They say it’s important to always move forwards in life, to never go back. This is true in most cases but not so much in football. Players often return to former teams either to try and rediscover their best form or to wind down their career. But what happens when you never feel ‘at home’ in any of the clubs you played for?
For Steven N’Zonzi that’s the very problem he’s facing. For many outsiders it appears his time at Sevilla is the best of his career. And when you look at the level of performances, particularly under Jorge Sampaoli, it’s hard to disagree. N’Zonzi’s reputation skyrocketed and he was being talked about as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.
This week, in an interview with France Football, he basically said his Sevilla career was over. “My future is clearly away from Seville. The only thing that disappoints me is the way it has ended.” So, what happened to cause such a public break up?
Tough start at Sevilla
N’Zonzi never truly settled in Spain. He arrived with a solid reputation behind him but most saw the Frenchman as a destroyer and nothing more. At Sevilla, after overcoming his issues with the heat, N’Zonzi began to show what a talented footballer he is. Comfortable on the ball, able to drive forward or sit and shield, N’Zonzi was their midfield lynchpin.
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And that initial six-month period was tough, and remains tough for anyone moving to another country. The weather is a factor, the language also, the culture, everything. Some people adapt faster than others but if your mind is in the right place, you’ll get there eventually. N’Zonzi showed signs of that as he played a key role in Sevilla lifting yet another Europa League trophy.
Behind the scenes the player wasn’t comfortable. In fact, even before coach Unai Emery announced he was leaving, N’Zonzi already had his heart set on a move away. The performances on the pitch didn’t indicate any unhappiness but off the pitch, his mind was clear. He told Monchi, club president Jose Castro and new coach Sampaoli he was seeking pastures new.
Sampaoli convinces an unhappy N’Zonzi to stay
The Argentine coach knew that replacing Emery wouldn’t be easy. N’Zonzi was someone he felt he could get more out of, build his midfield around. The original plan was to force Steven to stay, to let him know that he was important to the team and hope he changed his mind. Sampaoli disagreed and after speaking to the player gave him a couple of days off to think it over.
Sampaoli let N’Zonzi know of his plans, his intentions to take Sevilla to another level and how important the player was to that becoming a reality. After spending some time with his family N’Zonzi returned to training and handed his full support to the new coach and his ambitious plans.
We saw the best of N’Zonzi under Sampaoli. That progression witnessed under Emery was now being transformed into a world class midfielder. The comparisons to Patrick Vieira had substance to them. There was a confidence to N’Zonzi’s play. Instead of doing his job and going unnoticed, he was now standing out – even when matched up against the best teams in Spain. He signed a new deal, upping his buyout clause but not to an extortionate amount. Everything was going well.
A new contract but the same end game
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Those are the immortal words of Uncle Ben. Not the rice guy but Peter Parker’s relative.
For N’Zonzi, he failed to grasp the second part of that phrase. Now one of the star players he felt untouchable and as such was given a lot more leeway by Sampaoli. He spent a lot of free time enjoying himself with Samir Nasri and Adil Rami. They are two players with a reputation for partying hard and getting by on their natural talent alone. Maybe this lifestyle made N’Zonzi feel more comfortable in Spain but it isn’t one you can maintain for long without feeling the consequences.
With all N’Zonzi’s friends leaving, he felt he was next
After a wonderful second season with Sevilla came the summer transfer window. Monchi, who alongside Sampaoli had fought to keep N’Zonzi at the club, left. Then so did Sampaoli. In the same window his two best friends at the club – Nasri and Rami – both moved on. It felt fitting that N’Zonzi would be next and he asked to be sold.
N’Zonzi’s head was being filled with ideas of playing for Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea. Maybe he had outgrown Sevilla, or simply felt that he could find happiness playing elsewhere. But for all that interest and speculation not one offer was made for his services.
Unhappy at the lack of developments, N’Zonzi had no choice but to stay. However everyone at the club was soon aware of how little the player cared to be there. Maybe he expected an arm around the shoulder or some sympathy to his situation, the same Monchi and Sampaoli did. That didn’t happen and the player’s attitude made it difficult for others to make an effort with him. If you cry wolf about leaving for long enough, eventually the act begins to tire.
A new system and poor attitude made the situation difficult
Eduardo Berizzo has a different style to Sampaoli and likes to see his players earn his respect instead of relying on previous reputations alone. Cut from the same cloth as Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino, hard work and effort are basic requirements. N’Zonzi, after having it easy under Sampaoli, wasn’t willing to change.
N’Zonzi’s poor attitude in training began to upset his teammates. Under Berizzo, Sevilla adopted a more structured system and one which limits N’Zonzi’s freedom in the midfield. This was just another reason to down tools, to sulk.
The situation reached breaking point during Sevilla’s important clash with Liverpool at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan. With the team 3-0 down at the break, Berizzo needed to make changes. N’Zonzi was having an awful time and didn’t take kindly to be pulled up about it. A brief argument followed before N’Zonzi stormed out of the dressing room – and the stadium.
Sevilla would go on to complete an amazing comeback and draw 3-3. In the aftermath of the match it was revealed that Berizzo was battling cancer. Some even attributed the comeback to finding out about their coach’s condition, even though most knew before kick-off.
A fallout, missing training and losing the support of his teammates
The following day N’Zonzi didn’t turn up to training. He was still angry at being blamed, in part, for such a poor opening 45 minutes against Liverpool. And since that moment Berizzo hasn’t recalled him to the first team squad.
It’s hard to envisage what was going through N’Zonzi’s mind. Did he assume just because he’s a good player that he’d be brought back in without any questions being asked? The stance from the coaching staff was a strong one. And if N’Zonzi felt his teammates would be in his corner he was greatly mistaken.
When you underperform in training, disrespect the club that pays your wages and then refuse to apologise to a coach suffering from health problems, not many are willing to fight in your corner. Even when the team visited Berizzo in hospital following his operation, N’Zonzi wasn’t with them.
N’Zonzi’s fee might look cheap but he still has a lot to learn
The current situation is ugly. Sevilla are without a key member of their squad but there’s no way back for N’Zonzi at the club. Even his €40m buyout clause, which a few months ago was deemed cheap, probably won’t need to be activated. Any fair, reasonable offers will be accepted.
Most rival fans will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of landing a fine footballer for between £25m-£30m. However, unless N’Zonzi learns from his mistakes and accepts his share of the blame, he feels like damaged goods. Ask yourself why none of the big sides followed up their interest with a bid.
There’s a reason Everton are his most likely destination instead of say Juventus. Arsene Wenger is a huge fan and might see N’Zonzi as a person he can get the best from. Maybe he just needs to feel important again? We all saw last season what N’Zonzi is capable of but he needs to match the performances on the pitch with professionalism off it.
Last chance for N’Zonzi to make it to the top
Everybody deserves a second chance and that obviously includes N’Zonzi. He turns 29 in just over a week’s time and the chance to play for an elite side is slipping away. He needs the right coach, the right environment and a bit more maturity if he’s to achieve that goal.
In terms of talent, he’s ready. But if he doesn’t manage to sort out his attitude then he’ll follow the path of Nasri and Rami in being players who never quite reached the heights they should have. There’s still time for N’Zonzi to turn the situation around but for that reason it’s imperative he chooses his next club wisely.