(This is a guest preview from Peter, who if he keeps it up …)
I’m coming home,
I’m coming home,
Tell the world I’m coming home.
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday.
Bargain of the century?
Less than 48 hours before kick-off, it may be a good idea to speak about Sevilla’s progress this season, and two of Barça’s Lost Boys that are currently learning the trade there. When we talk about Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu and their learning curve in the sweltering heat of Sevilla, amidst lakes of Salmorejo, Sangria and Flamenco dancers, it’s good to first start with some statistics.
Denis Suarez has been in Sevilla since late June, that is five months and counting, during which he had an injury, which slowed his adaptation. He started in Sevilla’s loss in the European Supercup, after about a month in the club. Since then he has played eleven La Liga matches, three Europa League games and one Copa del Rey. In his eleven La Liga matches Denis Suarez has started 9 games, and has been substituted four times, amassing a total of 815 minutes. The players with more minutes on the team are starting striker Bacca with 944, pivot revelation Krychkowiak with 904, and starting centerback pair Carriço (900) and Pareja (894) who have played 10 games.
In those 815 minutes Suarez has scored one goal and leads the assist charts with three, as well as 15 key passes, key passes defined as goal-scoring opportunities that don´t end in a goal. In the beginning of the season he was the attacking midfielder playing in the hole in a typical 4-2-3-1 formation, but as the season has progressed Unai Emery has tweaked with the formation, often putting Suarez on the left wing, whereas the right wing is usually occupied by Aleix Vidal or Gerard Deulofeu, leaving the hole for Banega.
I wouldn’t say that Suarez has been “immense”, but his quality has definitely helped offset the departure of Rakitic. His youthfulness contributes to the velocity with which Sevilla counter-attacks, which the double-pivot formation facilitates. Another potent weapon are his free kick crosses into the area, which have been converted into goals on two occasions. Stressing again, this is after four months with the team. As his knowledge of the game and his team-mates increases it’s almost certain that Suarez’s influence and importance for Unai Emery will increase even more.
He had his best performance in the home victory against Villareal, which saw Sevilla lose the game 0-1 in the 79th minute, until Suarez scored in the 88th and Bacca completed the turnaround with a penalty in extra time. At the time of writing Suarez’s passing rate is more than 81%, and in the match against Villarreal 70% of all his passes were forward. He capped his performance with a goal, and was the reason for the late surge of Sevilla — helped by the vociferous Biris Norte — which ended with a penalty in injury time. The initial run in the area was made by Suarez, who saw his pass intercepted before a Sevilla player was brought down from behind just as he was leaving the box. The resulting penalty was converted by Bacca.
Suarez has been called the revelation of La Liga, quite deservedly so. He pulls more than his fair share of creative plays and even though his tracking back and defensive contributions seem negligible, there is enough evidence to suggest that Unai Emery has instructed him to stay open and alert in order to be able to initiate a quick counter. He is young, and has to learn, but with less than a third of the La Liga season gone, he is fast becoming a starting player for Sevilla.
God made him
Deulofeu went late to Sevilla, after he failed to convince Luis Enrique in the pre-season. Initially he struggled for minutes at Sevilla, and his attitude when he appeared in the first games seemed to be overly demanding of his team mates. Since those early days, however, Deulofeu seems to be maturing. He has started five of the last six games for Sevilla, with a total of seven appearances/356 minutes on the pitch.
His defensive work rate has gone up and with the veteran Coke at his side (author of the 90th minute equalizer last season at Camp Nou) the two have pretty much anchored and barricaded Sevilla’s right flank. Deulofeu took time to adapt, but since finding his feet he has walked, then started running. Right now his most dangerous skill is his dribbling, which he does more than any other Sevilla player. He doesn’t create a lot of chances, but those that he does … For Sevilla, Deulofeu shares the assists top spot with Denis Suarez, providing three assists and four key passes, and has also scored one goal, which was all it took for Sevilla to grab the three points against Real Sociedad. He is also the leading assist maker in Europa League -– two impeccable long-range free kicks found Krychowiak and Mbia to give Sevilla the win against Feyenoord 2-0.
Like Suarez, he is a default set piece and corners go-to guy, and he almost scored a goal from a free kick against Villarreal. Aleix Vidal is often his competitor for the place on the right wing, another Catalan who came from Almeria after a great Primera season. Deulofeu’s match of the season so far was that same game against Feyernoord, in which he tried a whooping 13 dribbles (seven of them successful, practically all inside or just outside the Feyernoord box) and in general created the visiting side’s defense lots of headaches. The two free kicks resulting in goals for all intents and purposes decided the match after half an hour played.
