Barcelona face arguably their toughest test of the season so far tonight when they travel to South of Spain to face Sevilla at the Roman Sanchez Pizjuan. Los Rojiblancos sit in fifth-place with eleven points from their opening five games and thus far, Michel’s side has yet to taste defeat. A tough trip to the Riazor ended in a comfortable 2-0 scoreline to the visitors and even when Real Madrid came to town, Sevilla still managed to claim all three points. While they have some way to go before they match the achievements of Juande Ramos’ side, this is as promising a start as Sevilla have managed in the past couple of seasons. Here’s a breakdown of their relative strengths, weaknesses and tactics ahead of tonight’s massive clash.
Manager – Michel
A former Real Madrid legend, Michel was a hugely successful player, racking up six La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey wins and a couple of UEFA Cup successes in his time with Real Madrid. Not only that, but Michel gained a lot of praise as an individual and finished in fourth-place in the voting for the 1987 Ballon d’Or – one place ahead of Barcelona’s Gary Lineker. Michel has been in management for seven years now and this is his first "big" job as a manager after previous spells in charge of Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid Castilla and Getafe. Since joining Sevilla in February, he has turned the club around and made a number of good signings in the summer (more on one of them later) which has contributed to Sevilla’s excellent start to the season. A future Real Madrid manager? It’s certainly possible.
Michel’s record against Barcelona: 0W – 0D – 5L
Tactics – 4-2-3-1
At face value, there is nothing unusual about Sevilla under Michel. They operate in a flexible 4-2-3-1 that can just as easily transform into a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1 when required, and as a result, Sevilla are a difficult side to breakdown. However, it’s not just the 4-2-3-1 that makes Sevilla so difficult to face, once again it’s the little things that make the difference.
The thinking behind Michel’s 4-2-3-1 is clear; play to your strengths and do as much as possible to limit the weaknesses. Jesus Navas is a fantastic winger and continues to improve with each passing season, but like so many modern wingers, he’s hesitant to help out at the back. That could leave Cicinho isolated up against one, or two opposing players, so Michel positions Gary Medel on the right-hand side of the double-pivote. The Chilean has thrived since his move to Europe, and it’s true, he isn’t the most well-rounded of midfielders, but he does possess a fantastic defensive work-rate. Capable of filling in at centre-half, Medel adds grit to the midfield and did an excellent job against Real Madrid, helping Cicinho out against the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo.
Similarly, in Hedwiges Maduro, Sevilla have a second holding midfielder who is capable of playing in the heart of defense. While Maduro lacks the pace (and arguably lacks the height) to play at centre-half full-time, he thrives in that defensive midfield role and has formed a formidable partnership with Medel in the centre of midfield. In this day and age, it’s rare to have a double-pivote with two midfield destroyers, but it works well for Sevilla and causes opposition offenses a lot of problems. If you thought Granada formed a wall in front of goal, just wait until tonight – with a solid back-four and that Medel-Maduro partnership, Xavi, Messi and co are going to find that space is at an absolute premium.
Building on that solid base, Ivan Rakitic usually occupies the #10 role and the Croatian is a great all-round player. He is threatening from long-range, can pass the ball and possesses a great engine – with the latter quality evident in his display against Real Madrid. Xabi Alonso hasn’t exactly excelled since the European Championships; nevertheless, when someone like Rakitic is chasing down your every move, it becomes incredibly difficult to establish that rhythm, even from deep. I fully expect Rakitic to play exactly the same way against Sergio Busquets, and this could go one of two ways. Either Rakitic is successful and Busquets struggles to impose himself on the match, or Busquets excels (look at his pass to Andrés Iniesta prior to Xavi’s goal in the first-leg of the Supercopa) and Rakitic merely increases the tempo of the Blaugrana attacks. It’s a crucial battle, and whichever side wins is likely to fancy their chances of claiming the three points.
Moving onto the "attack", Piotr Trochowski and Jesus Navas are likely to play on either flank and in particular, Barcelona will have to be careful of Navas’ speed and the accuracy of his crossing. With such a capable centre-forward in Alvaro Negredo waiting in the area, Alex Song and Javier Mascherano really do have their work cut out. Will Negredo isolate himself up against Alex Song in an attempt to exploit the Cameroonian’s inexperience at the back, or does he isolate himself against Mascherano to try and exploit his height advantage? Yes, Song was great last week, but that was Granada at the Camp Nou – the real test starts tonight when he faces the in-form Spaniard.
Key Player – Jesus Navas
For years, we have known of Navas’ talent, but one could argue that it’s only now that his potential is finally being realised. He’s overcome his home-sickness and therefore now features for the national team and while Alvaro Negredo gets the goals, Navas is clearly the star in Michel’s side. A tricky dribbler with electric pace, he really is a defender’s worst nightmare and Jordi Alba will have to be at his best to limit Navas’ impact on the game. Personally, I would have much preferred Adriano at left-back for this particular game for two reasons – first of all, he is great form, and secondly, he is a better defender than Alba. However, with injury ruling him out, Jordi is the only choice. Navas will undoubtedly be relishing the chance to exploit Alba’s offensive work-rate, and this is where Michel’s tactics come into their own.
Usually, there are two solutions when facing a tricky winger – you can either push your full-back forward in an attempt to force the winger back, or you can play a "defensive" winger to double up on the opposing player. However, with Medel ready to cover Navas’ defensive duties, pushing Alba forward at every opportunity won’t really solve the problem. So, with that in mind, I think Tito will be leaving Cristian Tello and David Villa on the bench in favour of Alexis Sanchez or Pedro. Both possess good defensive work-rates, but in this case I would position Sanchez on the left knowing that the Chilean has the pace to both trouble any defense and track-back, while he can also cut inside from the flank to test Cicinho. Much like we will learn a lot about Alex Song tonight, we will also learn a lot about Jordi Alba. Is he capable of playing a disciplined game at such an early stage in his Barca career, or will we learn definitively that Adriano is the better choice for the "bigger" matches?
One to Watch – Cicinho
A summer signing from Palmerias, Cicinho has been one of the stand-out performers not just for Sevilla, but in the whole league – at least so far. Like all Brazilian full-backs, he is exceptionally fast and loves to motor up and down the right for the entire 90 minutes. When he puts his mind to it, he is a capable defender unlike some of his compatriots (looking at you Marcelo). Come to think of it, Cicinho is a very similar player to Dani Alves, who of course played for Sevilla prior to his move to Barca.
Cicinho will be a threat down the right-hand side, and already he has formed a dangerous partnership with Jesus Navas – hence why I would have much preferred Adriano at left-back. If Alba ventures forward and gets caught in possession, what happens? At best, Navas is free down the right, but at worst Cicinho will also be forward. At this point, does Javier Mascherano move across to the left-hand side of defense to cover, therefore leaving Song one-on-one with Alvaro Negredo or does he stay central and hope for the best? It’s an intriguing dilemma, one that Barcelona will be looking to avoid like the plague.
· Strong defense
It’s early in the season, but Sevilla can boast the joint-best defense in the league having conceded just two goals in their opening five matches. In fact, Sevilla have not conceded in their last three La Liga matches and against Real Madrid, they didn’t even look likely to concede. Admittedly, Real were not at their best, but even so, keeping out a team that scored in excess of 120 goals last season is an impressive achievement.
With Jordi Alba on one side and Dani Alves on the other, Barcelona have two fabulous attacking full-backs, but that could play right into Sevilla’s hands. With the right-hand side a particular favourite (accounting for 41% of all Sevilla attacks), Michel’s side will look to play it down either wing at every opportunity and with Negredo ready to challenge for any cross, Sevilla really can turn defense into attack with a flash.
Under Michel, Sevilla are a counter-attacking side, which – amongst other things – means that they will spend a lot of time in their own half. As we well know, defenders have little room for error at this level, but Sevilla thus far have managed to avoid any real errors and execute their gameplan effectively –no matter the opposition.
· Keeping Possession
Sevilla currently sit 15th in the La Liga table – at least if the table was in order of average possession per game. Judging by their actual position (fifth), this isn’t affecting them greatly, but it’s always a concern for a team when they head into a match with FC Barcelona. Without the ball, they cannot score, it’s as simple as that, and Sevilla will want to sustain an extended period of pressure on the Barcelona goal – how can they do that if they cannot keep possession? Threatening on the counter attack is all well and good, but as we have seen, and as Luis noted in his latest article, Barcelona’s possession game really does take its toll on the opposition as the game draws to a close.
· Predictable tactics
Aside from left-wing where anyone from Reyes to Trochowski could start, almost everyone could name Sevilla’s starting XI. While that has its benefits in terms of camaraderie and chemistry, it also means that Tito Vilanova and his team have had a whole week to look at footage and pinpoint exact weaknesses for each player and the system as a whole. They will know what to expect and who to expect it from; they will also know how to counter-act their strengths and exploit their weaknesses, it’s just a question of how well Barcelona execute that gameplan.
· Over-reliance on Andrés Palop
This is in contrast to the points I made above where I noted how strong Sevilla’s defense was, but a defense can keep a team out without keeping shots to a minimum. Given that Sevilla concede 15 shots on average per match, Barcelona will get chances to score, it’s just whether or not they can take those chances against Palop who has been in excellent form this season and usually excels against Barcelona.
Forget the home match against Valencia, Sevilla are the toughest opposition we have faced this season. Negredo is in good form, Navas and Cicinho are improving with each match and crucially, they have a solid defense as well. With matches against Valencia, and even against Real Madrid, you know that players like Marcelo, Arbeloa, Ricardo Costa etc. will make a mistake at some stage, but I see no significant weakness in the Sevilla XI. Fernando Navarro isn’t the quickest of full-backs and Medel is prone to the occasional Pepe-style fit of rage, but that’s about it. However, Barcelona are the better side, and if they play as well as we know they can, they should win this match. With Messi in the team, anything is possible, but it’s definitely going to be close. What’s vital (in my opinion) is who starts alongside Xavi in the midfield. Can Cesc Fàbregas or Thiago occupy Gary Medel or Maduro, therefore opening up space for Messi and Alba? If Barca can manufacture a one-on-one opportunity against one of the Sevilla defenders, I would back them to "win", and it’s that kind of individual skill that should see the Blaugrana sneak the win.