It has been a difficult start to the season for Athletic Bilbao, hindered by a small squad and the added pressures of a Champions League jaunt, last season’s fourth-placed side had won only 1 of their opening 8 games, positioning them out of the bottom 3 by goal difference only. In the past fortnight they have experienced something of a resurgence, defeating Almeria 0-1 and then on Sunday they achieved what only one side, champions Atletico Madrid, before them have managed so far, they beat Sevilla.
It was a frenetic game in the San Mames, with chances frequent for both teams but Aritz Aduriz’s superb volley from a Markel Susaeta cross proved to be decisive despite the visitors’ attempts to break Athletic down. Manager Unai Emery was disappointed, “we’ve been below the level we’re capable of”, he said, “Athletic took a lot from very little and did their job well, but the level of play today was very demanding.”
Emery won the Europa League with Sevilla in May and the level the manager was speaking of was the standard of performance that had seen them gain the opportunity to climb to the top of La Liga heading in to Sunday’s trip to Bilbao. Granted wins had come against four members of the bottom five in Deportivo, Cordoba, Elche and Real Sociedad, but victories over Villarreal and Getafe, both sitting in the top half of the table, had indicated they were developing the consistency that last season cost them a top 4 spot. Sevilla are already 12 points better off than they were at this stage last season
Harshly sacked by Valencia after managing three consecutive third-place La Liga finishes before experiencing a disastrous spell at Spartak Moscow where he was sacked after just 26 matches, Emery has been on a drive to restore his reputation with Sevilla, inheriting a struggling team from Michel in January 2013 before guiding them to a fifth place finish in his first full season. The Europa League triumph over Benfica marked Sevilla’s first trophy since the days of Frederic Kanoute, Dani Alves, Jesus Navas and Luis Fabiano earned them consecutive triumphs in 2006 and 2007.
Similarly to his time at Valencia, Emery has also been operating under a strict transfer budget, impeded by debts in the region of €100 million and the conviction of club president Jose Maria Del Nido for fraud in December 2012.
This summer Alberto Moreno, to Liverpool, and Ivan Rakitic, to Barcelona, were both sold for £16 million as the club recouped £45 million to an £18 million spend. The £4.8 million Grzegorz Krychowiak from Reims represented their most expensive signing. It was Emery’s second summer of thrift after last year receiving a total of £80 million to the £30 million spent on the likes of Vicente Iborra, Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro, shrewd deals that saw the likes of Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Gary Medel adequately replaced for a fraction of the fee they were sold for.
Bacca is this season’s top scorer with 7 and has 28 since arriving in Seville from Club Brugge in July 2013. His good form has kept last season’s top scorer Gameiro out of the side since the Frenchman returned from a knee injury at the end of September.
The same type of astute working of the transfer market and intelligent scouting also struck deals for Stephane Mbia, signed on a free from Queens Park Rangers after impressing on loan at the Sanchez Pijuan last season, and Krychowiak who has appeared in every match Sevilla have played so far and has been excellent since arriving this summer after two years in France’s Ligue 1. Together they have forged a combative, physical midfield partnership (only four teams have picked up more bookings and Sevilla commit the most fouls at 17.3 per game) that offers the defence solid protection as well as a solid platform for the attack to thrive. Mbia, who struggled with disciplinary issues during his time at QPR, has been a revelation, adding attacking impetus with surging midfield runs from deep. It has all meant that Rakitic, last season’s star performer, has not been missed.
Vincente Iborra also offers a steely defensive presence after five years at the heart of Levante’s engine room while Daniel Carrico, rescued from a torrid spell in England with Reading, can also step up from his usual home in central defence to offer more protection in the midfield. It is that array of options that is central to Emery’s versatility, usually fielding a 4-2-3-1, a solid midfield pair allows full-backs Coke and Benoit Tremoulinas to charge forward down the flanks, providing width as Vitolo, Gerard Duelofeu, Aleix Vidal and Denis Suarez, the leading assist-maker on 3, link-up to make a fluid and attractive attacking forward line in support of Bacca.
Emery’s side has also taken 5 points from their opening 3 games of their Europa League defence, sitting them pretty on top of Group G. They host Standard Liege on Thursday but Emery’s priority will probably now lie on domestic issues and the emerging opportunity to guide Los Rojiblancos to their first Champions League berth since they last made it there in 2010. Emery fought strict financial restraints at Valencia to consistently qualify and one of Spain’s most under-appreciated coaches now has a target on doing the same with Seville.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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