Soccer

Sevilla are in trouble, but is sacking Lopetegui the answer?

These are not witty, creative times at Sevilla, but paraphrasing the famous sarcastic barb written by Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of Being Earnest” offers up a critique of their recent record when it comes to managerial appointments: “To sack one manager may be regarded as a misfortune; to screw-up on seven of them looks like carelessness.” I’ll explain.

Sevilla might shock us all by beating Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Wednesday and finally give a spark of life to their, so far, utterly dismal season. But don’t hold your breath. It would be a still-greater shock if any such show of defiance rescued Julen Lopetegui’s job. The manager has been beleaguered for weeks, if not months; he’s deeply unpopular with Sevilla’s volatile, voluble, ultra-demanding fans; his players appear either uninspired or bored by him and, frankly, it might be healthiest for all concerned to turn the page … him included.

But if Sevilla’s director of football Monchi, players, fans, local media or president Jose Castro reckon that this would be a quick fix which drags the club out of the doldrums and allows all the blame to be heaped on poor old Lopetegui, they’d better think again. Sevilla’s recent record on managerial appointments is pretty shocking.

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Since Unai Emery left in 2016, beating Liverpool in Switzerland to win the last of Sevilla’s astonishing hat trick of Europa League finals, the club have made seven coach appointments — almost immediately getting rid of six of them.

As battered and bruised as Lopetegui is now, he’s been Sevilla’s only success in that time. In 2020 he, too, won the UEFA Europa League, pretty thrillingly at that. But the average tenure of the six coaches appointed before him is just over five months each! Pathetic. From Jorge Sampaoli (who is now in the frame to take over again) at 10 months, through Eduardo Berizzo, Vincenzo Montella, Joaquin Caparros (twice) and Pablo Machin, this extraordinary club — which roared back into life in 2005 having not won a major trophy for 57 years (10 since then) — has stuttered from one failed coaching appointment to another.

When Monchi was briefly at Roma between 2017-2019 his beloved Sevilla made a complete dog’s dinner of coping without him. He returned, brought Lopetegui with him, and there has been continuity, consecutive qualifications for the riches of the Champions League and another European trophy (the 2020 Europa League.)

There’s no avoiding, however, that Sevilla’s transfer market work, since the epic business done in summer 2019 on Monchi’s return from Serie A, has largely stunk the house out. A fact which partly accounts for the desperate situation in which Lopetegui now finds himself.

Every single coach, great, average, or journeyman, depends on the basic quality of his assembled footballers. There are minor exceptions to the criticism of Sevilla’s last six transfer market performances and no doubt some of you will want to pick a fight with me over which they are.

In summary: Suso and Youssef En-Nesyri have had their moments; Papu Gomez and Marcos Acuna too. Erik Lamela, on form, lifts Sevilla’s creativity; Gonzalo Montiel hints at ability. Small comforts compared to over 30 other footballers who’ve come in, and often left, without making a significant impact.

Let alone matching the previous record Monchi had for unearthing, or revitalising, the likes of Dani Alves, Luis Fabiano, Renato, Seydou Keita, Ivan Rakitic, Wissam Ben Yedder, Adriano, Kevin Gameiro, Vitolo, Tomas Vaclik, Julio Baptista, Daniel Carrico, Carlos Bacca, Enzo Maresca, Frederic Kanoute, Christian Poulsen, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Vicente Iborra and the mighty Ever Banega.

Two things: yes, I know that’s a long list of names to include in a column. But it’s only scratching at the surface of Monchi’s success over the last two decades. Soak in a visual example of his cutting-edge excellence.

Secondly: yes, I know I’ve missed out one of your personal favourites — which might include the fact that Monchi has been overall responsible for creating an academy which produced Sergio Ramos, Jose Antonio Reyes, Antonio Puerta, Jesus Navas, Alberto Moreno and Bryan Gil … every one of whom has won a European or World trophy at club or international level — or both.

The intense decline (since truly excellent work when Jules Kounde, Diego Carlos, Yassine Bounou and Joan Jordan were all signed in summer 2019) in how well they bring in new players isn’t the only thing which has left Sevilla in the mire. Last season Los Rojiblancos were averaging eight or nine players out injured every month from December onwards. Disastrous.

Whose fault is that? The doctors? The physios? The fitness coaches? Unless Lopetegui runs atrociously poor training sessions (in which case wouldn’t Monchi have intervened long ago?) he can’t be blamed for never having full, or fully fit playing resources at his disposal.

One crazy example is that Marcao, signed to partially offset the brutal impact of moving on Kounde and Diego Carlos in the same summer, hasn’t been fit to play a single competitive minute since arriving three months ago.

