. In general, though, the burden of replacing En-Nesyri's goals has been spread throughout the entire team, and this season Sevilla has had 12 different scorers and 15 different assist providers.

Rakitić, from the base to the final third

Despite all the positives, creating chances in the final third remains the biggest area of improvement for Sevilla. They lack fluidity, speed, and unpredictability in this phase of the game, relying too much on crossing into the box. It does not help that Sevilla is a team that lacks dribblers in their forward line. Ocampos is the only one who dribbles frequently, and this year his dribbling success rate is down.

After their defeat in Lille at the end of October, Lopetegui tried a new solution to revitalize the team in the final third: giving Ivan Rakitić a more aggressive midfield role.

The veteran Croatian midfielder has been underwhelming ever since he returned to Sevilla. No one expected him to be Éver Banega, but it's hard to say Rakitić added as much value on the pitch as expected. He is one of Sevilla's most prolific passers into the final third, but his passing from deep is not particularly creative, and he doesn't pass too well under pressure. Furthermore, now that he is older, he can't defend or press as well as before. Sevilla often looked better with other, more dynamic midfielders on the pitch, such as Óliver Torres or Óscar Rodriguez.

However, by giving Rakitić a more attacking midfield role, Lopetegui and Sevilla can use Rakitić's elite accuracy in passing and shooting. This experiment has yielded outstanding results, and Rakitić has tripled his chance creation output! In the ten games before the Lille defeat, Rakitić averaged one shot-creating action (SCA) per 90 minutes and just 0.2 goals + assists per 90 minutes (one every five games). Since the Lille game and the change of position, Rakitić now averages 3 SCA per 90 and 0.6 goal + assists per 90 (three every five games).

Most of Rakitić's touches were in the opposition half in the last three Sevilla games, as seen in the heat maps below.

In Sevilla's latest Champions League game against Wolfsburg, Rakitić practically operated as a free-roaming ten when Sevilla had their pressing and possession phases in the opposition half. Whenever Sevilla started possessions from their own half, however, Rakitić dropped deeper and operated more like a typical left-central midfielder.

Passmap of Sevilla’s Champions League against Wolfsburg on Nov 23rd, 2021.
Between The Posts

Expected Lineups

Both Sevilla and Real Madrid went into their midweek Champions League games with their strongest starting XIs, and they will likely not rotate much this Sunday.

Diagram with Real Madrid’s expected lineup being pressed by Sevilla’s expected lineup.

With Real's lineup, there are two major question marks. The first is whether David Alaba will start or not after picking up a knock in the midweek Champions League game. He made the matchday squad, but Ancelotti might still want to play it safe considering the demanding schedule ahead. If Alaba does not start, Nacho will replace him.

The other doubt happens on the right-wing, where both Rodrygo and Asensio have put in positive performances that merit a start. Rodrygo is perhaps the better line breaker, with more dribbling and more dynamic passing capabilities. On the other hand, Asensio has lately had some of his most positive performances in a long time, showing more aggressive movement off-ball. He could be instrumental in counterattacking situations. My bet is on Asensio starting since he rested during the midweek Champions League game.

Sevilla's prominent absences are Jesús Navas and En-Nesyri, both suffering longer-term injuries. Montiel and Rafa Mir will replace them. The big question mark for Sevilla is who will be their left winger: Papu Gómez or Oussama Idrissi. Lopetegui might prefer the latter because of his better defensive work rate, and Idrissi was rested during the midweek Champions League game.

Key Matchups

Real Madrid wingers vs. Sevilla fullbacks

Sevilla CF V VFL Wolfsburgo: Group G - UEFA Champions League
Left back Marcos Acuña, shown playing vs Wolfsburg, will be one of Sevilla’s primary threats vs Real Madrid
Photo by Jose Luis Contreras/DAX Images/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The most critical aspect about defending against Sevilla is defending against their fullbacks, who are the team's leading creators. Acuña and Montiel will be the players providing width in Sevilla's attack, and they are highly aggressive in their positioning. They overlap their wingers aggressively and try to create 2v1 overloads against the opponent.

To prevent Real Madrid fullbacks from being at a 1v2 disadvantage against Sevilla's fullbacks + winger combinations, they will need a lot of help from the wingers, likely Asensio and Vinicius. Asensio disconnects more in defense, so this might be an argument to start Rodrygo instead.

However, this duel is not only crucial for defending Sevilla; it's also vital to attack them successfully. Acuña and Montiel are intense players who win a lot of individual duels, so Real's wingers—especially Vinicius—will have to bring their dribbling A-game if they hope to make it past the Sevilla defenders.

Modrić vs. Rakitić

Sevilla FC v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Rakitić plays mainly on the left side, so he will match up frequently against his countryman Luka Modrić in what might be the key midfield battle of the game. Modrić will likely be in charge of pressing Rakitić, and he will have to track Rakitić when he moves forward aggressively in Real Madrid's half.

However, Rakitić has a lot of positional freedom now, so he might frequently end up in the Casemiro zone. Real's midfielders need to prevent Rakitić from delivering his trademark accurate passes into the box or shooting from outside the box.

Rafa Mir vs Alaba / Nacho

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

Last season, Real Madrid's defense already suffered headaches from Rafa Mir's physical intensity, both in the air and with off-ball runs. Mir is not faster than Nacho or Alaba, but he is physically stronger and could beat them in the air. When receiving long balls or going for headers in the box, Mir will likely try to attack Nacho or Alaba's side instead of the more physical Militão. He will be Sevilla's most dangerous threat whenever they cross into the box.

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