So far …
Sevilla now sits in fifth place after drawing at home against Levante. Had the team won, as it was doing until the 79th minute, it would’ve finished the round in third place, above Valencia and Atletico. Statistically speaking, Sevilla has become better than last season, even after the departure of Rakitic, Fazio and Alberto Moreno. Last year one recurring tactic was to give the ball to Rakitic, who would send it forward for Bacca to chase. This season Sevilla have become (much) more dangerous in the air, already scoring five goals (of 18 total) in La Liga and 2/7 in Europa League in that manner. But even last season Sevilla had very good proficiency in the air, reaching the finals of Europa League on away goals after M’Bia’s extra time throw-in header (which has probably become as mythical for Sevilla as Iniesta’s screamer against Chelsea).
This season, however, Sevilla’s footballers have so far scored almost two times the quota of headers from last season in La Liga (10/69), while in Europa League the levels are almost triple of last season (2/20), already equaling the total goals scored from headers last season. Unai Emery has a more cohesive team, which can devote more time on set piece plays, and the results are a cause for optimism -– last year Sevilla was 14th after 12 games with 13 points, and a goal balance of 20:25. This year the result after 11 matches is a fifth place with 23 points, with a balance of 18:11.
Three important things:
1. Last year Sevilla had already played Atletico, Real Madrid and Barcelona after the 12th matchday. This year’s Sevilla will still have to play Real after the 12th matchday, whatever happens at Camp Nou.
2. A crooked scale that nevertheless could help measure the performance compared to last year’s can be made from comparing the results, where available, against the teams that Sevilla has already played this season. The result, before the match with Barcelona and discarding the results against newcomers Deportivo La Coruña and Cordoba* show +3 points at home (+1 from Levante, +2 from Villareal) and +1 points away (+2 from Elche, -1 from Atletico), with a goal difference against the same opposition 11:9 compared to the 12:9 last season.
3. Sevilla’s starting keeper Beto was injured in the first half of the first game, which meant that the recently signed back-up keeper Mariano Barbossa (who left Las Palmas after the Canaries failed to be promoted after a heart-attack-inducing play-off against Cordoba) had to play his first competitive game on the first matchday. He was then injured during the victory over Espanyol, which meant that B-team keeper Sergio Rico, fresh from Segunda B, had to start in the games against Getafe, Feyernord and Cordoba, and then once again the second half-time of the match against Standard Liege
(*- the only measuring stick available would be performance against last year’s newcomers and last year’s relegated teams, and the point result is the same and the goal difference is similar.)
In other words, schedule alone is not the reason why Sevilla currently sits fifth in the table, at equal points with Atletico. The team is more effective.
On the other hand …
But it’s not all roses and kisses. Rakitic is in Barcelona and his absence, as with that of Alberto Moreno and Fazio, will be felt. Still, in my opinion it is possible, in fact probable that this year’s Sevilla is a more dangerous opponent than last year’s.
The team doesn’t rely on the Rakitic-Bacca connection that much, and the midfield is substantially stronger both in terms of skill (Suarez, Banega, Aleix Vidal and Deulofeu have been added to compensate the loss of Rakitic and Cherishyev) and muscle (MBia was signed permanently and Krychowiak was signed from Stade Reims). This area for Sevilla has shown so far to be more cohesive, more creative and better overall.
There are more avenues of approach, more routes for the ball, more and different ways to score goals. Maybe the team will crumble more easily against bigger opponents due to the lack of experienced leaders and incomplete cohesion, as against Atletico, but that is disputable. In that instance, it seems that Sevilla was just beaten at its own game, failing to deal with Atletico’s pressing and proficiency with crosses and set pieces.
In terms of the face-off with Barcelona, Sevilla seems more dangerous despite the more solid defense that Enrique has created. Suarez and Deulofeu have extensive knowledge of the principles and methods of Barcelona. What’ss more, the pivot pair of Krychowiak-MBia has been fusing together very nicely, anchoring the midfield and shielding the defence while at the same time putting a lot of elbow grease toward the destruction of the opponent’s midfield as well as building up play.
We may see quite a lot of what was seen last year at Camp Nou, Sevilla defending en masse, looking for an opening and a fast counter and throwing bodies forward for set plays. Suarez is the default executor of corners and free kick crosses in the area from the left side. Deulofeu does the corners from the right, but that’s not set in stone -– Deulofeu got his two assists against Feyenoord from two long, curling free kicks from the left side. The precision of those crossed free kicks is marvelous, but it also helps that both Krychowiak and Mbia are tall, athletic pivots.