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Álvaro Morata goal 57th minute Sevilla FC 0-2 Atletico Madrid

Another problem outside the 56-year-old Basque’s control is his “noisy neighbours.” Real Betis, for most of Monchi’s reign, must have thought they were in purgatory. Sevilla hit new heights, won trophy after trophy, won the majority of the passionate, aggressive city derbis, made themselves world famous and earned hundreds of millions of euros from UEFA success and unparalleled profit-making on their transfer market deals. Betis, meanwhile, bounced up and down between relegation and promotion and, frankly, sulked. But right now they’re vibrant, vivacious, their stadium is full to the brim with noisy, happy supporters and, above all, they are reigning Copa del Rey holders.

All of which adds bitterness and sting to the fury of those, in red and white, who’ve given up on Lopetegui. It’s not his fault that Betis are brilliant to watch, but he might have to pay the bill.

So although Lopetegui’s performance level across his three years in charge has plummeted from “notably good” to “Sevilla have lost their verve and cutting edge” to, now, “they’re in deep trouble!” there are genuine mitigating circumstances. Yet with a record of seven wins from the last 21 LaLiga matches last season, flunking out of what looked like a title challenge and only qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the season, those circumstances probably won’t save the poor chap his job.

What makes it still worse is that the impoverished performance this season means that he and his team have won only 38 of the last 84 LaLiga points in play. Last March they were in contention for the title — sitting in second place and six points off Madrid with a game against Los Blancos to come. Now they’re struggling to edge clear of the relegation zone in 17th place with five points from seven games. Europe, too, has seen a sudden litany of defeats to teams which, over the last 15 years, Sevilla would have routinely eliminated.

The final ignominy for “Mister” Lopetegui (and a brooding threat for anyone charged with taking over in the immediate future) was laid out by Papu Gomez. One of the clear, recent transfer market successes, “El Papu” returned from international duty with Argentina having been quoted as suggesting that any smart player will have his head much more focused on the World Cup than LaLiga or Champions League business until Qatar 2022 begins on Nov. 20.

“This last month before the tournament starts is going to be complicated,” he said. “Let’s see where everyone’s mind is going to be. How focused guys are. With all due sincerity — that’s the truth of the situation.”

Admirably frank. And, at the same time, alarmingly threatening.

Precisely when Sevilla, Lopetegui and Monchi require every player to be fighting tooth and nail for every header, tackle, loose ball and snarling through every 50/50 challenge — Papu reckons that there’s a temptation to put national team interests first. To protect oneself; not Sevilla.

There’s something about Lopetegui and World Cups. I was there, four years ago, in Krasnodar for Russia 2018, when an effervescent and confident Spain watched their chances of challenging for the trophy blown to smithereens by Lopetegui’s naive belief that he could line up the Real Madrid job, announce it, and still keep his post with Spain throughout the tournament. Boy did he judge THAT one badly. He was sacked and sent on a plane home before Spain had kicked a ball in anger.

Now, even if Lopetegui somehow makes it through the next few games, with some senior players saving themselves for what’ll happen in Qatar, he’ll immediately hit that awful Bermuda Triangle for coaches when a long period of inactivity, during which most of your best players aren’t with you in training, usually makes under-pressure clubs, boards, presidents and owners ultra-trigger happy. The itch to sack often becomes irresistible.

If they do dispense with one of only two coaches to win Sevilla a trophy in the last six years, Monchi’s work in re-developing and improving will have to be incredibly successful. Above all Sevilla lack a killer goal scorer and a commanding, permanently fit, central defender.

To give Monchi credit, he’s a stickler for explaining his philosophy, his hit/miss rate and, generally, for lifting the lid on that dog-eat-dog transfer world which he’s imperiously dominated for the last 20 years.

A few months ago he told Radio Marca: “The Sevilla we’ve built is now nothing like the one of 10 or more years ago. Clubs ‘know’ us now, know that we’re looking for players who’ll be burnished here, succeed then have a big re-sale profit for us. So they try to build in bigger future sell-on profits for themselves when we are negotiating to buy their footballers. That’s why we’re now trying to buy players who are more the finished article rather than young versions of Alves, Baptista and Adriano as we once did. That, in turn, hoists the purchase price up.”

Old romantic that he is, Monchi argues that: “It’s fundamental that when a footballer hears that Sevilla want to sign him I need to see his eyes shining with pride.”

Not something which will happen too often if the current stagnant, injury-prone, antagonistic and under-performing situation at the club continues. It’s just best that everyone understands: sacking Lopetegui won’t be a panacea for all that ails them. Over to you Monchi.


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