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Four Horse Race? – Could Sevilla FC potentially challenge for La Liga in 2020/21?

Richard Pike examines the recent progress Sevilla have made, and looks at their chances for next season.


One of football’s most successful clubs in terms of trophies won and league performance since 2000 is Sevilla FC. The Andalucian outfit suffered relegation from La Liga in 1999/00, however, after just one season in the Spanish second tier, Rojiblancos bounced back to La Liga at the first attempt in time for 2001/02. Since then, it has been onwards and upwards. Sevilla have never finished below 10th place in La Liga in 19 seasons, won two Copa del Rey titles in 2006/07 and 2009/10 and won five UEFA Cup/Europa League titles between 2005/06 and 2015/16.

After a two season absence from the UEFA Champions League, Sevilla have won a ticket back to European football’s top club competition. A 2-0 home win against Real Mallorca on Sunday 12th July coupled with Villarreal CF’s 1-2 home defeat against Real Sociedad the following night confirmed a top four spot for Rojiblancos. A firm improvement on a challenging 2018/19, where the Andalucians finished only 6th and after a disappointing loss to Slavia Prague in the last 16 of the Europa League, sacked manager Pablo Machin.

Despite their Champions League qualification, Sevilla are still considered amongst many to be considerably inferior to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, modern Spanish football’s “Big Three”. Therefore, can Sevilla turn Spanish football’s “Big Three” into a “Big Four” and possibly challenge for the La Liga title in 2020/21?

Redemption for Lopetegui and the statistics behind Sevilla’s improvement in 2019/20

If 2019/20 represents improvement for Sevilla over 2018/19, for their manager, Julen Lopetegui, it is a symbol of redemption. Days before the Spanish national team’s 2018 FIFA World Cup opening game, Lopetegui was infamously sacked from his position as head coach after agreeing to become new manager of Real Madrid post tournament.

Post-World Cup, things didn’t get much better for the Basque manager in the Spanish capital. After a humiliating 5-1 defeat at Camp Nou against rivals Barcelona, Lopetegui was dismissed after just four and a half months in charge. It’s no exaggeration to describe 2018/19 as Lopetegui’s annus horribilis. The pressure was on as the 53 year-old arrived in Seville to take the reigns at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium to try and rebuild his reputation. However, it has been a task that Lopetegui has achieved impressively in Andalucia.

A quick look at all of Sevilla’s domestic statistics in La Liga from 2018/19 and this campaign highlight their improvement under Lopetegui’s stewardship. Sevilla finished 6th in La Liga in 2018/19 with 59 points. In 2019/20, Rojiblancos surpassed this tally comfortably with 70 points from 38 games. Sevilla hit 62 goals in their 38 games in 2018/19, a tally the Andalucians are down on in 2019/20 with just 54 goals. However, crucially, Sevilla have improved markedly defensively in 2019/20, conceding only 34 goals from 38 games, compared with 47 goals in 2018/19.

Opposition teams throughout 2018/19 managed 336 shots in 38 games against Sevilla an average of 8.84 per game, of these shots, 155 were on target, an average of 4.07 per game. Sevilla in 38 games in 2019/20 actually conceded an increased 388 shots at an average of 10.21 per game. However, only 121 of these shots have been on target, an average of just 3.18 per game. A weak point throughout 2018/19 for Sevilla was below average away form, with just 5 wins, 5 draws and 9 losses from their 19 away matches. Fast-forward to 2019/20 and Rojiblancos have improved considerably in this respect, managing 10 wins, 5 draws and just 4 losses from their 19 away games.

Sevilla’s longest unbeaten run throughout 2018/19 was a ten game streak between Matchdays 10 and 19. This statistic has been surpassed in 2019/20, with the club unbeaten in their last 15 league games, a run stretching back to Matchday 24. Finally, Rojiblancos managed to lose 8 games by a margin of more than one goal in 2018/19, compare this to just one game in 2019/20, their 4-0 loss away to Barcelona on Matchday 8, their only true bad day at the office all season. With the exception of allowing more shots from opposing teams, Sevilla have made considerable progress in all other statistics throughout 2019/20.

The Return of Monchi and his immediate impact

One factor that cannot be overlooked in Sevilla’s improvement this term is their strong improvement on transfers courtesy of their ingenious director of football, Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, or more commonly known as Monchi. The 51 year-old’s previous spell as director of football at Rojiblancos between 2000 and 2017 saw him unearth gems such as Dani Alves, Clement Lenglet and Ivan Rakitic. After leaving Sevilla and signing a four year contract as director of football at Italian giants AS Roma in the summer of 2017, Monchi opted to return back to Andalucia last summer in his old role.

