There are few certainties in the world of football. There are even fewer examples of clubs experiencing sustained success in the modern era without the deep pockets to match. For the best part of two decades, Sevilla have bucked the trend, operating in a sustainable fashion where the notion of selling star players has been embraced as not just a financial necessity but part of the business model for moving forwards.
It has worked. Sevilla haven’t finished outside of the top half of LaLiga since their return to the top flight in 2001. They’ve only failed to qualify for Europe once since 2003. There’s also the small matter of six Europa League wins, the most recent of which came in the first season of current boss Julen Lopetegui’s reign in 2019/20.
The former Spain and Real Madrid boss headed south with a point to prove and to a large extent a crowd to win over with his appointment not universally welcomed in the Andalusian capital. On the surface, he has done that and more, adding to that European triumph with three straight top four finishes, a feat that even during this most successful of eras, Sevilla hadn’t achieved since the 1950’s.
Given all that has gone right, it might be easy to conclude that a start of just 1 point from 3 games to the 2022/23 season, Sevilla’s worst opening to LaLiga in 41 years, is merely a blip in the road. Trust the process and trust the coach. That seems to be the message from the Sevilla hierarchy, for now at least.
However to merely put this down as a brief wobble would be to ignore the second half of last season and what has felt like a slow and steady decline on the pitch. It feels bigger than that and for once it also feels perfectly justified to question the planning and decision-making at a club that has for so long prided itself on getting the big calls right.
A successful era that reached its natural end in the spring?
Sevilla’s 21st Century success story has been a cyclical affair with periods of great change, both in terms of playing and coaching personnel, followed by short bursts of glory. Their most successful coaches during this period have been Juande Ramos and Unai Emery, who between them won the first five UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues. However Ramos was only at the club for a little over two years while Emery’s reign was slightly longer but still fell short of four full seasons.
The one constant through all of this, aside from a brief stint at Roma in the late 2010’s, has been Monchi, Sevilla’s legendary sporting director. This latest period of success can largely be traced back to his return in March 2019 and the outstanding recruitment job that was done that summer.
Julen Lopetegui, who was also appointed in the summer of 2019, took over what was virtually a new team. His first competitive eleven featured seven new signings and the likes of Jules Kounde, Diego Carlos, Joan Jordan, Fernando, Lucas Ocampos and Bono would quickly establish themselves as the latest in a long list of inspired Monchi buys.
While there were some early hiccups and Lopetegui’s style of play didn’t always endear himself to the Sevilla faithful, the 2019/20 season very much felt like the start of a new era at Sevilla. It was a team that grew into the campaign and returned stronger from the Covid-enforced interval to once again taste Europa League glory, albeit in strange circumstances in an empty stadium in Cologne.
It has been a period though that has in some respects marked a shift from previous Sevilla cycles. Partly the result of the financial strain taking its toll on many of Europe’s big clubs, Monchi resisted the urge to sell any of the club’s genuine stars in the summers of 2020 and 2021 even when the likes of centre-back Jules Kounde were starting to get restless amidst interest from elsewhere.
There was also a genuine sense that Sevilla might just have a shot in LaLiga. That was certainly the case in January of this year when Sevilla rebuffed Newcastle’s big money approach for Diego Carlos. They were 2nd at the time, with a clear advantage on Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and trailing only Real Madrid. Underdogs in the title race for sure, but there was a sense of “now or never” as Sevilla reached the 20 game mark having lost only twice with 44 points on the board.
While it was rational to doubt Sevilla’s ability to ultimately see the job through and pip Real Madrid to become champions of Spain for what would have been only the second time, few could have foreseen the way their season would unravel. A team that started 2022 with the potential to eclipse even the achievements of the Ramos and Emery era Sevilla sides, felt like it was on its last legs by March.
Draws in six of their next eight league games quickly put pay to any serious title talk and there was a distinct feeling that a cycle had reached its natural ending when Sevilla limped out of the Europa League with a tame 2-0 defeat at West Ham’s London Stadium in March. The shot at a home stadium final in “their competition” had also gone.
