When Steven Jovetic came off the bench against Real Madrid back in January and curled in a brilliant winning goal, the feeling in Seville was that anything was possible this season. Sevilla had inflicted upon Real Madrid their first league defeat of the season and cemented themselves as genuine title contenders. The win was followed by a topsy-turvy, record-breaking 4-3 win at Osasuna, where Sevilla amassed their highest ever points total after 19 games. Challenging Madrid at the top of the table, and with Leicester City presenting a tricky yet winnable challenge in the Champions League, the season looked set for something special.
Yet, it hasn’t worked out as hoped for Sevilla. Defeats against Espanyol and Atletico Madrid, and draws against Villareal, Alaves and Leganes have caused irreparable damage to Sevilla’s title bid. The Champions League tie against Leicester went horribly wrong, as the masters of the Europa League froze on the biggest stage and failed to play to their full potential. Their victories in the last two months have been unconvincing; achieved through grit and good fortune more than the style and intensity that defined their early season success. Key performers have fallen out of form. Suddenly, finishing third in the table and gaining automatic qualification for the Champions League looks less than straightforward.
The drop off in form has been startling. Doubts have been cast over Jorge Sampaoli, who, to this point, was one of the most popular and desired coaches in Europe. So where has it gone wrong for Sevilla?
Sampaoli’s tinkering causes confusion
One of Sevilla’s biggest strengths since Sampaoli’s arrival has been there tactical fluidity. Sampaoli believes that a team capable of seamlessly transitioning from one shape to another can confuse and unsettle the opposition. Hence, no team in Europe has used more formations than Sevilla. You’d be hard pressed to find a formation Sevilla haven’t used this season.
Recently, however, Sampaoli’s tinkering with the team has gone from simple changes of formation to unorthodox and, frankly, bizarre tweaks that not only confuse the opposition, but his own players. Sevilla’s recent game against Atletico Madrid saw left back Sergio Escudero fielded in the middle of the park alongside Steven N’Zonzi and attacking midfield Pablo Sarabia played at left wing back. Striker Wissam Ben Yedder playing as a left winger, while Samir Nasri was used as a false nine. With half hour gone and Sevilla struggling, Sampaoli changed it: Escudero was restored to left back, Sarabia moved to the right flank, Ben Yedder moved to a central position and Nasri dropped into midfield.
Players popping up in strange positions is nothing new under Sampaoli. Sarabia, in particular, has played just about everywhere. Known as an attacking midfield with a wicked delivery, Sarabia has often found himself at right wing back. In other games, he’s been fielded a traditional left back, as a left wing-back, in central midfield, on the flanks and even as a right sided centre back. For half a season, it seemed to work.
Now, though, there are signs that the players are becoming frustrated by the changes. As adaptable as Sevilla are, even they will struggle when their formation and instructions are changed so frequently. Players enjoy consistency and clarity; being moved from position to position isn’t providing them that.
Key players fail to maintain form
Perhaps one of the reasons for Sampaoli’s experiments is due to the alarming dip in form of key players. Steven N’Zonzi had a genuine shout as of the league’s best players but has, of late, showed signs of fatigue. Playing such a demanding role as the team’s lone holder has taken its toll on the Frenchman. Samir Nasri, who Sampaoli said “makes the team breathe”, has also struggled with fitness. Having spent much of last season injured, Nasri isn’t yet able to play a whole season again. Sevilla recently gave him a two-week holiday to ensure he’d be fit for the remainder of the season, but it has yet to pay dividends on the pitch.
Both players’ decline in form has hindered Sevilla’s ability to retain the ball and move it quickly from defence to attack. This may have contributed to the sharp drop in form of the attackers, most noticeably Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman bagged a hat-trick against Real Sociedad at the start of January and looked ready to explode in the second half of the season, but has managed just a single goal since.
Key players underperforming has tested Sevilla’s squad depth. Angel Correa has seen more game time since the turn of the year but has yet to reward Sampaoli’s faith with consistent performances. Luciano Vietto continues to struggle for confidence. Kranevitter looks very limited in Sampaoli’s system, while Paulo Henrique Ganso has failed to adapt to life in Spain and seldom makes the matchday squad. Only Vicente Iborra has proven he can be counted on, as he’s come into the side and scored crucial goals.
Pressure paralysing the players
Tactics and player form are two big reasons for Sevilla’s recent slump, but there’s also something more intangible at play. Sevilla are unaccustomed to competing at the very top of La Liga and, like many teams that end up in that position, thrive as the underdogs. The win over Real Madrid boosted their confidence, but with that came new expectations. Deep down, the Sevilla squad felt they couldn’t compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona right until the very end.
Failure to live up to these new expectations seem to be weighing the squad down. There was a noticeable sense of disappointment when Sevilla only managed a 2-1 win over Leicester. The scoreline failed to reflect their superiority on the night. Since then, performances declined, as if the players were doubting themselves.
It culminated in a horrific showing in the second leg that didn’t do Sevilla or Sampaoli justice. It was the third time Sevilla had reached the Last 16 of the Champions and the third time they failed to progress past that stage. CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce and now Leicester City; there certainly seems to be a complex there.
Getting back on track
It’s easier said than done, but Sevilla now must focus on securing a spot in La Liga’s top four and get over recent disappointments quickly. A third placed finish would still represent significant progress for them, considering they were a long way off that last season. It could well depend on Sampaoli returning to basics; as basic as Sampaoli gets, in any case. Just as Atletico have improved after Simeone went back to the tried and tested approach, so too can Sevilla. More than anything, Sevilla need to find consistency again, and that can only come from clarity and consistency from the manager himself.