Thursday’s Seville derby between Sevilla and Betis marked the return of La Liga in Spain, but what can Barça learn from it as they prepare to visit Mallorca on Saturday?
After 93 days since the last Eibar v Real Sociedad on March 10, La Liga finally returned on Thursday as the world continues to defeat a coronavirus pandemic that has sadly caused many victims. But there was hardly a better way to commemorate the return of the vitality of La Liga than with a Seville derby. In spite of the disheartening sight of seeing an empty Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán for the historic clash of the two fierce rivals of the Andalusian capital, it was a fitting clash to kick off this new normality in Spain.
In the end, Sevilla FC achieved a vital and encouraging 2–0 victory, with second-half goals by Lucas Ocampos, from the penalty spot, and Fernando Reges, assisted by Ocampos himself after a corner kick. Coach Julen Lopetegui, who seems to have found the perfect formula for Sevilla, had much clearer ideas than his counterpart Rubi, who managed a less inspired Betis with questionable personality. Despite the enormous technical quality of Betis, with the likes of Nabil Fekir, Sergio Canales and even Barça loanee Carles Aleñá, there was no depth and threat from the flanks, and little ability to break the lines.
Sevilla got a deserved and convincing win to cement their place in the top three in the table. Meanwhile, Betis continue to have the same flat sensations they transmitted before the break. But are there any conclusions that can be drawn from the Seville Derby, which kicked off a hectic month with games every single day? What can the other teams learn from the opening post-pandemic fixture in La Liga?
Teams don’t lose their essence
For better or worse, sides will continue to have the same recognisable traits they had before the stop of football. The style of play is not lost, obviously as managers remain the same. But, surprisingly, the virtues and weaknesses of each continue to be as highlighted as before. For instance, Sevilla had a well-defined system and structure, with aggressiveness in the final third through Lucas Ocampos and ex-blaugrana Munir El Haddadi, even if they sometimes lacked some creativity when building up. Still, Julen Lopetegui’s job is commendable and highly noticeable. Even with set pieces, with Sevilla continuously aiming at the near post to create goalscoring opportunities.
❛ We were in low-risk zones, they pressed us well and we weren’t clinical in danger zones ❜
Betis’ coach on the loss against Sevilla
Real Betis, though, were the complete opposite: huge quality to circulate the ball, but almost non-existent capacity to imbalance the Nervionenses‘ organised block. Betis had many inventive players in the centre, especially left-footed ones, but no one to offer runs in behind or out wide. Most actions had to be solved through individual brilliance rather than by generating positional and numerical superiorities or 2v1s. Nabil Fekir, their most gifted star, always had to receive with his back to goal, turn around, and then take on at least two defenders as there was no synergy or chemistry between the collective.
Statistically, Betis had more completed passes ( 415 to Sevilla’s 318 ), and even more take-ons ( 16 successful out of 21 attempts, from Sevilla’s 9 out of 21 ). But it was the locals who had more passes in the final third ( 97 to Betis’ 70 ), made more crosses ( 25 to 11 ) and more tackles ( 39 to 31 ). This data already tells a lot about both: the patience on the ball from Betis, even if excessive at times, compared to the decisiveness and clarity from Sevilla in both areas.
Mental strength is the key
Sevilla had a colossal self-belief in Lopetegui’s coherent ideas, while Betis had no confidence in others and themselves. The contrasting competitiveness became apparent when analysing the standout figures from the duel. Argentinian Lucas Ocampos seemed extra motivated as he recorded one goal and one assist, as well as being named Man of the Match. The only disappointment for him was that he couldn’t receive a standing ovation from a packed Sánchez Pizjuán.
Diego Carlos continued to demonstrate that he’s one of the centre-backs of La Liga, while his 21-year-old partner Jules Koundé was absolutely perfect in his positioning, aerially and in winning 7 out of 8 duels. The mental, physical and qualitative superiority from this defensive partnership was overwhelming. The likes of Fernando and Joan Jordán were sensational from midfield too, while Munir El Haddadi was very inspired in spite of not having been a regular starter this season.