That European exit came three years to the day that Monchi had officially confirmed his return to Sevilla. With a relatively ageing squad, all hope of silverware over and the summer departures of highly rated defenders Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde all but certain, it felt like the time had come to draw the curtain on another largely successful chapter in Sevilla’s recent history and set the wheels in motion for another summer of change.
A messy summer at the Sanchez-Pizjuan
In some ways, it felt like the perfect scenario for Monchi and the kind of situation that Sevilla have thrived on in the past. They would ultimately receive in the region of €80m for their two centre-backs but the slightly chaotic way in which they have been replaced and the inability to spark anything like the kind of inspired squad overhaul that we witnessed back in 2019, makes Monchi fair game for criticism this summer.
Kounde and Carlos were always going to leave huge voids to fill and Sevilla’s hopes of making a smooth transition haven’t been helped by the decision to sign one injured centre-back in the shape of Marcão who has yet to make his debut following his move from Galatasaray. His assumed partner will be Tanguy Nianzou, an inexperienced 20 year old signed after the season had already started and thrust immediately into the starting eleven, largely due to a lack of alternative options.
Compare that to 2019, when Sevilla had made eleven signings by the end of the first week of July, including Carlos, Kounde and Sergio Reguilón, who would go on to form three members of a defence that excelled that season.
This summer, it has been an altogether different story. Aside from those two central defenders, Sevilla have only made one other permanent signing as we reach the final few days of the transfer window. That player is Isco, who at this stage in his career feels little more than a punt after a poor end to his time at Real Madrid with a total of just 2 goals and 4 assists in LaLiga in the last 3 seasons.
While like most Spanish clubs, Sevilla are not immune to the financial realities of this difficult time, it’s still hard to really put your finger on what exactly their strategy was supposed to be this summer. While they haven’t been in a position to reinvest all of the money they have recouped, there has been little attempt to regenerate or freshen up this squad and few of the issues that were evident at the back-end of last season have been resolved, the most striking of which was a lack of goals.
There is still time for business to be done and it almost certainly will be an active end to the transfer window at the Sanchez-Pizjuan. It just all feels a bit chaotic with the meticulous planning of previous seasons strangely absent.
One season too many for Lopetegui?
The more last season went on, the more it felt like things were coming to a natural ending for Julen Lopetegui at Sevilla. There was the increasing sense of a fanbase starting to get a bit restless with home draws against Cadiz and Mallorca late on and reservations over his style of play which have never truly gone away, even during more successful times.
It felt like the time had come for a natural parting of the ways that might just have been in the best interests of both parties. Julen Lopetegui could have left with his head held high and reputation largely restored after a problematic stint in his career which saw him dismissed by Spain on the eve of the World Cup followed by a short-lived reign at Real Madrid.
Sevilla would have had the opportunity to make a fresh start and perhaps appoint a coach who the supporters would warm to and stick by, even if the transition to life after Kounde and Carlos proved as tough as many were expecting.
As it is Sevilla find themselves in a state of limbo. Having taken only one point from league games against Osasuna, Real Valladolid and Almeria, it’s hard to see things improving in the short-term with Barcelona and Manchester City their next two opponents while Villarreal, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are also on the horizon.
“We’re all going to go in the same direction, we’re going to pull it off, for sure!” declared Monchi as he tried to calm angry visiting fans at Almeria on Saturday.
His word carries considerable weight amongst Sevillistas. He has more than earned that but unless something truly unexpected happens, the writing already appears to be on the wall for Lopetegui. It’s difficult to see his reign ending in anything other than a bitter, unhappy fashion now when an altogether more amicable parting of the ways was so possible in May. That was the least Julen Lopetegui deserved having delivered Champions League qualification in all of his three seasons in charge, as well as a club record top flight points tally of 77 in 2020/21.
His departure will most likely be as messy as this summer has been in Nervión. While it rarely proves wise to question Monchi’s ability to run Sevilla FC, it’s hard to make much sense of his approach to the last few months and even if he can find a couple of gems before the transfer window shuts, Sevilla look set for a significantly worse season, with or without their current coach.