At Sevilla, Julen Lopetegui makes his last stand
Life comes at you fast. There’s no man in football at this moment better placed to back up that cliche than Julen Lopetegui. On the eve of his first World Cup game as Spain manager, he was sacked after word leaked out that he had agreed to become the new Real Madrid manager. After he emerged from the plane home from Russia looking forlorn, unshaven and altogether glum, he said it was one of the worst days of his life. Fast forward four months and Lopetegui was again on the receiving end of his marching orders. If success really is a succession of failures handled well then the Basque manager is about to hit pay dirt.
As for Monchi, Sevilla’s once and, now, again sporting director, his return is already off to a dubious start, and it has nothing to do with football. In his first press conference back he said that sequels can sometimes be better than the original before saying The Godfather 2 was better than The Godfather 1. We’ll let the folks over at MoviesBomb dissect that one but it was typically affable from the former keeper and current high priest of the transfer world.
He has backed Lopetegui to the hilt. After whittling down a list of 25 candidates, he found his man, another former goalkeeper, who really wasn’t given enough time at Real Madrid and lost his job for Spain despite leading them into the last summer’s tournament as the favourites.
“They stole 50 goals from my son,” José Antonio Lopetegui, Lopetegui’s father, said after the club sold Ronaldo and didn’t replace him. And the truth is, Lopetegui started that season just fine. Real Madrid were sitting just behind Barcelona, Sevilla, and a Valencia team marooned at the wrong end of the table, on expected goal difference when he was sacked; this is despite allowing 3.06 expected goals against in his last game, a 5-1 hiding to Barcelona. They would eventually tumble much further down the table with Santiago Solari and eventually Zinedine Zidane at the helm as it became clear that the manager perhaps was never the issue. Lopetegui had his ideas clear and, subjectively speaking, correct when he tried to implement a possession-based game at the Bernabeu.
They converted 14 goals from their 15 xG in to start the season, but were faced with Barcelona’s beyond clinical 28 goals from 19.17 xG. They dished out some beatings too with a 3-0 against Roma in the Champions League group stages (with Monchi as the Italians’ sporting director, which might have left a lasting impression) standing out as possibly the zenith of his short spell in the capital. Expectations were simply too high for him at Real Madrid and time was always at a premium. But now, at Sevilla, those expectations have shrunk and the egos have too so he has a chance to mould this team into his very own thing. Monchi has given him a three-year deal, which is longer than the two-year contracts offered to Unai Emery and Jorge Sampaoli and the one-year deals offered to Juande Ramos and Marcelino before them.
He could have as many as seven new starters in his team to start the season. Sevilla have signed 12 players this summer and changed the characteristics of the squad from a physical and fast one into a still physical but more technical and diverse collection of players. His defence looks very different to that of Pablo Machín, who arrived last summer before being sacked in the middle of the season. He played with a 3-5-2 and while Lopetegui has dappled before in such shapes, he will play primarily in a 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1 if the situation requires it. And he has the players to do that. Lopetegui has no problem switching formation during a game and switching style depending on opponents.
A new-look defense for Sevilla
One of the most significant signings Sevilla have made is 20-year-old Jules Kounde from Bourdeaux. “I have plenty of faith in him, I have seen him many times and he is an ideal central defender to play in the way Lopetegui wants,” Monchi said about the €25 million defender. Sevilla are set to defend from the front and that typically means plenty of hoofed balls under pressure in their direction and requires a blend of physical assuredness and technique once they are asked to bring it out from the back; Kounde offers both.
With Diego Carlos, another new signing at €15 million from Nantes, a more experienced and powerful defender beside him, they can carry out the tasks necessary to play Lopetegui’s style of football.
Kounde’s 1.17 possession adjusted tackles per 90 minutes is low but his 7.37 unpressured long balls suggest he is confident in his passing range and willing to be part of the attacking set-up. Kounde’s over-confidence has been something mentioned as a potential negative but Lopetegui won’t mind that in the slightest. Kounde’s closing speed and positional awareness make him an ideal defender for a team that might be vulnerable on the break.
Sergio Reguilon broke onto the scene at Madrid when it was clear Marcelo was unable and, at times, unwilling to defend to an acceptable level. He was deemed surplus under Zinedine Zidane when he came back and Lopetegui snapped him up as he looks set to take another step in his fairly rapid development as an elite two-way full-back. He has the physical capacity to do it all from the left and Lopetegui will be asking him to provide everything he can muster on that side of the field to draw defences out and link with his more advanced teammates.
