Sevilla visited England for two Champions League trips in 2017 and they come again this spring, but the side that travels to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United will be a very different incarnation from the one Leicester City and Liverpool faced.
That’s because of the change in the dugout. First, Jorge Sampaoli, whose Sevilla contrived to lose to Leicester last year, gave way to Eduardo Berizzo, whose team played out too frantic draws with Liverpool in the group stages of this season’s Champions League. The two Argentines may not be as tactically alike as many assume, but it is true that there were some similarities in the gung-ho way they approached matches. Now, though, Sevilla have replaced Berizzo with Vincenzo Montella, a very different kind of coach and one who is little by little resuscitating a Sevilla team that was flat-lining.
Anyone who watched Montella’s Fiorentina side will know that he is not the typical Italian manager, at least not in a tactical sense. He is not a defensive coach and is a fan of possession-based play, but he is still Italian and Sevilla are setting up in a much more disciplined fashion than they did under Sampaoli or Berizzo. Los Nervionenses have improved their possession numbers under Montella, up to an average of 53.5% from 50%, but they are also playing much better out of possession than they were beforehand. Sevilla still have a serious lack of pace at the centre-back position, something Montella has realised and something he is compensating for by getting his defence to work as a unit, rather than assigning difficult individual battles to the members of his back four.
In their Copa del Rey clash against Atlético Madrid, for example, they sat back and played something of a 4-5-1, hunting together and breaking well on the counter attack. Under Berizzo, Sevilla struggled to play this kind of patient football.
Even when playing a more conservative system, Montella is squeezing several attack-minded players into these formations. A double pivot featuring Éver Banega can hardly be labelled defensive, for example, even if it looks that way on paper or on a tactical heatmap. He also used Jesús Navas as a right-back, even if Sébastien Corchia’s recent injury was what forced him to think outside the box.
It is perhaps at the full-back positions that Montella’s Sevilla is most distinct from that of his predecessor. Some of Sevilla’s best moments of the 21st century have come as a result of their appreciation of attacking full-backs and Montella is recuperating this tradition, with his full-backs now daring to venture beyond the half-way line.
On top of these tactical adjustments, Montella seems to be getting the best out of players in a way Berizzo could not. Pablo Sarabia, Joaquin Correa and Sergio Escudero have all been playing some of their best football of the season, while Montella is also starting to play Luis Muriel up front ahead of Wissam Ben Yedder. While it’s true that Muriel and Montella share the same agent, this decision to start to Colombian hasn’t been met with much scrutiny because he is delivering on the field.
By rotating far less than Berizzo, which wouldn’t have been hard, Sevilla are starting to build up some consistency and they could be a real force by the time of the first leg of their last 16 tie against Manchester United, which is on February 21st. British football fans saw Liverpool and Sevilla play out a couple of thrilling end-to-end games last autumn, but this spring they’ll see a different kind of Sevilla side. On the whole, they’ll probably see a better one.