It is a new season with a new manager and high hopes that is about to begin in Andalusia. Sevilla FC that had appointed in Julen Lopetegui as coach is looking to get back into La Liga’s top four. The club finished the last two La Liga campaigns in 7th and 6th place respectively. This is far below the fans’ expectations especially after the historic Europa Ligue triplet between 2014 and 2016. A new manager and new players have arrived this summer in order to begin a new era at the club. Even though the previous results have not been great, there are always some encouraging elements. This said, no one can forget the amazing first five months they had under Pablo Machín last season. The team had also a strong preparation phase with four victories in six matches.
How did the squad change? How could these changes affect the team?
During the 2019 summer, Sevilla made quite some changes in their squad. 11 players arrived for a total amount of 124 million euros. And yet, this does not include those who are returning from loan. Among the new signings, Sergio Reguilón, Óliver Torres and Luuk de Jong are some of the most eye-catching ones. Looking at the complete arrivals list, one can assume that the Andalusians could make a whole new starting eleven. This seems a little risky if not unreasonable at all, to bring on such a huge number of players at the same time. This theoretically implies that the coach has to work to implement the needed connections between the new players themselves. These players will have to learn to communicate, exchange passes and move in coordination with each other. The coach needs to also work these same connections between the new and the current players of the team. In a general way, he will have to create an identity of the team based on nearly nothing. This is a much more complicated task than trying to fit one or two new players into a team.
Practically, the huge number of new signings becomes a little bit more understandable looking at the departures list. Here are details about some of this summer’s transfers. Sevilla have brought in two central defenders who are Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos. One can say that Sevilla already had five players who can occupy this position. But two of them have left the club. Gabriel Mercado went to Qatar and Ibrahim Amadou is on loan to Norwich City. This keeps a kind of balance at least in terms of quantity.
Furthermore, both of the new defenders are younger than all of the current ones. In terms of statistics and metrics, they do perform better than their new teammates. Carlos won more tackles per game than Sergi Gómez, Simon Kjær, and Daniel Carriço. He also gets dribbled past fewer times; once every five matches for the new arrival compared to once every three matches for the others. Koundé and Carlos did also intercept more opponent passes. Koundé also made the fewest number of fouls/game of all the five players despite playing the most games. Lastly, all of them, with the exception of Kjær, have similar statistics for aerial duels. They won a little more than half of their aerial duels. Thus, the defensive statistics of these two former Ligue 1 defenders can make them serious contenders for the starting eleven.
Now if there is one area where they need to improve, it is the accuracy of their long balls. Both played around nine long balls per match last season, but neither of them surpassed a 45% success ratio. Sure, they will have to play fewer long balls under Lopetgui as his tactics are different. But it is still important to improve accuracy especially when it comes to medium to long-range balls. The tactical analysis of this kind of pass will come in the next section.
Speaking of midfield and attack the arrivals of Óliver Torres from Porto and Bryan Giles from the U-23 team seems are without a doubt the plan to replace Pablo Sarabia. The Spanish man was a key element in the offensive structure of the team during the last few seasons. Giles is an 18-year-old brilliant left-footed talent. He plays at both sides, likes to dribble, play through balls and looks always to combine in small areas. Here are some examples of the youngster’s combinations.
Óliver Torres is, of course, more well-known than his new young team-mate. He does also have some similarities with Sarabia especially in terms of technical abilities. Even though he is able to play a winger, he often plays a bit deeper, normally as a side midfielder in a three-man midfield.
What do the pre-season matches say about next season’s approach?
Sevilla’s pre-season matches do show some key points that Lopetegui has tried to establish since his arrival. The Spanish coach is known as someone who wants a proactive team that knows how to act with the ball. Under his orders, Real Madrid practised a possession-based system of football that aimed to break the opponents’ block with movement and quick passing. However, things did not go well at Madrid and the 52-year-old coach is back to have another experience in Andalusia.
In terms of line-ups, Lopetgui opted for either a four or five-man midfield. He tried something like a 4-1-4-1 at moments against Hoffenheim. He had also started with a 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool. It’s likely that he continues to use something similar during the season. Both formations do offer natural and easy passing options especially while building from the back. They also offer a kind of compactness while not having the ball. Having five midfielders allows the team to close all passing channels through the centre if required.
During his first few matches as a manager, the build-up from the back has slightly changed for the team. From now on, the centre-back gets into the penalty box when the goalkeeper has the ball. These are a few examples from matches against Extremadura and Hoffenheim.
The aim of this strategy is to create holes in the opponent’s block in two different ways. First, this creates what I call vertical gaps. The defenders, when positioned nearly as deep as the goalkeeper, would attract opponent forwards. Thus, the forwards will get very high on the pitch and their teammates, especially defenders would hesitate to advance and follow them. This is quite logical since there is a huge risk of getting left behind by quick attackers since there is no offside in the opponent half of the pitch. Once space is created that way, the goalkeeper or the defender could play a medium/long-range ball in the direction of side midfielders as seen above.
Second, defenders are inside the penalty box in order to stretch the opponent’s pressing structure to the maximum. They want to prevent the opposing team from putting a lot of density and intensity around a specific zone and then reduce the playing area. Thus, the centre-backs along with with the goalkeeper try to get every attacker at one defined point and so separate them. At the same time, the team’s midfielders try to get into space thus created.
When it comes to attacking build-up Lopetegui tries to get his players to always be available and give their passing team-mate an option. The rule is simple. If a player does not figure among the direct passing options, he can either make a move to receive the ball later in the play or try to drop an opponent out of the playing zone to facilitate progression. This can be achieved by making a run or simply by maintaining a position to keep the opponent in a “piggy in the middle situation”.
This worked in a wonderful way at times. Against Hoffenheim, Sevilla scored an amazing goal that saw all of the above principles, as is illustrated below-
What is kind of reassuring at Sevilla is that both ideas and quality players are there. There are talents in all areas of the field. It starts from Koundé and Reguilón at the back, passing by Torres, Banega and Gil to reach Munir and Ben Yedder. Even with the potential departure of Ben Yedder, Lopetgui has the necessary squad to play the football he wants. He has established the basics since his arrival; what he needs now is to focus on the final phase of the play. Many managers trust their players’ creativity to do this job, but Loptegui believes that this phase can be organised and patterns can be elaborated and given to players. It remains to be seen if his ideas are able to guide Sevilla to a top-four finish.
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