The Andalusian Emerygency

Koke versus Coke; that’s how Atletico scored their first goal in Sevilla.

Bad times have finally arrived at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. After years of Europa League prosperity combined with a spell of consistency behind the backs of Real and Barcelona, the team started losing – a lot. Forget the benchmarks set by Unai Emery prior to this season: Los Nervionenses are actually getting further and further from being on the level of Atletico Madrid and Valencia CF – teams that Emery wanted to seriously challenge for the 3rd place this season. In a league as polarized in terms of skill as Primera Division, you can’t possibly start the season with 2 draws and 2 defeats and hope to catch up with the leaders. Neither it’s acceptable to duly lose against your supposed, direct rivals in front of your own fans. This time around, Sevilla FC have committed both of those crimes. As a result, #5 Spanish team last season is currently 16th in La Liga table, behind powerhouses like Eibar, Rayo Vallecano or Granada – and SFC’s goal difference is minus 4.

Psychologically speaking, this string of bad results is perfectly understandable. Not only because it’s been an exhausting trail of victories for Sevilla players in the past two years. Their hunger for success must’ve been satisfied recently, true, but there were also two games in the pre-season that managed to thoroughly upset Emery’s lads – potentially so much that they’ve struggled to find their confidence later on. A crazy, 4-5 defeat to Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup and an equally insane 4-6 friendly defeat with the strongest sparring game-partner, Roma could’ve left a scar on SFC’s mental state. In both of these encounters, the Andalusian team has found itself trailing by an unthinkable number of goals. In any other case, this would only mean a certain, unconditional capitulation by the entire football eleven. But not for Sevilla. Out of the blue and with their backs against the wall, they’ve actually made a dizzying comebacks twice – only to lose in the end anyway.

Of course, for a team that’s been historically known to have a good backline, conceding 11 times in just two matches was more than just a lapse of concentration. Here, the reason is trivial: injuries. The horror started with a complicated damage to Nico Pareja’s knee, the centre-back has suffered against Zenit in Europa League last season. That alone sidelined one key pillar of SFC’s squad for at least six months – but it was just a beginning. Daniel Carriço, Pareja’s usual partner at guarding Sevilla’s penalty area, damaged his hamstring against Atletico three weeks ago and has been effectively knocked out until November. What’s worse – so is new Sevilla’s signing, Adil Rami. The Frenchman, brought from AC Milan in July, needs eight weeks to bring back his thigh to the full fitness. Same sort of issues applies to the first-choice goalkeeper, Beto – he was deemed unfit for the next 6 weeks following an accident during training. Literally: the plague that ruins seasons.

In such circumstances, a 0-0 draw with absolutely dreadful Malaga is not a reason to be particularly ashamed. At La Rosaleda, the former millionaires were more interested in conserving 1 point than actually looking for the win. They might’ve tried as many as 25 shots on Rico’s goal, but only five of them hit the target – and none of those caused a heart attack amongst the visitors’ fans. On the other end of the pitch, Kévin Gameiro wasted three half-decent chances. Ironically enough, despite the absence of three important defenders, it was Sevilla’s frontline that caused headaches for Emery – which explains why the manager has put on Yevhen Konoplyanka and, late in the game, Ciro Immobile. Another two new signings for Los Blanquirrojos might’ve been slight improvements on Gameiro and Reyes, but they could not score a winner. Unsurprisingly: most of their playtime came after Steven N’Zonzi has been sent off for a stupid, second booking. In the end, that game ended up a snoozefest.

But against Atletico… Diego Simeone’s team has always been an example how to get great results with fairly simplistic, hard-working and counterattacking football. Yet, when they went to Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, they’ve actually found themselves dominating possession in the first 45 minutes – and they did so mostly on Sevilla’s half of the pitch! The locals were guilty of misplacing dozens of offensive passes, not really finding any way to circumvent Colchoneros’ captain Gabi and right-back Juanfran, who intercepted whatever was coming their way. Early in the game, Coke tested Oblak’s ability to parry shots and half an hour later, Trémoulinas failed to capitalize on a decent cross – but those were pretty much the only attacking assets the hosts have shown before the break. Their manager was utterly disappointed – so much that when his players eventually conceded a slapstick-like goal, he calmly hid his frowning face in his palms.

Normally, Emery is a pretty commanding manager. But sometimes…

The second half nearly opened with another lemon when Carriço’s poor pass to Rami got intercepted by Griezmann, leading to a two versus two situation. The Portuguese man at fault behaved perfectly, covering Óliver Torres while Rami ran back behind him to sweep the key pass. In the end, Griezmann might’ve got the ball in penalty area but he was also quickly outmuscled afterwards to end Sevilla’s trouble. That scare finally prompted hosts to reply and they’ve even found two half-decent chances: one blocked by indomitable Diego Godin and one saved neatly by Oblak. It’s been already a 100% risk style of play from Emery’s team and that exposed them to multiple counters. 31-years old Fernando Torres should’ve scored twice from those, but the lack of pace prevented him from wrapping up the game. What he couldn’t do, has been eventually accomplished by Gabi and super-sub Jackson Martínez. 3-0 to visitors: an unfair result, judging from the proceedings, but still, a deserved win for Atletico.