Sevilla’s transfers during the summer of 2019 made it seem like Monchi had never been away. Argentine right winger Lucas Ocampos, the star of Sevilla’s campaign, was purchased from French heavyweights Olympique de Marseille for just EUR 15 million. The central defensive pairing of Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos were both picked up from French football, Girondins de Bordeaux and FC Nantes respectively for a combined EUR 40 million.

Sevilla have also shopped well on a shoestring too. Two other major components of Sevilla’s defensive strength cost them just EUR 4.5 million to assemble. All of that outlay going on 32 year-old defensive midfielder Fernando Reges, signed from Turkish giants Galatasaray SK. The second component being Sergio Regulion, the 23 year-old left fullback, highly competent in both offensive and defensive situations signed from Real Madrid on a season’s loan.

It could be argued Sevilla lost their way a little in the transfer market without Monchi. In the summer of 2018, armed with over EUR 90 million from transfer sales, Sevilla brought in the likes of Quincy Promes, Ibrahim Amadou, Joris Gnagnon and Aleix Vidal. However, all of these players proved a disappointment and come the start of 2019/20, all were moved on. Promes departing permanently to AFC Ajax whereas Amadou, Gnagnon and Vidal all departed on loan to Norwich City, Stade Rennais and Deportivo Alaves respectively. Upon their return, it is likely all will be sold at a discount to free up spare wages and recoup some transfer funds.

With their transfer genius back and seemingly with a bang considering some of the aforementioned buys, it will be fascinating to see what Sevilla can do this summer window. It will be a transfer market where both buying and selling clubs are likely to be affected financially by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, if ever a man can find a managerial craftsman the tools he needs to polish up his final product even further, Monchi is that man.

Strengths & Weaknesses

The defensive improvement from Sevilla throughout 2019/20 has been the club’s main strength. The aforementioned Kounde and Carlos have been the main factor. There is a very strong argument in terms of performance as a defensive pair this season that Kounde and Carlos have not been too far off both Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane at Spanish Champions Real Madrid.

Of the two, the Brazilian Carlos is the one who stays deep in the defensive line, making defensive clearances and acting as an organiser. Whereas Kounde acts as the sweeper, using his additional pace to get back and cut out defence-splitting passes. In addition, Kounde frequently carries the ball out of central defence to begin Sevilla attacking moves. The young 21 year-old Frenchman also possesses strong passing ability.

Another major strength for Sevilla has been the form of the aforementioned Fernando. The 32 year-old former Porto and Manchester City veteran has been a beacon of consistency for Rojiblancos. Playing in the ever-challenging defensive anchorman midfield role, Fernando provides reliable shielding of the central defensive pairing of Kounde and Carlos.

The veteran Brazilian has also demonstrated versatility this campaign which came to light during Sevilla’s 0-0 draw at home to Barca on Matchday 30. After both Kounde and Carlos struggled to contain Blaugrana’s attacks during the first half, Sevilla switched to a three man central defence with Fernando moving alongside Kounde and Carlos during the second half. This tactical switch proved effective in restricting Barca chances as Fernando performed well in his new role in central defence and helped earn Sevilla a deserved point.

Fullbacks Regulion on the left and the evergreen, now 34 year-old Jesus Navas on the right are given license in Lopetegui’s preferred 4-3-3 formation to get forward, overlap the two players on the flanks of the attacking three and send crosses into the opposition’s box. A combined 11 assists from the pair outline how important both players are. Equally, both fulfil their defensive capabilities too, using speed and positioning to get back from advanced positions and stop crosses into Sevilla’s box. A particular mention has to go to Navas, who played all of Sevilla’s league matches despite his advancing years.

A final strength is the form of the aforementioned Ocampos. The Argentine had big boots to fill to replace Spaniard Pablo Sarabia, who joined Paris Saint Germain after a stellar 2018/19 at Sevilla where he noted 13 goals and 13 assists in 33 league matches. However, Ocampos has proved to be the key attacking figure in Sevilla recording a top four finish. His 14 goals and 3 assists contributing to many a narrow victory for Rojiblancos this term. Possessing pace, dribbling and trickery in abundance, Ocampos thrives in an inside forward role, cutting inside from the flanks and unleashing strong shots at goal.

Sevilla’s most glaring weakness has been a lack of goals from their strike-force. Their two main strikers, Dutchman Luuk de Jong and Youssef En-Nesyri have scored just a combined 10 La Liga goals for the club. Often, a team chasing a top four finish would have missed out due to such a below-par return from their strikers. Rojiblancos have been lucky that Ocampos has weighed in with 14 goals and that they have been able to keep things tight defensively in their successful chase for Champions League football.

The dependence on Ocampos is also broadened by Sevilla’s lack of a reliable goal-getter from central midfield. Of the candidates who may fill the most advanced role in the midfield three, neither Oliver Torres or veteran Franco Vasquez have been able to chip in with more than 3 league goals all season. Whilst this specific 4-3-3 deployed by Lopetegui is a more compact formation, one feels Sevilla really lack an attacking midfielder who can get into the final third more and chip in with between 5 to 10 goals a season.

