The league leaders dug themselves into a hole after two just minutes. One could blame nerves with Sevilla finding themselves in an unfamiliar position on top of the table, but Luis Suarez’s back pass to Messi attracted six defenders, none of whom shut off the Argentine’s through ball to Coutinho for Barcelona’s opener. Even if new Sevilla manager Pablo Machin instructed his side to be calm in the opening phase, that sequence still carved through nine players defending in their own third. Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino lamented the handicap of giving Barcelona an early lead in their Champions League loss, and this battle for the top of La Liga played out the same way as Ernesto Valverde’s side cruised to a 4-2 victory. After imploring that Sevilla would attack and not play for a draw, Machin admitted afterwards that Barcelona were better in both attack and in defense. Perhaps the 43-year-old manager, hired last summer to provide stability after Sevilla went through three managers last season, will go for a more conservative approach in the return match.
That Sevilla were even in first place could be written off as an early season blip, though the last time they were ahead this late into a season was when they won the league in 1945. And their position was also a reflection of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid’s lack of form. Still, take a picture of the league table heading into matchday ten and frame it. Barcelona are on top by a point, as expected. Then it turns weird: second place belongs to city rivals Espanyol, then Alaves, and Sevilla to round out the Champions League places. Atleti are in fifth, followed by Valladolid a point behind. Real Madrid are in seventh, just a point above Levante. It is still early, true, but we are also more than a third of the way through the season.
And while Machin was bested by Valverde this time around, he outmaneuvered Julen Lopetegui in a 3-0 win in early September that displayed what he could accomplish at Sevilla. The dominance from Machin’s three defender lineup gave Real Madrid such a tactical lesson that it put Lopetegui’s ability to manage a top club in question. Sevilla’s opening two goals came from wingback Jesus Navas getting in behind Marcelo, with Andre Silva finding space in the middle of Real Madrid’s penalty area and finishing off the open chances.
Lopetegui shouldn’t have been surprised by his opponent’s tactics, as Machin used the three center back system to gain promotion with Girona before finishing in tenth place last season and moving on to Sevilla (that movement from the second division to a bigger club mimics the rise of city rival Quique Setien). While he exhibited the formula of an overachieving side in defending deep and hitting out on counters, his wingback system added a wrinkle that’s unlocked the direct pace of Navas especially. Machin emphasizes pragmatism and balance, in how a striker must learn how to defend and a defender must learn how to attack. This is exemplified in his desire to turn Ever Banega from silky passer to defensive midfielder to provide “balance and distribution” for the rest of the side.
Though of course, in Sevilla’s world, the manager takes a backseat to their transfer policy. Or at least that’s how it used to be until sporting director turned scouting genius Monchi left two seasons ago for Roma. The initial grade without their architect spoke for itself, as they went through three managers last season. It is interesting how we assumed Sevilla would collapse after he left considering Monchi scored no goals, played no key passes, and made no direct decisions influencing individual matches. After all, he isn’t the only visionary in Spanish football, and there are more ways than one to build a successful, sustainable side. Yet the Monchi system shows the dangers of relying on one individual: what happens when they leave?
The 63-year-old Joaquin Caparros had the unenviable job of following the most important figure in club history (Caparros also managed Sevilla from 2000-05, and returned for the final four matches of last season, for free, and saw them through to a European place). Caparros displayed his own Monchi-esque ability in selling center back Clement Lenglet, defensive midfielder Steven Nzonzi, and left winger Joaquin Correa for a combined $88 million over the summer window. While big signing Quincy Promes is still transitioning to Spain, Caparros and Machin focused on strengthening at keeper and striker. Referring to the two positions as “fundamental and specialized”, Machin discussed the foundational importance of having quality at both positions. 29 year old keeper Tomas Vaclik was signed for just under $8 million from FC Basel, and made an eye catching one on one save against Gareth Bale that went semi-viral.
Yet the player that’s defined their season thus far is a loan signing that is born out of the Monchi - actually, we’ll call it the Sevilla model - of finding undervalued youth talent. The 22 year old Silva badly struggled under the weight of expectations and a new league as part of AC Milan’s spending two summers ago. Described as a “complete” striker with a game intelligence far beyond his age, he is second in the league with seven goals. After scoring a hat trick in his debut match, Machin discussed how, like Banega, Silva’s overall style augments his teammates abilities and makes the system function. And compare his poaching ability with the missing ingredient for city rivals Real Betis, and it’s now Sevilla who are now the attacking darlings of La Liga with 20 goals thus far.
We’ve touched on the changing of the guard for La Liga stalwarts, but the same applies to its managers with Zinedine Zidane’s departure. The movement and development of La Liga managers, especially in this season of upheaval, takes on a new importance with critics still skeptical of Valverde and Lopetegui at the two top clubs. Machin mimics the Valverde blueprint in which a manager makes their name at a Europa League level club before moving on to a bigger club (Luis Enrique also had a similar rise). Javi Gracia finished in eighth and ninth place in his two seasons at Malaga and eventually went to Watford, another midtable club, but with deeper resources. This may be the downside of the tiki-taka branding style, giving the perception that a manager does nothing more than throw a ball on the field with players able to inherently form triangles. Say Machin gets Sevilla in and around the Champions League places for the next three seasons - what’s the next step for him? And is this the best way to develop a top level manager on the forefront of European football tactics?
Eventually Barcelona and Real Madrid, with their vast resources, will reload their squad with a world class manager and reestablish the league hierarchy. As for Sevilla, Espanyol, Alaves, and the rest, if there is any time for a Leicester City-esque title run, it is this season. The title may not come down to who wins it as much as the side that trips up the least.
This weekend presents the first El Clasico without either Messi or Ronaldo in 11 years. The lineup of that 2007 clash consisted of the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco, Raul and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Bernd Schuster’s Real Madrid won the match 1-0. Frank Rijkaard was fired at the end of the season, replaced by Pep Guardiola. What followed was an entire era of dominance from Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a brief cameo by Atleti. The window to pull off a minor miracle before the super teams settle in is that brief, maybe one or two seasons as players turn over, and it won’t appear for another decade.