This is a tactical analysis of Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla in possession against CFR Cluj in the Europa League (27/2/20) via Keep it on the Ground*
*blog no longer exists & some of the images/graphics from this article are missing as a result.
With an unparalleled history in the Europa League winning the competition 3 times in a row, as well as becoming the first club to win it 5 times, Sevilla under the stewardship of the much travelled Julen Lopetegui will undoubtedly fancy their chances again this campaign (if and when the competition resumes). A 1-1 draw away in Romania and a goalless draw at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán secured their passage into the next round, where they will face Roma.
Domestically Sevilla are high on confidence having only been defeated once in the last 5 games and are very much in contention for a Champions League place come the end of the season. They currently sit 3rd in La Liga, a point clear of Getafe in 5th having beaten them 3-0 away a few days before the Europa League tie, as well as picking up a very respectable point away at the Wanda Metropolitano against Atlético Madrid, having been 2-1 down just before half time.
This analysis will look at how Sevilla set up offensively against FC Cluj when in possession, specifically detailing how they control possession and probe when organised, how they transition into attack when the ball changes hands, organisation on attacking set pieces, as well as how the 4-3-3 formation on paper looks very different to what was on the pitch.
Organised possession & build up
Sevilla set up in a 4-3-3 formation which is something Lopetegui has done throughout the season, playing almost 2000 minutes in this structure (according to understat). In central areas, they have rotated between Banega, Jordán, Fernando and Gudelj however all these players are similar in style. They retain possession well, distributing it wide to Navas and Reguilón or in between the lines for Suso when he drops, but the very fact they’re either deep lying and/or distribution-type players was one of their downfalls in the game against Cluj. You’re unlikely to see one of them beat the defender in a one on one, or provide a wonderful piece of skill to break the defensive press so build up play became a little obvious. When Banega came on for Jordán in the second half, he added an extra bit of vision into the midfield and on his first pass delivered an excellent over-the-top ball in behind the left back for Suso to run onto.
This lack of differentiation in the middle and the limitation on forward movement early in the build up phase can be seen in this image. As the ball is with the full back Reguilón, both Jordán and Fernando are on the same line as each other sat deep, whilst Gudelj is a further 10 yards back on the edge of the 18 yard box. As a result, in a space no larger than 20 yards, all 3 midfielders are in close proximity and no more than 25 yards from their own goal. This allows the opposition to press the pitch and reduce space to play.
What was interesting to watch was how deep Gudelj played both in and out of possession. He would drop in between the two centre backs, whilst Carlos and Kounde would spread across the width or the pitch, similarly to a defensive shape when playing 3 at the back. He was very much the player who started the build up from deep, spreading passes predominantly off his right foot looking for Navas or a ball into central midfield. Lopetegui has utilised Gudelj as a central centre back when playing 3-4-3 recently against Getafe, so clearly the style of play against Cluj is something the team are comfortable with. Whilst he looked competent at starting the build up, there is a question of his pace and mobility and at times he looked a little uncomfortable when put under pressure, which required him to move his feet quickly and deliver the pass.
Dropping Gudelj into the back 4 (or back 3) allows Navas and Reguilón to play much higher up the pitch, affording both players the freedom to join in attacks which they are so relied upon. It’s also worth noting that as Cluj played a 4-2-3-1, Sevilla could allow 3v1 or 2v1 at the back, which at times meant Gudelj progressed into midfield when the ball was in and around the final third. However when up against teams who play 4-3-3 for example, this might limit the attacking threat of the full backs as they’d be expected to provide cover at the back.
Further up the pitch, Sevilla rely heavily on the width and pace created by the two wing backs. Navas, whilst it feels like he’s been around forever, still possesses a rapid turn of pace and especially in the first half was the main creator of chances, combining well with Suso to deliver a number of deep crosses to the back post, or a cross-come-shot which should have resulted in at least one goal (Sevilla had an xG value of 2.18 which came from chances in the 18 yard box).