It didn’t feel like Sevilla were an inferior side; it felt more like they were doing a lot of good, creative job in the second half, but it’s the execution that let them down. For instance: the set pieces. All of them were cleared by Atleti players way too easily. Another example: attacking purely and exclusively down the right wing. It looked like an attractive option after first few successful dribbles by Vitolo; however, the longer the game went, the more control Los Colchoneros had over that area – and the hosts didn’t really vary their play. Fernando Llorente, brought this summer from Juventus to fill in the target-man spot, missed one great chance from a close range by curling his shot the wrong way, so it went wide instead of hitting the back of the net. These issues, combined with a mediocre performance by Ever Banega, have created a frustrating spectacle for SFC fans: a show consisting of knocking at AM’s door but never breaking them open.

The mildly successful games against Levante and Gladbach didn’t change much in a grand scheme of things. In Valencia, Emery’s boys were leading early on for a change, but N’Zonzi’s goal has been eventually answered with an equalizer by Camarasa. That game saw the Andalusian team trying 4-4-2 system for the first time in ages by pairing Gameiro and Llorente with each other. In a way, it worked better than the standard 4-2-3-1 setup: the team has been much more of a threat through the middle. However, just like before, this didn’t translate into goalscoring scalps. Explaining everything with the lack of Carlos Bacca is a too cheap of a move to pull off but one can’t deny that the Colombian had an exceptional shot efficiency which cannot be emulated (yet?) by the players who replaced him. And Levante’s equalizer, scored after a horrific marking error while defending a cross, has only made the offensive frustrations even more bitter…

Of course, winning 3-0 over Mönchengladbach – the third-best Bundesliga team last season – feels nice. However, let’s not forget that Fohlenelf are currently going through crisis even more acute than the one of Sevilla’s. Defeated six times in their last 7 games, troubled by the in-and-out injuries of Martin Stranzl, Álvaro Domínguez and Patrick Herrmann, the team has been slumping horribly. To top it all up, in Spain, they couldn’t make use of their most powerful passer, Granit Xhaka, who’s been suspended for a red card received in a previous edition of Europa League. So when Gameiro has finally opened the score from the spot-kick – football fans living over the river Guadalquivir were content, but not ecstatic. After all, Lucien Favre’s team is in disarray – a trouble so deep, the manager himself has recently resigned from his position at Borussia-Park. To beat an opponent as disorganized, as desperate as Borussia in a home game, thanks to two penalties – ain’t much of an accomplishment.

Five days later, against Celta, Emery’s team misplayed the first half again. Nolito, hands down the most dangerous, most skilful player Celestes had in years, hasn’t been sufficiently closed down by Mariano and his fierce shot found the net by the near post. Ten minutes later, it went from bad to worse: right-back Hugo Mallo ran all the way into SFC’s penalty area gave the ball to Daniel Wass and the Dutchman, who replaced his compatriot Krohn-Dehli (sold to… Sevilla), made it 2-0. All that while Sergio Rico actually had a good game! Again, just like against Atletico – all the important stats favoured visitors. Celta passed better (83% to SFC’s 75%), tackled more (27 to 21) and had 15 shots (with basically 50-50 possession). Anyway – bad shot conceding statistics slowly become Sevilla’s trademark this season: so far, only Sporting Gijon were worse in that department. Too bad that the team from Vigo actually have lethal finishers amongst them – the Andreolli – Kolodziejczak duo couldn’t handle it…

Maybe we’re just expecting too much from this group of players? After all, there’s been a lot of transfer activity recently and the players who arrived don’t really match those, who departed. Last season, both Fernando Llorente and Ciro Immobile were the definitions of second-rate, second-choice towering strikers their former managers never really wanted to use because they’ve had better options upfront. Steven N’Zonzi, the most expensive signing of the summer, has also been nowhere near the level of physical and mental dominance displayed last season by Stephane M’Bia. Krohn-Dehli might’ve had a so-so season in Celta, but he’s 32 already and won’t be getting better. And Marco Andreolli? He’s been Chievo’s centre-back before joining Inter, but his career in nerazzurri shirt never really took off. In view of that, the only truly strong signing seems to be Evgen Konoplyanka – yet, he’s been so far, only a backup alternative to veteran left-winger Reyes.

Unai Emery is far from freaking out. The man widely tipped to take charge in Real Madrid this summer, sees the things as they are: “I’ve never said I have better team than I did last season. We’re playing from Wednesday to Saturday and there are so many injuries…” Regarding their home form, Emery was even more blunt: “It’s unacceptable that any team comes here and forces us to play their style of football. This stadium has to become a fortress again.” Well said: in 2014/15 La Liga, his team has won 13 out of 19 home games, losing only once – 2-3 to Real Madrid. “We’re relying a lot on individual skills of certain players. When they don’t deliver goals, it’s getting difficult.” – concludes the boss, who will now have to cope with the absence of Vitolo against Las Palmas and Rayo Vallecano. And after those two, relatively comfortable clashes, the big ones are waiting: Juventus in Turin and Barcelona at home. Can those two be a turning point? Unlikely, but in football, we’ve seen bigger twists…

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