Sevilla’s 6-4 win against Espanyol on the opening day of La Liga was an appropriate start for new manager Jorge Sampaoli. The scoreline went, in order, 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-3, 4-3, 5-3, 6-3, and finally, 6-4 to close out the match that ended up in an even 50-50 on possession percentage. We may not see Sevilla score six goals in a match again - although they very well could - but they will be entertaining to watch in a way that experiments with equal chance of large success or brutal failure are.
Sampaoli and Sevilla followed up Espanyol match with a 0-0 draw against Villarreal and a 2-1 win over Las Palmas with a 94th minute goal, and are currently in second place on the table. In each match, Sampaoli has largely kept a pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation following Unai Emery (although the Espanyol match was something of a 2-1-5-2 formation that more resembled his playing philosophy). But debating formations with Sampaoli is going beyond a simpler point; he wants Sevilla to have the ball with seven or eight players going forward, as fast as possible. And when his side are without the ball, they must do anything to retrieve the ball just as quickly as they launch another counterattack.
We saw glimpses of how Sampaoli would line up as he started the season over two legs against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid. One couldn’t imagine a more difficult debut for the Chilean as he lost all three matches by a combined score of 8-2, thrown into the deep end of Spain’s superpower sides. Yet familiar trends emerged and there were small victories for Sampaoli-ists. Against Barcelona, Sevilla’s high press disrupted Sergio Busquets’ build up play and forced their opponents into uncharacteristic long passes. Sampaoli unveiled his signature 3-4-3 formation against Real Madrid that resulted in two goals (although the viability of playing three at the back outside of Serie A has been much discussed, and this will be a challenge for Sampaoli to find a formation that combines his pressing with not being vulnerable on the wings during counter attacks).
The 56-year-old Sampaoli made his name through Chile’s swashbuckling approach that not only had style but the Copa America title to match (the 2015 title was Chile’s first ever senior title, and they would repeat the effort last June at the Centenario under a different manager after he resigned in January). He won 27 out of 43 matches with Chile, and 72 out of 118 at Universidad de Chile before that, and with the side scoring 249 goals. Perhaps no side outside of Bayer Leverkusen, international or club, made tempo such an integral part of their team identity. In a similar manner to Spain and Germany’s recent success, the core of Chile’s players were brought up in this high pressing, vertical passing system. Thus, despite Chile’s success, naming Sampaoli as manager of a European side came with a risk.
It is telling that Sampaoli only signed with Sevilla for two seasons, just long enough to see the positive or negative effects of whether his ideas can translate across continents. Regardless, the appointment excited many with a romantic notion of Sevilla causing La Liga fits with their energy and action. On the other hand, the star of Sevilla is technical director Monchi. As such, the biggest responsibility of Sevilla managers is to develop talent to move onto bigger clubs (with the second goal being winning the Europa League). Sampaoli is the most stylistically opinionated manager Monchi has worked with in his 16 seasons. Observing how he develops the side consisting of players in their early to mid 20’s will be as important as any formation or high press.
If he is successful, then, like Unai Emery before him, he will be in line for a top tier position. But there is also the significance of translating footballing ideas and success across regions and cultures. In addition to the Copa America, Sampaoli won a Copa Sudamerica with Universidad de Chile in 2011, coming onto football hipster radars in leading the “club of the moment”. The Sampaoli trademarks were on full display: the pressing, vertical passing in attack, and the Bielsa influence with a hint of pragmatism. And there were also trophies.
Sampaoli wasn’t the only South American to make his way to Sevilla this summer, with 26-year-old midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso a surprise signing from Sao Paulo. A former prodigy and teammate of Neymar at Santos, their careers went separate ways after they each bursted onto the Brazilian soccer scene some years ago (headlines such as Ganso - the Brazilian who couldn’t keep up with Neymar, and Ganso: The genius left forgotten in Neymar’s Shadow tell their own story). It seemed as if Ganso would be another unfulfilled talent, a player who received too much accolade too early, filled with YouTube highlights but no substance. Now, he’ll be expected to replace Ever Banega in linking defense and attack. Everything has on its own timeline.
Sevilla lost three out of four of their starting attack from last year’s Europa League final against Liverpool - Kevin Gameiro to Atleti, Ever Banega to Inter, and Coke to Schalke. Midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak left for PSG. In fact, their starting lineup against Espanyol featured six newcomers in Luciano Vietto, Wissam Ben Yedder, Pablo Sarabia, Franco Vasquez, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Gabriel Mercado. Against Las Palmas, Sampaoli started Samir Nasri, Ganso, and Joaquin Correa in midfield. Of course, the turnover is a feature, and not a defect of the club. And in uprooting the locker room (including captain Coke), Monchi did Sampaoli a favor. Better for the new manager to mold a young locker room and team - and Nasri.
Sampaoli must also figure out the Champions League this season (he is off to a good start, with a 0-0 draw against Juventus). Outside of that, there is a game of chicken in seeing who bends first between La Liga sides and Sampaoli. Could Sevilla conceivably win every match 6-4, with an attitude of scoring two goals at the expense of giving up one? It would also be foolish to overlook Sampaoli’s pragmatism - they did keep a clean sheet against Villarreal in the following match. And such is life at Sevilla that for better or worse, there will always be another transfer period for new bargains to replace club captains. And with that brings an opportunity for new beginnings, for both players and in this case, for Sampaoli as well.