❛ Overall, Sevilla were better than us
The players are going to be very fatigued, it’s more about mentality ❜
Betis was pure technique, but very little hunger or cohesion. The Sevilla footballers were far more ambitious, stimulated and focused, which is by no means easy after such a long break. With the uncertainty and unpredictability of these first fixtures, having a clear mind and a strong mentality could be fundamental to compete again to one’s full capacity.
Technique is not lost
While we could all have thought that the first matches would be very rusty and with players being very imprecise, the truth is that the technique and accuracy seems to have barely suffered from this break. Obviously the month of preparation and trainings has largely contributed to this, but, at the same time, the on-pitch coordination and technical movements haven’t been affected by inactivity.
Mentally, tactically and physically, Sevilla looked significantly superior to their historic adversaries Betis | Photo by Kiko Hurtado via Imago
It is undeniable that playing at 100%, especially in terms of physique, is almost impossible in these initial weeks. But this gets compensated by a talent and class that never disappears. Whether tactics are poor or not, the likes of Fekir, Canales or Ocampos continue to retain their magic and finesse. Similarly, technical teams like Barcelona could get less affected by the lack of actions than others. The defensive sides may suffer physically, but the quality of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Antoine Griezmann or Frenkie de Jong will continue to be appreciated by fans.
Substitutions can make an impact
No, Sevilla’s game wasn’t won through substitutions, nor did any of the goalscorers start from the bench. But still, the infinite amount of talent from the Blanquirrojos must have been scary for rivals. La Liga, as the other leagues, has allowed five substitutions per team per match, as long as they are divided in a maximum of three different blocks, excluding half-time. Moreover, 23 players can make the squad lists, instead of the usual 18. The aim is to protect the footballers’ health and fitness.
❛ If there weren’t five substitutions, we would have finished with nine men each because it was such a demanding game ❜
Sevilla, who have an insanely deep squad, took advantage of their five substitutions: Éver Banega, Youssef En-Nesyri, Suso, Franco Vázquez and Sergio Escudero were subbed on in the second half. Not a bad bench to have. Betis used the likes of Diego Lainez, Loren Morón or the veteran Joaquín Sánchez to change the dynamics of the game, but they couldn’t fix all of the Verdiblancos‘ problems. All in all, it looks like the teams with technical quality, a deep squad, and, most importantly, mental toughness and clarity could be the biggest winners from this return. Only time will tell, though.
3 Players Barcelona can sell to ease their financial burden
A debt of €1.173 billion, more than €700 million of which is short term, has sent FC Barcelona down a rabbit hole. The club’s gross mismanagement on both sporting as well as financial levels is no longer a secret. The former board of directors, led by president Josep Maria Bartomeu has consistently spent inordinate amounts of money on ludicrous signings. Most of which have come to bite the club back.
Now, they find themselves in a stickier situation than ever, with an astronomically high wage bill and multiple liabilities to clubs across Europe for signings. In addition, Lionel Messi’s future at Barcelona hangs in the balance. If the club are to conduct any business whatsoever, it will have to begin by offloading a few players.
After Ronald Koeman arrived at the club following the disastrous end to the 2019-20 season, a few key names have already been sold. As the initiation of a rebuilding process, Luis Suarez, Arturo Vidal, Nelson Semedo, and Ivan Rakitic were all sold. However, these departures have hardly put a dent in Barcelona’s debt.
That being said, Barça Universal takes a look at three potential sales that might help the club with their finances. Players who may not be key parts of the sporting project long term and whose departures will allow for some breathing room in the wage structure, and allow Barcelona to sign a huge talent such as Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland.
It would be a rather disappointing conclusion to what was potentially a wonderful signing. Samuel Umtiti, after signing for Barcelona, was rapidly rising up the ranks as one of the world’s best centre-backs. After his move from Lyon in 2016, he was flying high and quickly displayed why he staked a claim into the Blaugrana’s starting lineup.
