Sevilla's Bounce Back Year
Sevilla are riding high in La Liga on the back of an excellent start to the season. Powered by the second best attack in the division, they have good underlying numbers to underpin what will likely be a genuine challenge for their first top-three finish in a decade.
It is all far removed from the madness of last season. That summer, coach Jorge Sampaoli and long-serving transfer guru Monchi departed. Sampaoli’s replacement Eduardo Berizzo was gone before December, his replacement Vincenzo Montella lasted until the end of April, and Joaquín Caparros then stepped in for the run in of three wins and a draw that rescued a place in the Europa League qualifiers. Oh, and they also reached Copa del Rey final and the last eight of the Champions League.
In the midst of all that, a finishing position of seventh, with the league’s seventh-best xG difference, was a pretty decent return.
After his temporary reign on the bench, Caparros moved into a director of football role, and turned to Pablo Machín, fresh off an accomplished debut top-flight season with Girona, to lead Sevilla forward. Machín’s team weren’t quite as impressive from a numbers standpoint as fellow newly promoted side Getafe - who again look very solid this season - but their intense and direct approach yielded results and was a good fit with Sevilla’s traditional style of play, one that Caparros himself helped forge as head coach between 2000 and 2005.
Girona pressed high, regularly won the ball in the middle of the pitch and then transitioned swiftly to attack, with plenty of diagonal passes out to their rampaging wing-backs and crosses into the box. They were also very effective on set-pieces, with a league-high 38.64% of their non-penalty goals coming from such situations. They generated over 50% of their non-penalty xG from a combination of set-pieces and open-play crosses. It was all relatively simple yet well-drilled - the culmination of Machín’s four years at the helm.
With a few tweaks that approach has so far scaled well to a bigger club. At Sevilla, the 3-4-2-1 formation Machín utilised at Girona has given away to a 3-5-2 (perhaps a 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-1-1 depending on how you wish to split the bands), clearly visible in this pass map from last month’s home victory over Celta Vigo.
At Girona, the wing-backs were usually the first attacking out ball, maintaining high positions to stretch play horizontally and thus create space infield for the two attacking midfielders, who operated almost as classic inside forwards. At Sevilla, however, his use of two forwards, with André Silva generally playing just off of Wissam Ben Yedder, occupies the opposing central defenders, stretching play vertically and generating space for the two advanced central midfielders to attack. The wing-backs normally join in a bit later.
The identity of Sevilla’s regular midfield starters makes it clear that the focus of the side is on attack. A trio of Pablo Sarabia, Éver Banega (getting regular minutes as a lone defensive midfielder for the first time since his early days at Boca Juniors weaving wonderful passing patterns with Juan Riquelme) and Franco Vázquez is certainly not one constructed to provide defensive resistance, as their numbers for the season to date attest.
Sevilla’s xG conceded has marginally improved from last season, to a league-11th-best 1.18 per match, but their attacking output has shot up from 1.33 xG per match last season to 1.80 this time around, driven by increases in both shot volume (15.08, up from 13.66) and quality (0.12 per shot, up from 0.10). A side who were passive and one-paced for large stretches of last season are now direct and incisive.
After a barren year at Milan following his big-money move from Porto, Silva has quickly made an impact at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Not only is he scoring goals (seven, off 5.72 xG), but he has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to hold up and link play. His strike partner Ben Yedder is also very much enjoying himself.
The ever-productive Sarabia is another thriving in this setup. As the right of the two advanced central midfielders, he is able to turn infield onto his favoured left foot and enjoy a propitious panorama, with Jesus Navas advancing wide to his right, two forwards ahead of him and other options emerging to his left. He already has four goals and four assists, and ranks towards the top of the team in terms of deep progressions, key passes and on the other side of the ball, pressures and pressure regains.
Sevilla’s defence was a clear weakness last season - they conceded three or more goals on seven occasions - and Machín has simply chosen to embrace the talent imbalance in his squad. His team generate plenty of opportunities, but it is also relatively easy for opposing teams to advance through the center of the pitch and get off shots against them. Their matches have averaged a pretty evenly distributed 30 shots. Machín is betting that by throwing numbers forward his side will create better quality chances than they give up. It is a risky strategy but one that’s working well so far.
Sevilla are currently just a point shy of leaders Barcelona following a hard-fought, come-from-behind victory at home to fast-starting Espanyol prior to the international break. There is little in their underlying numbers to suggest that form is unsustainable; on xG difference, they are La Liga’s second-best team. But there are some question marks.
Have they benefited from the fitness boost of getting into competitive action earlier than others due to their participation in the Europa League qualifying rounds? Will that catch up with them later in the campaign, especially given that six outfield players have started at least 11 of their 12 league matches to date?
Will they fall off like Machín’s Girona side did last season? Girona ran a positive xG difference of 0.20 per match through the first half of the campaign but that dropped into negative territory at -0.26 per match thereafter, with regression at both ends of the pitch. Whether that was due to tiredness (he again ran his favoured starters hard) or opponents figuring out their approach, it is something Machín will need to guard against this time around.
Conversely, he still hasn’t been in charge for all that long. Sevilla aren’t yet the organised pressing unit his Girona side were, while their set-piece productivity is also likely to improve with further practice of routines and strategies - something that various members of the squad have highlighted as a focus.
Barcelona have so far been a step below their level of last season, opening up a window of hope for Sevilla in terms of a title bid. The top three is probably a more realistic aim given Real Madrid’s relative struggles and the fact that Atlético Madrid, currently level on points with Sevilla, are having real problems in attack. At the very least, Valencia’s poor start - in terms of results rather than underlying numbers - has opened the door to the top four and Champions League qualification, which in of itself would represent a good return from Machín’s debut campaign.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association