Suarez and Deulofeu, along with Vidal and Bacca, possess acceleration and speed that could create a lot of headaches after turnovers, but I think the real threat will be the set pieces. Pay special attention to Mbia, who is having the season of his career so far, with five goals from eight starting games (three headers), which was the total of goals he got last season for the whole season, and has become the second-best goal-scorer with a total of five, after Bacca’s eight, in all competitions. However, take away the goals from penalties, which Bacca takes, and Mbia has scored five goals in 712 minutes, whereas Bacca has scored his five over 1065 minutes.
Tale of the tape
What is the main weakness of Sevilla then? I would say it’s the defense. With the leave of Fazio who went to the green grass and higher salary of Tottenham, the central pair of Carriço-Pareja often need Mbia and Krychowiak to help them. It could be said that the fault also lies in the keeper rotation out of necessity, even though all three Sevilla keepers have for the most part done a spectacular job under the circumstances. Still, Sevilla has kept a total of three clean sheets this season, against Elche, Getafe and Real Sociedad, when La Real were in their worst form.
Marking from the defenders is often loose or entirely missing, especially on the Sevilla left. Coke on the right side has managed to often do it by himself, but on the left the defense has been overrun more than once, because Mbia and Krychowiak normally cover the center approach. In his best moments Denis Suarez has shown the diligence and work rate that is so often seen in wide midfielders that play against Barcelona, in the readiness to press, track back, back-up the lateral and try to isolate the threat coming from the flanks. But at his worst, against Atletico, he simply couldn’t handle the pressure and the experience of Juanfran.
Rakitic could offer some insights about weaknesses of the Sevilla defense, but if Suarez and Deulofeu start and don’t run their tails off, the Sevilla fullbacks could be isolated, which would stretch the defense and provide more space for the Barcelona striker team. This could also cause a chain reaction -– at least one of the central pair would be drawn to the duel on the Sevilla left, which would mean that either Mbia or Krychowiak would have to cover that approach, which would leave them ill equipped to intervene to rushes coming in from the blind spot, as well as shots from the second line. Sevilla’s defense has been caught with its guard down more than once this season, and more than a few goals resulted from opposing attackers losing their markers in the left zone of Sevilla’s box and scoring a vital goal. Sevilla has not lost a game in which it scored the first goal this season.
When Sevilla attack, they usually do so fast, but if they decide to pass and look for an opportunity, the weak spot so far seems to be Mbia, who has been robbed time and again of possession, especially when he has moved forward and left a hole in the defensive net. Sevilla’s defense also has problems coping with a fast-moving opponent that knows what it’s doing -– the majority of goals conceded happened during combinations, in which up to four Sevilla men were seen close to each other, marking nobody. If Barcelona manages to circulate fast and assured, it’s possible that the defense will get overwhelmed and holes will appear.
Barcelona on the other hand would have to hope that the team can both diminish the number of corners and/or crossed free kicks taken against. A probable central pair could be Mathieu and Pique, due to the increased aerial defense. If Mascherano can be spared from CB duties, his presence in midfield will be welcome, because the midfield would be dealing with Krychowiak and Mbia’s muscle, as well as possibly the youthful presence of Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu/Vidal on the right of the attack.
Alba did not feature in the last friendly of Spain, which means that for the last eight days he would have just trained and prepared. He would be fit and we could see a very interesting duel on the Barcelona left, with Alba and either Vidal or Deulofeu trying to get the better of the other. On Barcelona´s right I’d expect Dani Alves to feature again, because hate it or love it, he still remains the best package at RB that Barcelona has -– and he hasn’t played since Amsterdam, which was on the 5th of November. if we’re to judge by the videos he posts, expect him to be rested, fit and motivated. It will surely be an interesting match. Not easy, but interesting. Last season Barcelona won in the final second of injury time. The year before that Sevilla went forward both in the away game and in the home game, and the away game featured a 3-goal comeback with a 93rd minute goal by Villa. The reigning champions of Europa League will not sell their skins cheaply.
Personally I expect Sevilla to play their cards close, massing numbers in the approaches to their box and hope for a quick counter and/or set piece. Barcelona, depending on the line-up, can push and hope for a quick strike, which would oblige Sevilla to go forward in search for goal, which would leave more space behind. Granted, it’s always better to score first, but that holds even more so for Barcelona, given Sevilla’s proficiency in the air. If Sevilla scores first, the task will become very hard.