“For me he is the best coach I have ever had but unfortunately he didn’t have that little bit of luck when he was with us,” Dani Carvajal, apropos of almost nothing, said about Lopetegui. "And until I come across someone who for me is better than him, I’ll keep saying it.” Coaching will be key for Lopetegui and with Kounde and Reguilon, they will be given every chance to expand their technique and tactical awareness in the coming months.
As far as Lopetegui’s midfield went at Real Madrid, he had some issues. With no replacement for Casemiro until Marcos Llorente emerged just before the bell tolled, he went with Toni Kroos as the last man in the middle before the German explicitly stated “I’m not Casemiro” and knocked that experiment on the head. Against Athletic Bilbao, specifically, he started Kroos in that position and Real Madrid struggled to gain any sense of control before needing an Isco equaliser to save them as it finished 1-1. Fernando was brought in to play in that role but Lopetegui has shown in the past that he will change his team based on how aggressive his opponent is when fighting for possession. Ibrahim Amadou is also available and Lopetegui has options, who won’t dissent, when picked as the lone man at the base of midfield.
Lopetegui’s overhaul of Sevilla’s midfield should see just one remnant from past managers; Ever Banega. And the Argentine should be the rhythm-setter in Sevilla’s new-look midfield. Joan Jordan is the kind of player who can unlock a defence for Lopetegui and he could play in a more advanced role than both Fernando and Banega. He is a dribbling, passing, energetic player with box-to-box qualities. The Spaniard can add something in attack and defence.
His remit will consist mostly of aiding the attack but with his lanky frame, he can be tricky to maneuver around too. His range of passing is excellent and Lopetegui is fishing in the right ponds with Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Eibar being the most press-happy team in LaLiga last season. Joan Jordan, at 25, and with two years under Mendilibar, he will absorb his new coach’s system immediately and could be one of the most impactful signings of the summer.
Lopetegui will need a player to operate in the free role Isco was adept at playing in his system. Isco flourished when given this role by Lopetegui and we might look back on his career and see those games for Spain when he was allowed to roam as his very best.
They have already lost Pablo Sarabia to PSG. He and Messi were the only two players with over 0.20 xG scored and assisted per 90 last season. Between Wissam Ben Yedder, whose future is still up in the air, and Sarabia, they found each other 11 times for goals last year. There was no combination more lethal in LaLiga last season. Even the Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi machine could only match that number.
Julen’s father, might be screaming how they “stole 0.20 xG scored and assisted per 90 from my son” if his Sevilla project fails, but they have added key pieces to help their new manager's vision.
Lopetegui might end up rotating his front three, but there is one non-negotiable role; the player doing that drifting, creative Isco job. That’s going to be Oliver Torres.
Too much of a maverick to ever succeed under Diego Simeone, Torres’ 4.84 pressure regains and 9.09 deep progressions make him perfectly impish enough to be key under Lopetegui. He will be forced to both press when Sevilla lose the ball and advance attacks in closed quarters when they have it.
The additions of Luke de Jong and Moanes Dabbur suggest Lopetegui is trying to add different styles of strikers to lead the line. At times, like he did with Isco in what was his best game for Spain when they beat Italy 3-0, Torres might have to play a false nine role. At Madrid, Benzema was set for a massive season under Lopetegui as a more associative striker but Raul de Tomas, as a more conventional number nine, couldn’t be convinced to stay. Mariano Diaz arrived after a phone call from Lopetegui convinced him and he started well before the goals dried up and the pressure got too much for everyone at the club. All of which is to say the idea of having both a classic striker, and one who does more of the linking work around is a long time part of Lopetegui’s philosophy, even during the moments when that philosophy has crashed and burned.
Lopetegui’s mix and match strike plan will be complemented by Lucas Ocampos offering width and that ability to take advantage of one-on-ones, Sevilla will have an array of tools to slice open defences. On Marseille last season he was quite comfortable taking the ball in the final third and making runs into the penalty area, dragging apart defences as he goes.
Ever Banega said “there’s nothing new in what they’re asking us to do” after he orchestrated a preseason win over Hoffenheim. There’s a chance they start the season with an entirely new defence, midfield and attack though. Lopetegui’s ideas haven’t changed since his failure with Real Madrid but Monchi, Sevilla fans and Lopetegui himself will be hoping his luck has.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association