In La Liga, Sevilla are third when it comes to the highest amount of short passes per game (behind Real Madrid and Barcelona), and also retain the ball longer than all but one side in the league when playing at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, so it was no surprise to see that from the first whistle they wanted to control the game and be on the ball (which they did with over 72% possession). As highlighted previously, they’re technically very good and the width created by the full backs opens up space between the lines which Suso likes to operate in. In this image, we can see Suso has come off the right wing and dropped in centrally behind the midfield line, offering a vertical pass straight into his feet ready to receive on the half turn. What you can’t see here is that he’s able to do this because Navas has occupied the right wing high up, pinning the left full back.
With 2 attacking wing backs, Sevilla get the ball wide as soon as they can, especially into Navas who uses his pace to get on the outside of the full back to deliver dangerous crosses or combine with Suso. Whilst Navas and Reguilón both play on the side of their strongest foot, Suso and Ocampos operate as inverted wingers, with Suso on the right wing and Ocampos on the left. This results in both players coming inside more onto their strongest foot and on a number of occasions Suso would drop his shoulder, drive towards the edge of the 18 yard box and shoot from around 25 yards out or deliver an inswinging cross, often to the back post. This style of play has been evident throughout this season and both examples were displayed in the recent victory over Espanyol. For the first goal, Suso cuts inside onto his left and delivers a deep cross to the back post for Ocampos. For the second, he again opts to move in-field and delivers an excellent shot from the edge of the 18.
This inverted way of playing also benefits the full backs and provides great opportunities for overloads. As we can see in the image below, Suso receives the ball and naturally comes inside onto his strongest foot which off balances the defender pulling him centrally, providing space down the side for Navas to drive into and deliver another one of his dangerous whipped crosses. This was similar on the left hand side with Reguilón and Ocampos; Ocampos would play high and wide, dragging a defender out of his position leaving space for Reguilón to move into more centrally, again to deliver a cross.
As this next graphic shows us, we can see how much of Sevilla’s attacking play was down the side of Navas and Suso. Opposition sides will want to ensure that the left back is sufficiently covered by the left midfielder, that the central midfielders are condensing the play and moving horizontally/diagonally to press the area, whilst the centre backs must limit space between each other and provide depth and cover. In the second half Cluj nullified the threat by playing more aggressively higher up, reducing the passing lanes into midfield and out wide.
For all of Sevilla’s passing and intricate build up play, they rarely got in behind the Cluj back line which meant that all the play was in front of the back 4, allowing them to squeeze the pitch knowing that there was little danger of them being caught either over the top or by a clever through ball (on one occasion Ocampos did manage to get in between CB and FB inside the 18 yard box, but this was the only time). To emphasise this point, Sevilla were not caught offside once, which whilst that doesn’t always show a true picture, it does support the argument that they offer very little in behind. De Jong, Suso and Ocampos whilst technically good, don’t possess a rapid turn of pace so a lot of the build up was direct into feet with their back turned to goal. This limited their ability to attack quickly and often resulted in lateral passes, hoping to get the ball wide to one of the full backs.
De Jong occupied the central areas in the front 3 and often played with his back to goal, using his large frame to bring others into the game. As we can see in this image, de Jong wants to receive the ball into feet rather than look to turn and spin in behind. I’ve highlighted Suso (centrally) as again he would often come short to receive and turn, but in this example he could have looked to dart in behind which would have pulled the full back in with him providing space for Navas out wide.
As a result, Sevilla’s attacking build up can be broken down into 3 areas:
- Direct ball up to de Jong
- Ball circulation at the back and then played wide for Navas or Reguilón
- Suso dropping in between the lines and receiving on the half turn
The third option of Suso dropping and receiving on the half turn caused Cluj problems and his ability to play off one and two touches allowed the speed of the attack to change quickly. In this example he peeled off the full back, played a quick one-two with Fernando and spun in behind for the return pass. Unfortunately a lack of pace allowed the full back a chance to recover and the attack fizzled out, but this movement and quick combination play was one of the highlights for Sevilla.
