Usually when writing any story on a La Liga season, it almost fully consists of the two super teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atlético Madrid’s shock title win in 2014 mixed with two Champions League final appearances in the last three season have altered the narrative somewhat, but their fluctuating form this season mixed with Real Madrid’s unprecedented 40-match undefeated streak seemed to shift the story back to status quo.
That is until Sevilla, led by a fiery Argentine manager armed with a high-pressing system as vigorous as his sideline demeanour, has written a refreshing new chapter in the story of the 2016/17 La Liga campaign.
Jorge Sampaoli, who led the Chilean national team to their first ever major international title by defeating the nation of his birth in the 2015 Copa America final, has been a revelation in his first season in Europe. Thanks to that high pressing system, inspired by another former Chile national team boss from Argentina, Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli has Sevilla just a point behind Real Madrid (though Madrid have a game in hand) after 18 rounds. This is in part thanks to their 2-1 win against Real at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán on January 15, ending their aforementioned streak. Sevilla’s intensity, fluid movement and quick passing ultimately proved too much for Zinedine Zidane’s troops as new recruit Stevan Jovetić’s stoppage time winner capped off a performance that saw Los Nervionenses own 58% possession and record one more shot on target.
Sampaoli wasn’t exactly taking over a sinking ship to begin with. He took over the reins last summer from now Paris Saint-Germain boss, Unai Emery, who led Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles, which had never been done before in the competition. Sevilla has won five Europa League/UEFA Cup titles since the start of the 2005/06 season and two Copas Del Rey as they and Atlético have emerged as strong success stories of their own, though all of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s exploits over the last 11 years understandably take the headlines.
Despite all this success, Sevilla have never truly mounted a title challenge except for the 2006/07 La Liga season. Led by the silky strike force of Brazilian international Luis Fabiano and Mali international Frédéric Kanouté as well as Enzo Maresca, Renato and right back Dani Alves who racked up an incredible 11 assists (second in La Liga that season) Sevilla took Madrid and Barcelona all the way to the final day in pursuit of their first league title for 61 years. Unfortunately, a late season 3-2 loss to Real at the Santiago Bernabéu as well as dropped points in the final two games to Mallorca and Villarreal curtailed any hopes of a treble as they won the second of back-to-back UEFA Cup and Copa Del Rey crowns earlier that campaign.
Since the 2009/10 season, Sevilla has not finished in the top four, largely settling for a Europa League place for the majority of that period. However, that competition has served as a conduit to Champions League riches for the Andulasian side as two of the three consecutive titles they won gifted them berths in Europe’s biggest club competition despite finishing fifth and seventh in the league in those respective seasons. Much credit goes to Emery for that historic run in Europe and his tactical astuteness. Mainly employing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, using a high press and quick transition game while ensuring his midfield, led by the likes of Vicente Iborra and Grzegorz Krychowiak, kept a solid shape and closed down spaces so they could retrieve the ball quickly.
Sampaoli’s approach is more predicated on possession and taking chances as he likes his teams to have a high defensive line and his wing backs overlapping along the flanks, inspired by Bielsa’s philosophy of verticality. That go for broke type of mentality has had a profound impact on his players as their 57.4% average possession (almost eight percent better than their average under Emery) is second in La Liga this season to Barcelona while they also rank third in successful passes and goals scored.
Astute signings such as Wissam Ben Yedder and Luciano Vietto, who have a combined 25 goals in all competitions this term have covered satisfactorily for the loss of French striker Kevin Gameiro, who left for Atlético in the summer in exchange for Vietto on loan. The likes of team assist leader Pablo Sarabia, Franco Vazquez, Hiroshi Kiyotake and Samir Nasri (on loan from Manchester City) have helped replenish an attack that lost the likes of Éver Banega, Yehven Konoplyanka (on loan at Schalke) and José Antonio Reyes in the last transfer window. Furthermore, lanky ex-Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers player, Steven N’Zonzi is having a career year at the base of midfield, completing 89% of his passes, averaging two tackles a game, has even scored a pair of league goals including a winner against Atlético and was a standout in the Real Madrid match playing as a Regista.
Unlike last season when they tumbled in the group stage, Sevilla have thrived in Champions League play as well, emerging from a group including five-time defending Serie A winners and 2014/15 finalists Juventus as well as Ligue 1 runner-ups for the last two seasons, Olympique Lyonnais. Though their attacking nous has shown there as well, Sampaoli has shown his flexibility in setting up his team to play a defensively oriented game, earning key 0-0 draws at Juve and Lyon, at times employing five at the back. Now, Sevilla aim to advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time as they face a seemingly manageable task in the last 16 against struggling English Premier League champions, Leicester City. Past defeats at this stage as favourites against Fenerbahçe in 2007/08 and CSKA Moscow two seasons later are recent warnings that they should not take the Foxes lightly though.
Are Sevilla legitimate La Liga contenders? Conventional wisdom says no given the depth of talent Real Madrid and Barcelona possess as well as their own Jekyll and Hyde tendencies as this is the same side that dropped points to the likes of relegation-threatened Sporting Gijón and Granada. But given Sampaoli’s fresh ideas, a side filled with castoffs eager to prove the world wrong and the example set by Atlético three seasons prior, they may just present a stern challenge to the big boys. Though they will still need to navigate difficult trips to the Bernabéu, Camp Nou and Vicente Calderón in the coming months. Unbridled European success the last few years has put them back in the spotlight, but given what they’re capable of now, one wonders if they’ll be able to step up to a higher level once that light brightens.