‘I can’t hear you,’ the celebrating Real Madrid captain, Sergio Ramos, gestured to the home fans after converting a provocative Panenka penalty last Wednesday, sparking a comeback that saw the visitors snatch a late 3-3 draw in his side’s Copa del Rey clash at Sevilla. Just four days on, the centre back returned to see the Ramon Sanchez Pisjuan again fall eerily silent – another penalty, this time from Ronaldo, looked to have secured a 1-0 win for Los Blancos in what was to be their 41st consecutive unbeaten game. But then, five minutes from time, the ex-Sevillista and apparent narrative-grabber, Ramos, popped up to turn a freekick into his own net before Stevan Jovetic curled the stoppage time winner past a flailing Keylor Navas. If he couldn’t before, Sergio could definitely hear the crowd now – and so could the rest of Andalusia. The stadium was rocking, and the press got to work on announcing that a title-race was back on – There is a league!
Sevilla manager, Jorge Sampaoli must relish a challenge. He adopted a team that had just won the Europa League for a third consecutive season under the well-respected Unai Emery – in a league that can seem suffocated by a Real/Barcelona duopoly, there isn’t much room for improvement. However, the sunny city sitting in the south of Spain now find themselves just one point behind leaders, Real Madrid (who themselves have a game in hand), and in the midst of a relatively uncommon Champions League knock out round berth.
Can the Chilean boss really lead Los Rojiblancos to a title tilt? La Liga’s title hasn’t left the capital or Barcelona for 13 years now, but Sampaoli, a graduate from the school of Marcelo Bielsa, has built a career on swapping an underdog’s bark for bite.
Sampaoli’s trademark high tempo, high pressing philosophy first raised European eyebrows as his Universidad de Chile side claimed the Copa Sudamericana in style, their first ever continental trophy in 2011. He soon graduated from La U to bring his home nation, Chile, their first ever Copa America trophy in 2015. Jorge is a man with a knack for firsts.
Watching Sevilla bamboozle the European champions on Sunday was reminiscent of the fleeting, barnstorming days of Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. In the space of two years, the grand master brought mesmerising football to the Basque Country. Jonathan Wilson wrote that players “speak of becoming aware of another dimension, of somehow grasping the inner workings of football.” The former Chile manager demands nothing but perfection – players become artisan machines, briefly, then often tire and in some cases resent their demanding boss.
Against Los Blancos, the Andalusians looked very mechanised, their hard-pressing game was characterised by the formidable Steven N’Zonzi – not a machine, but an “octopus,” as Sampaoli put it after the game. N’Zonzi was at the club prior to the Chilean’s arrival, but is in the midst of the season of his life. The Frenchman could be spotted chasing down opponents as far forward as inside their own penalty area, opting to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible instead of simply breaking down attacks.
Sunday night’s clash also illustrated how reactionary the Copa Sudamericana and Copa America winner’s tactics can be, with the team shifting seamlessly from a 3-4-3 variant to 4-2-3-1. Furthermore, there is plenty to read into the impression the tactician leaves on his opponents – with Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane unexpectedly switching to three centre backs to counter his opposite number.
Bielsa was much more uncompromising, and often wholly committed to his own dynamic 3-3-3-1 formation. Sampaoli however, has adapted to the intensity of Europe, and seems more than capable of keeping competitors guessing though his own tactical flexibility.
The guile of the Sevillistas was astounding – this was only the second time Real had lost a match from a leading position with five minutes to play in the club’s entire history, the grandstand finish was an especially tricky feat given the preceding 85 minutes of heavy pressure and concentration
La Liga may be a stretch, for now. And still questions abound over the creativity of his side’s apparent engine room of a midfield. But South America’s most decorated Bielsista has arrived on the shores of Europe with a plan, and a pragmatic approach to his tactical inspiration’s philosophy. Perhaps by the end of the decade Jorge will have spawned his very own generation of followers. The student is fast becoming a master. Brace yourself for the dawn of the Sampaolista movement.