Sevilla didn’t press particularly high or aggressively, so opportunities to win back possession in the attacking third were quite limited (there were only 2 occasions that Cluj were dispossessed in their own half). However there were a few moments when they won back the ball in the middle third and demonstrated the eagerness to get bodies forward quickly. In the example below, Fernando managed to toe the ball beyond the pressing Cluj midfielder, play a one-two with de Jong and drive with the ball into the attacking third. Ocampos and de Jong displayed some clever movement off the ball and Reguilón burst from defence to join in, however again they lacked the penetration in behind and instead the ball was dropped into the feet of Suso, who cut inside and delivered a dangerous cross into the 6 yard box.
The speed of transition from middle to attacking third was good and the movement from Ocampos and de Jong pulled the defenders away leaving the back post free for Reguilón, however the lateral pass into Suso gave Cluj the opportunity to recover and the momentum faded. It’s no surprise that this season they’re top the league for the most crosses per game (24), as again the in-swinging cross was the method of delivery once it landed at the feet of the right winger.
For opposition sides, the biggest concern when in the defensive transition won’t be a run in behind or quick combination play in the final third to produce a shot. What they will need to look for is restricting the ball from getting into wide areas in the final third, reducing the ability to deliver crosses from around 25-30 yards out (force Suso onto his right side, body position is key here to show him outside) and finally track the runs from deep.
They didn’t particularly switch up set pieces (for example no short corners) and instead on both free kicks and corners opted for a dangerous first time delivery into the 18 yard box aiming in particular for de Jong or Ocampos, both of whom are well above 6ft. You can also see why they have scored the most goals from set pieces this season (10) as delivery is excellent and they get bodies around the second ball looking to pick up anything loose. On corners Ocampos and Fernando line up on the 6 yard box, de Jong, Carlos and Kounde start off clustered around the penalty spot and then make the darting runs, with de Jong typically starting a little deeper and making the movement centrally. Reguilón and Gudelj occupy the edge of the 18 yard box.
One notable set piece routine that was utilised more than once was a cross deep to the back post, which would then be headed back towards goal for de Jong etc. to attack or, on two occasions the delivery made its way deep to the corner of the 18 yard box for Reguilón to volley on goal.
Areas to expose
The use of high wing backs is a major positive for Sevilla and it provides a real attacking threat. However as they also commit men forward, this leaves an opportunity to counter attack and hit the areas in behind the vacant full backs. Cluj only managed this on one occasion, but were ultimately successful as Navas progressed forward anticipating de Jong to retain possession after the direct ball from the back, however a misplaced pass allowed Cluj to play forward quickly for Omrani to drive towards the 18 yard box. Omrani was ultimately brought down by the recovering Navas, desperate to stop the attack.
I’d expect opposition sides to direct the strikers when out of possession to split the defence and occupy areas wide, ready to receive and utilise the space left when they attack. It’s also important that as Navas and Reguilón are quick, accurate first time vertical passes are really important, reducing the opportunity for them to recover and delay the attack.
Analysing and reporting on one game is always a challenge and invariably can be quite misleading in some areas. In this analysis we have identified that, whilst technically superior to Cluj, Sevilla struggled to break down the 4-2-3-1 and high press, often opting for a direct high ball up to de Jong, especially in the second half, who struggled to retain possession and bring others into play.
They keep possession well and have an abundance of gifted footballers who circulate the ball neatly, and it’s clear to see why they have the highest amount of crosses per game owing to the reliance on the wing backs to overlap and deliver dangerous balls. However they also struggled in areas such as differentiating the attack speed, getting in behind the back 4 of Cluj and ultimately finishing chances when they presented themselves.
Sevilla are most definitely a side that will cause any team problems and the pace and width out wide will result in the opposition becoming unbalanced, giving them opportunities to score, both from crosses and from central areas during penetration. However in this fixture, especially in the second half, Cluj did an excellent job at restricting access to both wing backs and this is something that opposition teams in La Liga will want to implement.