Julen Lopetegui has got off to a good start at Sevilla. Four matches into the season, an unbeaten record of three wins and a draw, five goals scored and just one conceded, has his side atop La Liga despite having played three of their matches away from home.
Sevilla also look on solid ground in terms of expected goals (xG), with a league-third-best xG difference of 0.62 per match. Given the amount of turnover in the squad this summer — 12 senior players in; 16 members of last season’s squad out — the players seem to have quickly taken on board some of the broader concepts of Lopetegui’s approach, and their early points haul provides some breathing room ahead of the tougher run of games that now awaits them.
Over the course of their next eight fixtures, Sevilla will play all of last season’s top four, starting with Sunday’s match at home to Real Madrid. It is an encounter with special significance for Lopetegui. His decision to join Madrid last summer cost him the chance to lead Spain into the World Cup, and his tenure there was then painfully short. He was sacked at the end of October on the back of four wins, two draws and four defeats. It was a 3-0 loss away to Sevilla that began the five-match winless streak that cost him his job.
Sevilla now represent his shot at redemption, and he has made a cautious and calculated start to life in the Andalusian capital. The style of play has been much less swashbuckling than it was under Pablo Machín and then Joaquín Caparrós last season. Then, Sevilla’s matches averaged the fifth-highest number of goals in the division (2.87), the third-highest number of shots (25.42) and the third-highest xG (2.44); so far this season, their matches have averaged the third-lowest number of goals (1.50), the ninth-lowest number of shots (21.75) and the fourth-lowest xG (1.5).
In fact, Sevilla have the league’s joint-best defensive record as one of two teams to have conceded just one goal (Athletic Club are the other), and they also currently have its best underlying defensive numbers.
They were already quite aggressive in contesting the ball last season, but one of the first things Lopetegui and his staff started working on this summer was pushing the defensive line up. As this radar comparing last season to this one indicates, Sevilla have so far defended further from their own goal, and in doing so have been able to limit their opponents to just over seven shots per match — over four and a half less than last season.
There have been spells during these matches in which Sevilla have effectively used possession as a means of control, while Lopetegui has also been quick to make changes to shore up his midfield — primarily by introducing Nemanja Gudelj — when it has been clear that control of that zone is being lost.
It all looks promising, but it is probably fair to say that those numbers won’t hold. Last season, no one in La Liga conceded less than 0.76 goals or 0.83 xG on a per-match basis. Even if it turns out to be a tighter league this time around — as the limited numbers to date suggest is possible — the next couple of months will still likely provide us with a more accurate idea of Sevilla’s defensive strength. Schedule can have a big effect this early into the season, and they are yet to face anything approaching an attacking powerhouse. Alavés and Celta Vigo were in the bottom seven in terms of xG last season, Granada are newly promoted, and Espanyol have so far looked much weaker in attack than they were in 2018-19. It is quite possible that Sevilla’s high press will continue to be effective in suppressing shots, but you’d expect their average shot quality conceded to increase against better opposition, as is usually the case with sides who utilise such an approach.
If and when those defensive numbers even out a bit, Lopetegui will need to find a way of enlivening an attack that has struggled to create good chances in open play. As this radar comparing this season to last makes clear, the defensive improvement has been matched by a decrease in attacking output.
Sevilla have taken marginally more shots but of much lower quality, leading to an xG figure that’s barely hovering above one per match. Lopetegui’s side look to have a good balance in midfield, with Fernando holding, Éver Banega orchestrating from a deepish position towards the left, and Joan Jordán in a box-to-box role making off-ball runs into the channels and offering himself centrally once progress has been made out wide. There is tempo and purpose to their ball movement, particularly in transition, aided by the aggression of their two full-backs, especially Sergio Reguilón down the left. The Real Madrid loanee, who will be free to play against his parent club on Sunday, has been full of forward running this season, both in behind following combination play from others, and in terms of carrying the ball himself. On a per-90 basis, he has racked up more carry distance than any of his teammates.