But the Frenchman’s fairytale would come to an abrupt halt. After a fantastic second season with Barcelona, Umtiti suffered an injury to his left knee in 2018, just a month before the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The defender risked himself to represent his nation, and it ended up being a positive decision as France lifted the coveted prize with Umtiti as one of the key players. He decided not to have surgery as he felt it would worsen his issues.
Ever since then, despite his initial impressions, the injury woes have persisted and have led to many complications. Recurring issues with his meniscus, followed by foot injuries and many other issues, led to a massive decline in form and physicality. The centre-back was never really able to return to his brilliant best. While coach Ronald Koeman does favour the Frenchman, he is definitely not a consistently reliable presence at the back anymore.
Umtiti’s current deal with Barcelona expires in 2023, and given that he is 27 years old may work in favour of the club. He is not too old, and while he is injury-free, he could fetch Barcelona at least some money. The World Cup winner at his best is a fine player, but given the current circumstances, Barcelona can no longer afford to leave things up to chance.
Philippe Coutinho came to Spain with tremendous promise for the fans, backed up by a huge smile on his face. He was genuinely happy to be where he was. His dream of playing for Barcelona was finally a reality. But that optimism sadly did not last far too long.
The midfielder slowed down tremendously in his first full season with the Catalans. He looked out of sorts and lost in strange and unfamiliar systems. When he arrived in January of 2018 from Liverpool, he became Barcelona’s most expensive signing of all time for over €140 million. After two bad seasons and a loan spell at Bayern Munich, he was finally beginning to show small signs of promise under Ronald Koeman this term.
However, the Brazilian has also been sidelined due to a lengthy injury this season, which has extended into worse news. In addition to that, Liverpool are reportedly one of the clubs that Barcelona still owe money to in variables for Coutinho’s transfer. They will be keen on avoiding any more liabilities. And since Coutinho has obviously not come anywhere close to providing a return on Barcelona’s investment in him, his time at the club may be up.
He is also one of the highest earners in the squad, therefore selling him might be imperative.
The midfielder turned right-back has been a polarising figure in the Barcelona fans’ eyes for quite some time now. The 29-year-old’s current contract with Barcelona is set to run out next year and has a release clause of a massive €500 million. Roberto has made some amazing memories with the club, most prominently, his iconic goal against PSG in 2017’s famous ‘Remontada’.
However, since then he has been more or less showing that he is mostly just a utility player. The Spaniard has been unremarkable in a fair few games and has often made rather costly errors. Over time however, he had certainly become one of the heavyweights in the dressing room, which obviously reflects in his salary. This season, he has been struggling with a thigh injury, which he recovered from but then relapsed.
He was a valuable asset to have in the absence of a full fledged right-back who has the so-called ‘Barcelona DNA’. However, with the arrival of Sergino Dest, parting ways with Roberto makes sense from both sporting and financial perspectives.
While Roberto might not be among the players who have constantly underperformed but selling him might be a logical decision for Barcelona because as a player who can play in multiple positions across the pitch, and is in his theoretical prime, the Spaniard will be in demand. Football today requires for players to adapt in various positions and roles, and we have seen Roberto’s capability with the same.
Additionally, as one of the captains of the team, the La Masia graduate might be able to lease off a more than decent amount of cash. Several top teams in the market, including Juventus, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and PSG, among others, might be vouching for a right-back soon and could look towards Sergi Roberto.
However, there are also more players like Jordi Alba, Junior Firpo and Neto who could be smart sales. Alba has also been declining rapidly but his offensive output has not yet been replaced. Firpo is already linked to a move away to various clubs after failing to impress at Barcelona. In a nutshell, the Blaugrana certainly have options to sell, in order to continue the rebuild effectively. Easing the financial load by selling and eventually making way for more sensible transfers will be vital for this transitioning side.