Despite the Positives, Sampaoli has to Consider Sevilla’s Defensive Shortcomings


Jorge Sampaoli has developed a reputation for high-octane football. He likes his sides to attack with speed, press with aggression and, in a more general sense, take the game up to the opposition. As the newly installed manager of Sevilla, he now has the chance to take that philosophy to Europe, and based upon his managerial debut in La Liga, that’s exactly what he intends to do.

Sampaoli’s campaign started against Espanyol, in a match that would end with a 6-4 win for Sevilla. For the neutral, it was a fantastic spectacle. Beyond the abnormally high number of goals, Sevilla controlled possession beautifully, enjoying 73.8% of it for the match, and they weren’t just simply passing for the sake of it either. They brought the ball towards the final third with purpose, using their 4-4-2 diamond formation as the foundation for puncturing Espanyol’s defensive set-up.

In more specific terms, the shape looked like a 4-1-3-2. Steven N’Zonzi operated as the sole holder within that four-man midfield unit, while the three players ahead of him, Franco Vazquez, Pablo Sarabia and Hiroshi Kiyotake, took up advanced positions along the attacking midfield line. Throw in two extremely aggressive fullbacks, in Vitolo and Mariano, and Sampaoli’s structure was about as attack-minded as it could get.

Sevilla formation

Sevilla’s Shape in Possession

In order to allow the fullbacks to push on, N’Zonzi would regularly drop in between the two centre-backs, but that was about as far as Sevilla went in terms of applying defensive countermeasures. This made their approach pretty extreme, as in the case of a turnover, there were, at best, three men in positions to defend. Sevilla therefore had to be brilliant with the ball in order to avoid handing it over to the opposition, and while they were for the most part, the few errors they did commit led almost exclusively to goalscoring opportunities for the opposition.

In fact, all four of Espanyol’s goals came on the counter-attack, with the moves for the second and third goals being particularly crisp. For the second, Sevilla found themselves with N’Zonzi tucked in between their two centre backs, Gabriel Mercado and Nico Pareja. The latter ended up in possession, but after finding himself under some degree of pressure, he soon gave the ball away.

One pass later, Pablo Piatti was in behind along the left-hand side.

The Argentine flyer quickly powered into the final third from there, and up against the backpedalling three-man Sevilla defence, he crossed the ball towards the back post. Hernan Perez latched onto it and tucked it away, making the score 2-2 in the process.

Ordinarily, conceding twice within the space of 26 minutes might’ve inspired Sevilla to tighten up, but not this time. They continued to play with Sampaoli’s expansive approach, and because of it, they conceded a third before the interval. And in a lot of ways, the recipe for disaster was pretty similar. N’Zonzi punched the ball into attack, but he misfired. Pape Diop collected it, and despite being in Espanyol’s defensive third, he only needed one pass to dismantle Sevilla’s defence. He hit Gerard Moreno with a straightforward pass, and Moreno followed up by finding Leo Baptistao running in behind the stretched-out Sevilla backline.

Sergio Rico did well to save Baptistao’s initial effort, but Espanyol pounced on the loose ball to score in the second phase of the attack. Victor Sanchez guided the ball in from the edge of the area, yet again illustrating the danger attached to Sevilla’s way of playing.

Simply put, Sampaoli asked N’Zonzi and his centre-backs to do too much in the case of an Espanyol break. They were the only three players in a position to defend, and more often than not, they simply couldn’t handle the swarming Espanyol attackers. Piatti got at them with his pace, and strikers Moreno and Baptistao were always on hand to capitalise upon mistakes. Add in the fact that N’Zonzi needed to be so good with his distribution in order to avoid compromising the defence, and the former Stoke City man had a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders.

Fortunately for Sevilla, he was very good for the most part. N’Zonzi contributed to a couple of Sevilla’s goals by way of astute passes in the lead-up, and, in a manner not dissimilar from the rest of his teammates, he produced enough positive play to make up for any defensive shortcomings. But this doesn’t change the fact that he will have to be brilliant, both with the ball and without it, if Sampaoli wants to apply the same approach all season.

That goes for the rest of the team as well. As it stands, they’re very much operating under the “We’ll score one more than you” philosophy, and even though they’re blessed with plenty of talent up top, it’s hard to say whether this will always be enough for them to prosper in spite of an exposed defence.

Even after Sevilla went up 6-3, they still conceded another goal on the back of an error in possession. The otherwise exceptional Kiyotake turned the ball over, and Moreno simply responded by running towards goal, turning Mercado and finishing the job. In that sense, there was never any true level of control to Sevilla’s defensive game. They were great with the ball but almost incapable of defending in transition, and the club must consider whether this is sustainable for the entire campaign.

For now, however, Sampaoli seems unconcerned. “The plan of attack generated superiority, but Espanyol capitalised on our errors,” he said. “The team lived up to what people expect. What I want is what made fans jump in the stands.”

He certainly made the fans jump, and given Sampaoli’s penchant for entertainment-rich football, there is little to suggest that won’t continue. The fireworks don’t look like disappearing anytime soon, but if Sevilla are to achieve the same levels of success as they did under Unai Emery, Sampaoli might need to temper his approach, even if just a little.