Real Madrid is an institution that is perhaps matched only by their fiercest rivals, Barcelona. Following on from their Champions League triumph last season, they have started this campaign in incredible form and, going into this match against Sevilla, the side from Madrid were on a 41-match unbeaten run.
Zinedine Zidane took control following the dismissal of Rafa Benítez last season and has steadily won the confidence of the fans, and perhaps more crucially the president. There have, however, been issues during Zidane’s tenure, specifically related to spacing in the midfield area, where a gap would open up between the defensive and attacking lines that could be exploited by the opposition side. In recent weeks, these problems appear to have been eradicated with the side acting as an effective unit. That said, if there is any side in Spain that can take advantage of any mistakes from Zidane then it is Sevilla under Jorge Sampaoli.
The Argentine coach arrived in Andalucia at the start of the season for his first exposure to European football. Initially his Sevilla side took time to both gel newly recruited players and to adjust to Sampaoli’s unique and full throttle tactical approach. In recent weeks, however, we have seen Sevilla emerge as one of the most consistent sides in Europe, all while playing a brand of exciting, vertical football that has caught the eye.
The key to the match would lie in whether Madrid were able to withstand the high pressure approach from Sevilla and impose their established game on the home side.
There were few surprises in the Sevilla line-up, with Samir Nasri continuing to impress on the pitch while on loan from Manchester City and striker Wissam Ben Yedder finding his goal-scoring form following his move from Toulouse in the summer.
For Madrid we saw an unfamiliar team shape with Zidane choosing to implement a back three in the form of Varane, Ramos and Nacho. Carvajal and Marcelo moved up to play as wing-backs, although when Sevilla were in their attacking phase this often led to Madrid dropping back to a defensive back five. Casemiro retained his place in the centre of the midfield, allowing the more creative Modrić and Kroos to move into more advanced areas of the field.
Sevilla commit to the high press
The coaching methods and coaching ideology of Sampaoli are very much a reaction to the influence that fellow Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has had on his career. While Sampaoli has never directly worked with Bielsa, he has studied his career and adopted similar tactical principles, although crucially he has adapted these principles to suit his own vision.
One of the principles that both men share is that they favour an aggressive high press when the opposition is looking to transition from defence to attack. Sampaoli tends to favour a mixed approach to pressing, with his Sevilla side switching seamlessly between zonal and man-marking approaches to the pressing movement.
In this instance, Madrid have not been able to play through the Sevilla defensive block and they have reset the play by bringing the ball back to their goalkeeper. The Sevilla press is man-orientated with each player captured in the image having a direct responsibility to press and engage a Madrid player. This close pressure can leave spaces between the pressing structure but Sevilla carry it out so successfully that the opposing team rarely find a way to safely penetrate the press.
On this occasion, Sevilla are still pressing high up the field to disrupt the Madrid build-up but they are doing so zonally as opposed to man-for-man. Ideally, Nzonzi, who is positioned centrally in the second pressing line, would be closer to the ball to cut off the vertical pass, but in general the pressing structure from Sevilla in this movement is impressive.
Under Sampaoli they switch between both styles throughout a match to ensure that the opposition are always kept off balance and cannot adjust to play through the press. This high-tempo pressing style can be difficult to maintain for a whole match unless you have the full support of your playing staff, which Sampaoli obviously does.
Spacing and structure
While Jorge Sampaoli is not particularly seen as a follower of positional play in the same way as Pep Guardiola, there are still some elements of this specific style in the structure of play that Sampaoli has installed at Sevilla.
He likes to play vertical and quick football from back to front. In order to create passing lanes and angles for the ball to be played forward, we will often see the wide attacking players for Sevilla playing on the touchline. This stretches the opposition defensive structure horizontally across the pitch and makes it difficult for the opposition defensive block to adequately defend all of the possible vertical passing lanes that Sevilla will look to use in moving the ball from back to front.
Here you can see an example of the Sevilla structure as they move into the final third of the pitch. The man on the left-hand side of the pitch has retained his wide position and has stretched the defensive line. This prevents the defensive structure from falling into a compact unit. This creates a large gap that the man in possession of the ball can drive into in order to create an effective overload going forward, as the man positioned to mark the wide attacker would have to either hold his position or move across to engage.
The spacing of the front three is only effective if Sevilla are able to support those three players with runners through the gaps from midfield. These runners can occupy the spaces created by the stretching of the defensive line and create advanced platforms for their team mates to play In to.
Here you can see Sevilla positioned in the middle of a sustained period of pressure on the Madrid goal. The runners from the midfield have joined the attacking line and pressed the Madrid defensive unit back. As the wide defenders moved up the field, the wide attackers move inside and create more chances to overload in the central area. It’s a typical Sevilla form of attack under Sampaoli.
A 2-1 victory for Sevilla ended the run of consecutive unbeaten matches for Madrid and may signal the rise of the club from the periphery of the Spanish top three to form a new top four. There should be two overriding priorities for the club going forward: to ensure the long-term futures of both Sampaoli and the Director of Football at the club, Monchi. The latter is essential in terms of providing the personnel that the former can mould to his preferred style.
Rumours persist that if Luis Enrique leaves Barcelona then they may turn their interest towards Sampaoli, and that must be avoided at all costs for Sevilla. If this is the style of football that we are seeing from Sevilla after only a few months under Sampaoli, then what will we see when he is fully established at the club and has the entire organisation moving in the direction that he wants? Whatever happens, Sevilla are going to be incredibly fun to watch in La Liga.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis