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The Most Exciting Team in Spain Isn’t Barcelona or Real Madrid

With a fluid, fast, and fun style, Jorge Sampaoli has turned Sevilla into the must-watch team in La Liga. Oh, and they’re pretty good, too.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Forget Pep Guardiola going to Manchester City. Nevermind Carlo Ancelotti filling the vacancy at Bayern Munich. And don’t worry about Antonio Conte taking over at Chelsea. No, to the football-hipster set, there was one specific managerial hire to get excited about this past summer: Jorge Sampaoli to Sevilla.

After his domestic and international success in South America, fans of Sampaoli’s high-octane style had been waiting for his move to the Continent. The Argentine first gained a reputation with Universidad de Chile, who won three domestic titles and the Copa Sudamericana under his guidance. Influenced by the legendary Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli’s side played a direct and dynamic style with the aim to overwhelm the opponent with fluid combinations and off-the-ball movements. And much like the famously obsessive Bielsa, Sampaoli, as Gabriele Marcotti wrote for The Times, would “[sit] in bed watching (football) DVDs and doing video analysis on his computer.” Where Sampaoli differed from Bielsa was in his pragmatism; while Bielsa had a specific way of doing things and setting out his team, Sampaoli’s La U changed formations on a game-by-game basis.

Fittingly, Sampaoli’s next job was as Bielsa’s replacement as the manager of the Chilean national team in 2012. Through his team’s dynamic and intense football, he completed the progress of his predecessor and turned Chile into one of the best and most compelling sides in international football. Despite losing in the round of 16 in World Cup 2014, they captured the admiration of many with their style. A year later, they beat Argentina in the final of the Copa America.

But as is the nature of international football, we were only served small and sporadic doses of Chile’s exuberant game. Their matches were a showcase of some of the best football in the world, but it was often a matter of months between opportunities to witness them play.

Now, we get to see his team play on a weekly basis — and what a treat it’s been. Sevilla are playing some of the most exciting football in the world. They’re off to their best start in La Liga history, recently snapping Real Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak. And they’re currently in third place, two points behind Barcelona and three behind Madrid (who have two games in hand). Sampaoli’s side is threatening to break up the longstanding Spanish duopoly, and they’re doing it with a fast, flexible, and Chilean style of football.

As he did with Chile, Sampaoli has introduced an extremely fluid style of play to Sevilla. They rarely limit themselves to a single tactical shape — WhoScored has listed 10 different formations for them this season — and much like a number of top sides this year, they have been regular exponents of a three-man defensive line. But the positional freedom that Sampaoli gives his players makes it difficult to figure out their formula.

It’s a notion shared by many progressive managers. As Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann recently shared with The Ringer: “You’re more dangerous the more positional variation you have.”

Whether there’s four, three, or even two players in the back line, Sevilla’s possessions almost always start with the defenders. But the ball isn’t held back for long. With a focus on attacking at high speeds over more deliberate and cautious possession, the center backs aim to quickly supply the midfielders. Former Stoke City midfielder Steven N’Zonzi, perhaps the most improved player under Sampaoli, is a common link between the buildup and attack.

Once the ball is farther upfield, Sevilla’s midfield and attacking play places an importance on flowing combinations. Rather than sticking to fixed positions, the players are encouraged to interchange, and the fluid movements create numerical advantages in the center and the left half-space. Within these areas, Sevilla will exchange passes in tight, well-connected triangles through the opponent’s lines of resistance.

The heartbeat of these combinations is Manchester City loanee Samir Nasri. Under Sampaoli, the attacking midfielder is being deployed in a deeper role on the left side of their midfield. His role, however, sees him play in about five other positions, as he’s given the license to follow the play in order to influence the game all across the field.

When Nasri has the ball, according to Sampaoli, the team “breathes.” His diverse range of long and tight-space passing, as well as his secure and defense-breaking dribbling diversifies Sevilla’s game. A constant figure in almost everything his team does, Nasri is an influence from buildup all the way up to the final touch.

Nasri was absent in their 4–3 win over Osasuna in late January, and it showed. Despite the three points, their buildup was much more rigid and dysfunctional, with no reliable option to help continue the ball forward. Where Nasri allows his teammates to breathe, Osasuna’s aggressive pressure suffocated Sampaoli’s side, who lacked their star’s injection of speed and calm to their attack.

While Sevilla have Nasri, they don’t have a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo — or even a Neymar or a Gareth Bale. And according to Transfermarkt, the Sevilla squad’s total market value is over £200M lower than that of Atlético Madrid, the last non-Real/Barca team to win La Liga. But despite the disadvantages, Sampaoli’s side have been the most exciting team in Spain this year, and it’s down to the exuberant football introduced by their new coach.

Sevilla have been in the past three Europa League finals, and they’ve won the past two. Except they haven’t finished above fifth in La Liga since 2010. Now they’re in third. And they’re favored in their round of 16 Champions League matchup with Leicester City, making an appearance in the semifinals a realistic prospect.

Of course, keeping up this domestic pace until the end of the season is a different kind of beast. Real Madrid do have a Ronaldo and a Bale (and also a Modric, a Marcelo, a Ramos, and so on), and they’re still favorites for the title. While Barcelona have shown some flaws as they continue on their path away from Pep Guardiola’s philosophy, they still can’t be counted out because, again, they have a Messi.

Sevilla aren’t perfect, either. Their fluid structure in possession doesn’t always connect the midfield together. Because the movement is so variable, the players can struggle to coordinate their runs so that players are arriving in the right spaces at the right times. This can be a particular issue during buildup: If N’Zonzi and Nasri are covered by the opponent’s midfield, their teammates often fail to drop and establish the link into midfield themselves. Synergies need to form in such a complex system, and the hope is that they will continue to do so as Sampaoli has more time to shape his team.

As a result of their open approach, they’ve been less successful at the other end. They’ve allowed 10 more goals than anyone in the top four, and their expected-goals mark is just about league average. Since their attacking style can leave the formation exposed in deeper positions, Sevilla’s defensive stability is often predicated on their counterpress. But this isn’t always coordinated well enough; they’re sometimes too slow to react, or they miscommunicate the responsibility of closing down the ballcarrier.

Advanced numbers paint Sevilla as either the third- or fourth-best team in Spain — right around the same level as Atletico Madrid — and that is progress. They’re one of the most intelligent and farsighted clubs, led by the genius executive Monchi. We can already see a distinct Chilean flair in this Sevilla team, and the excitement of their performances has been amplified by the intrigue of watching a complex team develop. It may even be a matter of seasons before we see them playing at the level Sampaoli imagines, but until then, we should all take the opportunity to just enjoy the ride week in, week out.