Sevilla owe unbeaten start to Marcelino’s defensive improvements

Sevilla held Barcelona to an entertaining 0-0 draw on Saturday night at Camp Nou. The Andalusian club’s fifth clean sheet from the last six games represents an extraordinary transformation under the stewardship of new Coach Marcelino Garcia Toral.

Having already scored 21 goals in four home games this campaign, and 13 against Sevilla in the last three corresponding La Liga fixtures, Barcelona were strong favourites to overcome Sevilla this weekend. However, an impressive rearguard action, with ever-improving goalkeeper Javi Varas at the helm, kept the Spanish champions at bay. In what is the 29-year-old’s first season as a No 1 in the top flight, his injury-time penalty save from Lionel Messi allowed los Rojiblancos to return to southern Spain with a point.

While Marcelino’s 4-4-1-1 did not vary much compared to how Sevilla lined up under previous Coaches Manolo Jiminez and Gregorio Manzano, the most significant difference was the space between the defence and midfield. In previous recent clashes between the two sides, Sevilla have often set out openly or deployed a holding midfielder such as Didier Zokora to man-mark Messi.

Barcelona vs. Sevilla, October 2010

Barcelona v Sevilla, October 2011

In both of the above images, Barcelona are counter-attacking. By reducing the gap between defence and midfield, however, Sevilla became less suspect to its threat. Combined with the heroics of Varas, this provided a solid foundation for the Andalusians to continue their unbeaten run.

The performance against Barcelona was indicative of wider improvements under Marcelino. Despite finishing fifth, Sevilla had the fourth worst defensive record in the Primera Division last season and conceded more goals than relegated Hercules and Deportivo La Coruna.

Since the 46-year-old’s arrival in the summer, only high-flying Levante have conceded fewer goals. Credit must go to Marcelino for the improvement with largely the same squad as previous Coach Manzano. The only notable addition to the defence is Bosnian centre-back Emir Saphic who, whilst unavailable on Saturday, has brought much-needed steadiness to the back-line. In his place was Federico Fazio whose otherwise immaculate performance was only sullied by the concession of that late controversial penalty for his trip on Andres Iniesta.

It would be unfair to attribute the team’s improvement just to the defence. Speaking after Saturday’s battling 0-0 draw, the newly installed Coach was quick to praise the endeavour across the pitch.

“I congratulate all the players for their tremendous effort. If we had not given the image of solidarity and commitment to the whole game, it would have been impossible to leave here with even one point.”

Key to Marcelino’s game plan was the work-rate of his midfielders. He combined renowned grafters such as Gary Medel and Pietr Trochowski alongside younger players with plenty to prove such as 18-year-old Jose Campana. The midfield afforded the defence greater security, something that was rarely evident last season.

However, the team’s work remains one in progress. In any shift to strengthen defensive solidity, it is inevitable that creative flair is sacrificed and with just eight goals scored this campaign, Sevilla have struggled to break down opposing teams with the same fluidity as previous seasons. Four wins and four draws represents an encouraging start, but translating those draws into wins will be the next step for Marcelino.

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