Sevilla and Valencia have consistently had some of the best underlying numbers in Spain throughout the current campaign yet that has not always translated into on-pitch results. Both have had rough patches of form, but while Valencia stuck with their head coach Marcelino following a poor start to the season, Sevilla recently parted company with Pablo Machín after just two wins in his last 11 league matches at the helm and an unexpected exit from the Europa League at the hands of Slavia Prague.
It is hard not to feel a little sorry for Machín. He was criticised for being tactically inflexible, for struggling to find solutions to injury problems, and for pushing his players too hard early on, leading to fatigue. But not only was he dealt a difficult hand with an imperfectly constructed squad and an extended season that began way back in July in the Europa League qualifying rounds, but the underlying statistics suggest his side were still one of La Liga’s best even through their recent poor run of results.
Sevilla have undeniably tapered off a tad over the course of the campaign. As it was ostensibly a 11-match run of results that led to Machín’s dismissal, it seems apt to split the campaign into rolling 11-match chunks. In doing so, it is notable that Sevilla’s top five runs of that length in terms of expected goal difference (xGD) came within their first eight 11-match chunks of the season; five of their six worst came in the five immediately preceding his sacking.
But even then, Sevilla ran an 0.40 xGD average through Machín’s final 11 matches in charge — not the league-title-chasing, 0.60+ rates they carried through the first 16 matches of the campaign, but still the fourth-best of any side in that time. They were a little worse but not enough to warrant the downturn in results that accompanied those numbers.
“If we are objective, the team are doing more things right than the results indicate,” Machín said the day before he was fired, and he wasn’t wrong. A positive xGD of 4.35 through his final 11 matches yielded a -4 goal difference: a negative swing of 8.35 goals. While Sevilla’s attack finished chances more or less as expected, the defence massively underperformed, conceding eight more goals than expected.
Much of that appears to rest on the shoulders of goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík. Across the entire campaign, Vaclík has been a solid performer, conceding just over a goal more than the average goalkeeper could be expected to. He has undoubtedly been an improvement on last season’s primary number one Sergio Rico. But his form over Machín’s final 11-match stretch was far from impressive. He conceded 18 goals from shots with a post-shot xG sum of 12.03 — nearly six more than expected.
It is difficult to identify other explanations. Sevilla began to defend a little deeper towards the end of Machín’s time in charge, but their number of aggressive actions (tackles, pressure events and fouls a team makes within two seconds of an opposition player receiving the ball) was actually above their seasonal average. They were not conceding chances of significantly higher quality — 0.087 xG per shot versus 0.083 — and our model also takes into account the positioning of defenders, so it wasn’t a case of tired legs leading to fewer bodies goal-side. The defensive underperformance appears to simply have been the result of the vagaries of fortune and an out-of-form goalkeeper. Had he been given the opportunity to continue, Machín could have changed nothing and results may very well have improved anyway.
Instead, in what certainly had shades of an internal coup, Joaquín Caparrós, the man responsible for appointing Machín and constructing the squad he had to work with, stepped down from his role as sporting director to replace him as head coach. “I am not a good negotiator,” he admitted upon taking charge on a temporary basis until the end of the season. “Negotiating is an art and I don’t know how to negotiate. I don’t like the office… I like everything that the life of a head coach comprises… Now, I am once again where I really enjoy being and where I think that I can perform best.”
A few days later, Caparrós was joined by returning sporting director Monchi, fresh from leaving Roma and rejecting interest from Arsenal to retake the position he previously held for 17 years before his departure a couple of summers ago. It all happened in such quick succession that it would surely be naive to believe that Monchi wasn’t at least consulted about the decision to part ways with Machín, despite his words to the contrary.
Caparrós is now tasked with getting the results Sevilla need to reclaim the top-four place that was still theirs as recently as four rounds ago. Even a reasonable swing back towards Sevilla’s underlying numbers would provide him with the opportunity to stake a decent claim to remaining at the helm. Things certainly started off well for him, with a Wissam Ben Yedder penalty leading his side to a 1-0 win away to Espanyol last weekend. His first big test comes after the international break, at home to a Valencia side with the same objective.
The decision Sevilla made was certainly one that was being mulled over in Valencia after a similarly poor 11-match run of results right at the start of the season. They picked up just 11 points in that time, and it was probably only the good will that Marcelino had built up from the club’s fourth-place finish in 2017-18 that earned him the benefit of the doubt. That, and perhaps the fact that his side’s underlying numbers were far superior to results.
In terms of xG difference over those first 11 matches, Valencia were actually the second best team in La Liga, behind Barcelona and ahead of Sevilla. The reality was very different. They performed at par in terms of goals conceded — eight non-penalty goals off of 7.94 xG conceded — but they underperformed heavily in attack, scoring just six non-penalty goals off of 159 shots valued at 14.44 xG.
Even since, it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. Valencia have drawn far too many matches, are still yet to record more than two consecutive victories and have only won two of their last seven. They’ve taken 28 matches to reach the same points total they accumulated in just the first half of last season. Marcelino was said to be on the verge of losing his job as recently as mid-January, when his side were down in 11th, 10 points off the top four. It has taken a long time for their strong underlying numbers to be reflected in reality, and even then only for very short spells.
But that initial 11-match stretch remains their worst in terms of points accumulation, and their general trend is upwards. They are La Liga’s second best team in terms of xGD — and are still six goals behind expectation in their actual goal difference — and the decision to keep Marcelino looks a good one. Valencia will return from the international break just six points shy of fourth-placed Getafe with 10 matches left to make up the difference. They are still in Europe (albeit in the Europa League, rather than the Champions League where they began) and also have a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona to come at the end of May.
Two similar situations; two different outcomes. There are certainly other factors at play — Valencia have a good young squad suited to Marcelino’s approach; Sevilla’s is ageing, unbalanced and in need of reworking after two sporting directors and four head coaches in less than two seasons — but on the evidence of the underlying numbers, Valencia made the right decision, while Sevilla erred in not giving a demonstrably competent coach the support he deserved to work his way through an unfortunate run of results.