Up to that point, Sevilla look good. But all of that neat build-up play has not yet been converted into a steady stream of good-quality chances. Their average shot quality is among the worst in the division, and only two of their five goals to date have come from open play.
The argument could certainly be made that in a primarily possession-based system, understanding and application of the attacking patterns and routines will improve with time, yielding better-quality opportunities. But it does feel as if Sevilla might quite quickly hit a ceiling in terms of talent level.
Over the summer, they lost two key attacking contributors in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben Yedder. Last season, those two collectively scored 30 goals and assisted a further 12 for other teammates. That worked out at a direct contribution to over two-thirds of the team’s goals. They were also the players who most often took the high-quality shots. They were responsible for over half of Sevilla’s 54 shots rated at 0.30 xG or higher.
Clearly, it isn’t entirely possible to separate performance from role, but Ben Yedder, in particular, had a range of attributes that proved extremely valuable in creating high-quality chances. Two-footed, small and nimble, with good movement and instinct, he had the highest average shot quality of any player who averaged over one shot per 90 last season, at 0.21 xG/shot.
His replacement almost couldn’t be any more different in build and style. Luuk de Jong, signed from PSV Eindhoven on the back of 94 goals in five seasons, is a lanky striker who requires aerial service. At PSV, and previously at Twente, he showed himself capable of beating up on inexperienced defenders in the Netherlands, but he struggled badly in both of his previous ventures onto foreign shores at Borussia Monchengladbach and Newcastle. At 29, and with limited sell-on value, he was arguably the strangest of Sevilla’s off-season purchases, and his performances to date have done little to dispel that notion. He has proved more useful as a reference point in link play than he has inside the penalty area.
That would be acceptable if Sevilla had a bunch of wide forwards capable of creating good opportunities for themselves, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Summer signing Lucas Ocampos is an useful reference point in transition, and a very able dribbler and ball carrier into open spaces, but he seems to lack the necessary balance and coordination to get off good shots inside the area. Nolito impressed in pre-season and already has a goal to his credit, but is 32, somewhat injury prone, and four years removed from his last truly productive campaign. You’d be asking Munir El Haddadi or Rony Lopes to do something they’d never previously done on a consistent basis. When Oliver Torres is part of the front three, his role will be that of withdrawn creator rather than shot taker.
Perhaps only Javier Hernández provides the sort of goal-getting instincts inside the area that Sevilla are otherwise lacking, but the initial impression is that he will be a game-changer off the bench rather than a regular starter. When you look at it like that, one starts to wonder if the relatively cautious approach so far this season is simply a practical response to a lack of reliable firepower as much as it is a building block for future expansion.
At this stage, it is difficult to fully gauge the extent to which what we have seen of Lopetegui’s Sevilla represents what we are likely to see going forward. The next eight matches will give us a much clearer idea of where they stand in comparison to the other viable contenders for a top-four finish.
Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno leads the early running in the race for the Pichichi prize as La Liga’s top goalscorer, with five goals from four matches. He has overperformed his xG, but if he keeps getting into these kinds of positions, that might just hold to some extent over the course of the campaign. Even with a five-goal head start, beating three-time reigning champion Lionel Messi to the prize might be a stretch, but Moreno will certainly have the Zarra Trophy, awarded to the top-scoring Spaniard, in his sights. Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas has claimed that award in each of the last three seasons, but he is yet to get off the mark this time around.
Newly promoted Granada have scored three times from set-pieces to date, and have created the most xG from those situations by some margin. It will be interesting to see if they continue to stand out here over a larger sample size.
If you’re looking for some entertainment this weekend, may I suggest that you don’t tune in to Athletic Club vs. Alavés on Sunday. Matches involving them have averaged both the least goals (1.25 in Athletic’s case; 1.00 for Alavés) and least xG (1.14 for Athletic; 1.20 for Alavés) in the league to date.