Barcelona trip to test mentality of Sevilla side who went from Champions League to potential relegation scrap
It wasn't long ago that Sevilla fans were dreaming of actually winning LaLiga for the first time since their only title success in the 1940s.
Sporting director Monchi built the squad and Julen Lopetegui maximised its potential, using a brilliant defence as the platform for a solid and effective team.
Ultimately, Sevilla's form in the final weeks of the 2020-21 season saw their challenge tail off, but they finished just nine points adrift of eventual champions Atletico Madrid.
Essentially going toe-to-toe with three teams whose budgets dwarfed their own was itself an achievement, and the positivity carried through into the 2021-22 campaign.
At the end of matchday 20, second-placed Sevilla were just two points behind Real Madrid and 10 clear of Real Betis in third. However, since then, their accumulation of 47 points is the ninth-most in LaLiga.
Barcelona have almost double that number (91); Madrid have 79; city rivals Betis are on 62; Real Mallorca – only promoted back to LaLiga for last season – have tallied just three points fewer.
In that respect, Sunday's trip to Camp Nou represents a particularly daunting challenge. So, how has everything unravelled so quickly for Sevilla?
The key departures
Lopetegui's side were never particularly high scorers. In each of his three full seasons in charge, there were at least four teams in LaLiga who scored more than them, and the most they plundered was 54 in 2020-21.
While that may not exactly sound bad on the face of it, successful teams obviously tend to score a fair amount more. Over the seasons in question, the average goals total for the 15 teams to play each campaign in LaLiga was 155 – Sevilla's total was 160, so only slightly above average.
The reason they were able to be competitive around the top of the table despite attacking deficiencies was their excellent defence, built around the central pairing of Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde.
Sevilla conceded 97 goals across Lopetegui's three full seasons, bettered only by Real Madrid (84) and Atletico Madrid (95). The league median was 135, so they were much better than average.
Diego Carlos and Kounde both had the perfect blend of defensive intelligence, physical presence and technical ability, with Lopetegui's emphasis on building from the back starting with them. They were key to virtually everything.
Sevilla knew they'd leave eventually. The likelihood of being able to replace them with another partnership just as good was miniscule.
Instead, they'd need to offset their departures with greater goal threat at the other end. They failed. Sevilla have gone from scoring 1.4 goals and conceding 0.9 per game to netting 1.1 and letting in 1.4.
Lopetegui's delayed exit
Generally, Lopetegui did a very good job. Sevilla were rarely especially entertaining, but for about two and a half seasons they were very effective.
Their form tailed off badly towards the end of the 2021-22 campaign, however. Between January 1 and the end of the season, Sevilla's 32 points from 20 games were only the sixth-most. While they only lost twice in LaLiga during that run, they drew 11 times – no other team in the division reached double figures.
As the end of the season closed in, it seemed likely Lopetegui would leave, and to most fans it felt like the right time. Departing at that moment would've provided him and the club with a clean break and given his successor a full pre-season to get their ideas across.
A report from Marca in mid-May suggested Lopetegui was "on the precipice". A local reporter claimed the same day that their parting had been decided. But about 24 hours later, Monchi insisted the former Real Madrid and Barcelona goalkeeper would still be in charge for the new season.
Indeed, he was, but Lopetegui's attempts to re-energise the team fell flat. Sevilla began the season with one point from four games – they have never had fewer points after that many matches, with it their worst start in 41 years.
Lopetegui lasted another month, but back-to-back home defeats to Atletico and Borussia Dortmund – who were 4-1 winners – took him to the point of no return, his departure confirmed by an emotional on-pitch farewell to supporters.
Jorge Sampaoli, Lopetegui's replacement, has struggled to inspire a turnaround upon his return to the club and even had to contend with reports questioning his own future.
But the coaches cannot be entirely to blame.
Questionable transfer policy
It almost feels like sacrilege to criticise the work of Monchi – at Sevilla, anyway – but his second spell in charge of the club's transfers has been blighted by expensive (by their standards) disappointments.
It hasn't all been bad. Three successive top-four finishes was something they hadn't achieved since the 1950s, and the likes of Diego Carlos and Kounde will go down among Monchi's best ever deals.
But many signings have failed to live up to expectations.
Of the six players brought in during this season's first transfer window, three (Kasper Dolberg, Isco and Adnan Januzaj) have already left permanently or on loan; one has struggled significantly (Tanguy Nianzou); the other two (Marcao and Alex Telles) have spent more time injured than not.
Thirty-six players have been signed between the end of the 2018-19 season and the start of 2023, but you could argue only 11 have been successes. There's also been a focus on more experienced players, so the squad now has 11 players aged 30 or older. Unsurprisingly, the average age of their starting XI (28.9 years) is the oldest in LaLiga this term.
Obviously, it's easy to be critical with hindsight, and it should be highlighted Sevilla rely on player turnover to generate much of their revenue. It's always a risky strategy and that the club has had so much success with this model over the past 20 years speaks to Monchi's excellence.
But this is probably the trickiest period Sevilla have had since returning to LaLiga in 2001. Sure, recent results have hoisted them up to 13th, but they're still only two points above the bottom three and nothing about this season has suggested the squad is mentally tough, which would be a worry if they still found themselves perilously close to the drop zone in the final weeks of the campaign.
The last thing Sevilla need right now is a trip to Camp Nou, where they've not beaten Barca in LaLiga since 2002.
On the other hand, an unlikely positive result could be a game-changer as the club build for a 2023 that fans hope brings a bit more cheer than 2022.