Areas to improve and what Sevilla need in the transfer market

The most obvious area Sevilla need to improve is being more clinical in front of goal. They have dropped points on occasions this campaign when leading against inferior opponents in games due to an inability to get a two-goal lead and kill a game. The most noteworthy example was the 1-1 draw at home on Matchday 3 against Celta Vigo. In this particular game, Sevilla had 19 shots, of which only 5 were on target. Celta Vigo only had one shot on target all game, yet snatched a late equaliser.

To achieve this improvement, ties into what Sevilla need in the summer transfer market, a better striker. Sevilla’s recruitment throughout 2019/20 has by and large been good, however, one area that needs improvement is the recruitment of strikers. The aforementioned En-Nesyri and de Jong cost a combined EUR 32.5 million between them. Javier Hernandez was purchased in the summer from West Ham United for EUR 7.75 million, yet after just one goal in La Liga, he was sold to MLS’ LA Galaxy for EUR 8.55 million in the winter window.

All the striking personnel have struggled to replace the goals of Wissam Ben Yedder who was sold to French Ligue 1 giants AS Monaco last summer for a fee of EUR 40 million. 18 goals and 9 assists in 35 La Liga games for the French international striker have proven a difficult act to follow.

In addition to a new striker, other areas of Sevilla’s squad will need a refresh. Talismanic midfield playmaker Ever Banega has departed the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan for a spell in Saudi Arabia with Al-Shabab Riyadh. Therefore, a replacement will be a necessity. A similar player to Banega, who is capable of weighing in with a decent amount of goals would represent an added bonus. Intriguingly, Valencia’s 31 year-old captain, Dani Parejo, a central midfield playmaker himself has emerged as a target for Rojiblancos.

Both fullback positions may also need reviewing. Navas is still a dependable performer, however, he is now 34. His back-up, 29 year-old Frenchman Sebastien Corchia spent the entirety of 2019/20 on loan at Espanyol where he endured an unsuccessful injury-plagued campaign and Sevilla are likely to offload him. Kounde can fill in at right back on occasion, however, he is understandably better in his natural position at centre back. A young back-up to Navas who can be gradually eased in as his successor may be the target.

Equally, on the left flank, Regulion’s loan has now expired and he has returned to his parent club Real Madrid. However, with his pathway to the first team at the Santiago Bernabeu blocked by both Ferland Mendy and Los Blancos veteran Marcelo, Regulion is reportedly looking to leave in the summer citing a desire for regular first team games. Another season-long loan at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan for Regulion may not be out of the question.

Conclusion

The stunning La Liga triumph of Atletico Madrid in 2013/14 is widely considered the moment where Spain’s so-called “Big Two” became a “Big Three”. So could an upwardly mobile Sevilla, after a strong 2019/20 campaign make further progress and challenge for the La Liga title in 2020/21? Turning Spain’s Big Three into a Big Four?

Looking at the final statistics for La Liga, Sevilla and other rival clubs in 2019/20 and in past seasons, one could say there is scope for Rojiblancos to make further progress in 2020/21. Possibly to launch a title challenge or at minimum, further close the gap to the “Big Three”.

Real Madrid’s 2019/20 title triumph was won with 87 points, the joint lowest points tally for a La Liga title triumph since 2006/07 when Real won the title with 76 points. Likewise, Real’s triumph in 2019/20 saw them score only 70 goals all campaign, the lowest since 2006/07 when the capital club triumphed scoring just 66 goals.

Sevilla finished with 70 points from their 38 games this season, their highest tally since 2016/17 when they accrued 72 points. Their deficit to the eventual champions being 17 points. Compare to 2011/12 and 2012/13 when Sevilla finished 50 points behind the champions. Sevilla’s deficit of 17 points is their lowest to the champions of Spain since 2008/09, when they finished 3rd, accruing 70 points, 17 behind Guardiola’s brilliant treble-winning Barca side.

Neither Real nor Barca particularly convinced this campaign. Both are in transition, Real only just finding their form again after the departure of the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo and Barca looking too dependent on Lionel Messi’s brilliance. 4th placed Sevilla only lost 6 games all campaign, the same tally as Barca. With 19 wins, Rojiblancos actually won more games than 3rd placed Atletico who won 18. Finally, Sevilla didn’t just sneak a 4th place finish on the final game of the campaign, they finished 10 points clear of 5th placed Villarreal, guaranteeing Champions League football comfortably with two games to spare.

Nothing is a certainty in football of course. However, faced with all the above facts and figures in addition to the way Sevilla have recovered after losing their way over the past few seasons, I believe there is scope for Sevilla to potentially turn La Liga into a four horse race next campaign.


Read all our Opinion articles here.

Richard Pike

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