Sampaoli's still rebuilding his reputation, but transforming sluggish Sevilla will complete the cycle

By Sports Desk October 21, 2022

In each of the past two seasons, there were periods where Sevilla could consider themselves genuine threats in LaLiga's title race.

That was perhaps more relevant in 2020-21, though it shouldn't be forgotten that Sevilla looked like the only team capable of stopping Real Madrid in the first half of the 2021-22 campaign.

But much has changed in 2022. They head to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday as bigger outsiders than they've been for years in this fixture.

That's certainly not to say they've ever been considered favourites against Madrid in recent memory, but there will be some Sevilla fans just hoping they can hold on to a respectable scoreline – it's a pretty significant come-down for a club that in the past three years felt they weren't far from establishing themselves as genuine title candidates.

Saturday's game will be new coach Jorge Sampaoli's first trip to either of the big two since his return, and it'll provide the clearest indication yet of what his team's ceiling is.

Jump before you're pushed

Julen Lopetegui should've left Sevilla in pre-season. It was clear even then that the team needed an injection of fresh ideas, and the departures of Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde – Sevilla's bedrock for three seasons – seemed like a natural indicator of the required change.

During Lopetegui's time at the club, Sevilla were solid at the back but fairly unremarkable in attack. He'll have known his go-to centre-back partnership – arguably the best of its kind in Europe – was going to be lost, so Sevilla would either need to sign another exceptional pairing – unlikely – or buy a dependable striker.

 

Granted, Lopetegui can only work with the group of players provided to him by sporting director Monchi, so it's not all on him. However, in the early weeks of the season there was no sign of an improvement in attack, and the insurance policy represented by a sturdy defence was no longer there.

The result? Sevilla's five points after the first seven league games of the season was their worst at that stage since 1996-97 (four points). They were relegated that campaign.

That was their record following a 2-0 home defeat by Atletico Madrid at the start of October, a loss that essentially ended Lopetegui's reign. A few days later, he was dismissed right after the 4-1 battering by Borussia Dortmund, though it was clear a decision on his future had already been made as he tearfully waved farewell to supporters from the middle of the pitch at full-time.

The 4-1 defeat to BVB was Sevilla's fourth loss by at least two goals this season, three more than in the entirety of 2021-22.

 

A Europa League title, three successive fourth-placed finishes, a new club-record points total for one season (77) – Lopetegui did a fine job on the whole, but their form in the second half of last season hinted at a decline.

Their haul of 32 points after the turn of the year (20 matches) was only the sixth-most in LaLiga and 13 fewer than Barcelona. Before January, they'd amassed 38 points in two fewer games – only Madrid (46, 19 matches) had more.

That hint of decline proved to be more like a foreshadowing.

Back to the Future

There aren't many players or coaches who return to Sevilla. Those that do generally fall into one of two categories: fan favourite returning to see out their later years in top-level football; individual whose 'big move' away didn't go as planned and is hoping to rebuild their reputation.

The latter category is more fitting for Sampaoli.

French football fans might suggest that's doing his Marseille work a disservice, and maybe it is. After all, he did guide them to only their second runners-up finish in nine seasons last term, steadying the ship after arriving at a time of great unrest.

However, even with that, it's fair to suggest Sampaoli's stock still hasn't fully recovered to where it was when he first left Sevilla in 2017. At that point, he'd been successful in three consecutive jobs with Universidad de Chile, Chile's national team and then Sevilla, whom he guided to a first top-four finish in seven years playing vibrant football – along the way, they were also the team to halt Madrid's Spanish-record unbeaten run of 40 matches.

 

Argentina came calling, and given the coach's reputation at the time, expectations were sky-high. But turbulence in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup showed Sampaoli and La Albiceleste weren't necessarily a good fit. He just about got them to Russia but their campaign was chaotic, with a 3-0 defeat to Croatia leading to an apparent confrontation between players and coaching staff.

A 2-1 win over Nigeria got Argentina out of the group, but eventual champions France were up next and Les Bleus edged a modern classic 4-3 in Kazan – unsurprisingly it was Sampaoli's final game in charge.

Whether the fiasco made Sampaoli a pariah in European football terms is difficult to prove. But in a little over a year he went from one of the most sought-after and promising coaches in the world to being virtually forgotten in Europe, with his next two jobs coming in Brazil with Santos and Atletico Mineiro.

The aforementioned bright spell with Marseille provided Europe with a reminder of Sampaoli's charms; his boisterous personality, his often-chaotic brand of football. In many ways he was the perfect man for Marseille, a club from a city that is unapologetically itself and intense.

Seville has some similar characteristics, particularly in its deep passion for its football clubs, and there's undoubtedly a sense Sampaoli has unfinished business in LaLiga and at Sevilla.

Four games in and he's yet to lose – a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu is no ordinary task, however. In fact, Sampaoli's last away game during his first spell at Sevilla was a 4-1 defeat to Madrid, who all but wrapped up the 2016-17 title with that victory.

Of course, what happens at the Bernabeu won't define Sevilla's season. They have a long road and rebuild ahead of them; let's not forget, this is a squad built for Lopetegui, yet he and Sampaoli are very different coaches.

Re-energising the team is Sampaoli's task, and if he succeeds, his reputation will be restored. Saturday provides an opportunity for a depleted Sevilla to show they're at least making positive strides. 

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