With a reputation built on innovative tactics, Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli recognized the emotional and psychological adversity of getting knocked out of the Champions League and the league title race this past month. In acknowledging the illusion of losing two competitions in a short span, perhaps it would have better for morale to have never tasted almost winning in the first place. Disappointment and loss of inspiration is as damaging as injury for a side built on movement and energy. The high came in early January, when Sevilla became the first team to beat Real Madrid in 41 matches. There was only one way to go from there.
Sevilla’s winless last four matches against Alaves, Leganes, Leicester City, and Atletico Madrid are the new reality. The international break gives Sampaoli’s side a much needed time out to re-energize and rediscover the intensity shown early in this season. Their get out of jail goals late in matches papered over the cracks since the new year. Stevan Jovetic scored in the 91st minute to beat Real Madrid. Pablo Sarabia scored what turned out to be the match winner against Osasuna in the 92nd minute. Joaquin Correa’s match winner against Las Palmas, in which they were outplayed in possession, came in the 80th. Again out-energized in the derby match against Real Betis for the first half, Sevilla needed two second half goals to overcome the 1-0 halftime deficit.
Thus presents Sampaoli’s newest challenge: controlling the emotion of his side within the fishbowl of La Liga. Their dynamic possession style inherently has its ups and downs depending on player energy and inspiration. Whether a three or four defender backline, creating midfield overloads shaped the formation and not the other way around. The build-up play focused around opening space for Steven N’Zonzi and Samir Nasri through vertical movements in midfield underlines why they would have trouble with compact, counter attacking sides like Atletico Madrid and Leicester City.
The 3-1 loss against Simeone’s side, and the manner in which Atleti’s strikers and midfielders shut down Sevilla’s passing lanes in the first phase of possession, showed two teams headed in separate directions. If every team struggles at some point in the season, would it be more advantageous to experience those growing pains in August or September, as Atleti did? The conclusion of Sevilla’s midfield having to reevaluate their build up play shows a combination of tired midfielders and appropriate adjustments made by opposition managers. Either way, Sampaoli will have to tinker with his recipe to power the side for the last two months of the season.
The loss to Leicester City in the Champions League was especially draining. Sevilla should have finished off the tie in the first leg in which they could have, and should have, scored three or four goals against the defeated English side on the ropes in the final days of Claudio Ranieri. The second leg showed the mounting pressure. Nasri, struggling to replicate his form from the start of the season, was sent off with a red card in going after Jamie Vardy. Sampaoli was also sent to the stands. N’Zonzi missed a penalty kick.
Nasri’s revitalization was heralded as the crowning achievement of Sampaoli’s system, but N’Zonzi’s role is equally poignant and essential. What Nasri does in the box to box build up in the left half spaces, N’Zonzi does on the right side. His development from temperamental midfielder losing a relegation battle at Blackburn to his current day role as a calming cog in possession represents his maturity and being miscast as “the next Vieira” in England due to his 6-3 height (although he was sent off in his Sevilla debut).
In an N’Zonzi profile last month, sporting director Monchi compared him more to Thiago Alcantara or Julian Weigl than the former Arsenal midfielder. Simeone made it a point to cut off service to N’Zonzi when the two teams played, ensuring that each striker and central midfielder would curve their runs to cut off that passing lane. More telling, N’Zonzi reveled in the lack of pressure and “chilled” life at Sevilla. Of course, Nasri mentioned food and women as a reason for moving to Spain. Playing as the hunter versus the hunted is a different emotion altogether.
There’s no doubting Sampaoli’s vision or tactical nous. But it’s been five seasons since Sampaoli experienced the league environment, and never with a global media spotlight. Luis Enrique and Zinedine Zidane went from almost getting fired to winning Europe and the league in the same season. There’s already conclusions that Sampaoli lost his magic touch - that is, until the next time Sevilla regain their form.
Sampaoli was at one point linked to take over the Barcelona position next season. The emphasis on building through the midfield in both attack and defense would fit with the Catalan side’s philosophy. He also has the respect of the South Americans on the side, although Tata Martino noted his difficulty in truly penetrating the club past a surface level because he wasn’t of Barcelona. Regardless, whether at Sevilla or Barcelona, there are no guarantees of longevity. Anyways, Sampaoli was close to managing Messi and Javier Mascherano as Argentina manager last summer, a job he described as his dream.
Sevilla were always longshots to win La Liga, even before Zidane worked his psychological magic in suggesting they were contenders. Many hinted, whether through antidote or science, that his Bielsa-influenced style follows a familiar trajectory of starting out the season on fire and ending in a blaze of glory in a matter of months due to physical demands. We’ve also known Sampaoli to be much more pragmatic than his mentor as evidenced by his success at Chile.
Simeone acknowledged how much Atleti had to reinvent themselves this season, a vital skill across some 60 matches spanning nine months. Atleti is a good example of a side growing each season but still retaining their personality. It would be harsh to judge this season as a failure no matter how it ends, and Sevilla can still win matches based on sheer individual quality. But we’ve seen glimpses of what could be when the pieces are ticking together, and we’ve seen Sampaoli and Sevilla win with style. Entering the final stretch of the season, they’ll need to change to get out of their rut. But it’s also essential they stay the same.