Sevilla Alavés tactics

Deportivo Alavés – Sevilla FC: Sarabia and Promes turn around Sevilla’s fortunes against rock-solid Alavés (1-1)

Alavés dominated the first half with an uncharacteristic pressing scheme on Sevilla’s midfielders, effectively disconnecting Sevilla’s midfield from their attack. During the second half, Sevilla substitutes Quincy Promes and Pablo Sarabia turned the match around by helping their team find their usual offensive mechanisms.

Tactical analysis by José Pérez.

Without a doubt Alavés, coached by Abelardo Fernández, are one of the breakthrough teams of LaLiga. The secret to their success can be somewhat hard to decipher when looking at their underlying numbers. Bafflingly, Alavés have the third lowest expected goal difference in La Liga yet they currently sit at the fourth place of the table.

Most of this huge overperformance in terms of Expected Goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. can be explained through their devastatingly effective set piece game. Alavés are third in goals scored and third in goals conceded from set piece situations. They also overperform when it comes to Expected Goals conceded from open play. This is a common characteristic of teams that play very defensively, which place more bodies in between shooter and goal than usual (Burnley fans are awfully familiar with this concept…).

Against Sevilla, Alavés used a 4-1-4-1 shape instead of their usual 4-4-2 formation. This is a special setup that Abelardo employs exclusively against the most dangerous offenses in La Liga; he used it previously against Celta de Vigo, FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid.

In defense, the usual suspects started, with goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco, center backs Ximo Navarro and Victor Laguardia, and fullbacks Rubén Duarte and Martín Aguirregabiria all earning a start. Central midfield featured a trio of Tomás Pina, Mubarak Wakaso, and captain Manu García. Finally, wingers Ibai Gómez and Jony Rodríguez accompanied the lone striker Jonathan Calleri.

Sevilla’s attractive offense

Pablo Machín’s Sevilla is thriving in what is the craziest and most competitive La Liga in over a decade. Machín has created the second-best offense in La Liga, changing his previous 3-4-2-1 system – which achieved great success with Girona last season – into a 3-5-2 shape that optimizes for the available talent at Sevilla.

Against Alavés, however, Sevilla had to deal with the key injury of veteran Jesús Navas, who is enjoying a second youth as a wing-back in Machín’s system. Sevilla’s starting eleven featured the usual 3-5-2 shape and the nominal starters in defensive positions: Tomáš Vaclík at goal, Daniel Carriço, Simon Kjaer and Sergi Gómez as center-backs. In central midfield the lovely trio of Roque Mesa, Banega and Franco Vázquez was deployed, as key offensive midfielder Pablo Sarabia was rested. On the wings, Gabriel Mercado played as right wing-back instead of the injured Navas, while Julien Escudero played as left wing-back. Up front, the deadly striker duo of Wissam Ben Yedder and André Silva.

Alavés pressing disconnects Sevilla’s attack

Alavés is one of the deepest defensive blocks A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. in La Liga, with almost 80% of their defensive actions taking place in their own half of the pitch. However, in this game they preferred to press Sevilla’s buildup phase more aggressively. Striker Calleri and wingers Jony and Ibai would chase Sevilla’s center-backs, and the fullbacks would aggressively push up whenever a Sevilla wing-back had the ball.

Most importantly, Alavés’ midfield trio constantly pushed up and marked Sevilla’s own midfield trio. This is arguably the main reason why Abelardo chose a 4-1-4-1 scheme against Sevilla. Most poor controls by Sevilla midfielders or poor passes into them would be punished, with Alavés uncharacteristically recovering the ball very often in the attacking half of the pitch.

Sevilla's 3-5-2 structure in possession against Alavés's 4-1-4-1 pressing block.Sevilla’s 3-5-2 structure in possession against Alavés’s 4-1-4-1 pressing block.

Sevilla’s attack was also hindered by the key absences of Navas and Sarabia. When attacking, Sevilla depends heavily on Navas’ timing and speed to attack spaces, and he also provides an outlet for left-to-right diagonal long passes from Banega and center-back Gómez. Sevilla lost both attacking movements without Navas, as his replacement – Mercado, a central defender by nature – was not as fast and aggressive. Meanwhile, without Sarabia, Sevilla had lost a vital link between central midfield and the strikers, as well as a press-resistant player who could might have been able to break the Alavés press.

Sevilla was a team split in half, with center-backs and central midfielders struggling to link up with the strikers up front. The team was often reduced to sending long balls to Silva and Ben Yedder, hoping for the best. Even though Silva won several aerial duels throughout the first half, he and Ben Yedder were too isolated from the rest of the team to consistently generate create good chances. Ultimately, Sevilla finished the first half with only three shots, none of them on target.

Alavés overloads Sevilla wing-backs with the help of Calleri

Perhaps the biggest weakness of Sevilla’s 3-5-2 shape, is that wingbacks are the only wide players in the system. Therefore, they often find themselves in one-versus-two situations when defending the wings. Alavés tried to take advantage of this weakness by pitting their flank-players – Aguirregabiria and Ibai on right, Duarte and Jony on the left – against the lone Sevilla wing-backs. Sevilla’s conservative defensive block – with wing-backs being less aggressive than usual and staying closer to their center-backs – often prevented such overloads.

This is when striker Calleri – arguably Alavés’s man of the match – made his mark. Calleri constantly drifted wide to create numerical superiorities and help his teammates overload Sevilla’s wings, thus putting winger Ibai and Jony in constant crossing positions. Calleri also won several individual duels in the center lanes despite being outnumbered by Sevilla center backs, quickly flicking the ball to his wingers right after.

Ultimately, Calleri’s persistence and Alavés pressing paid off. Sevilla lost an aerial duel after a goal kick, which bounced all the way to an attentive Calleri. The striker then delivered a tense low cross that flew past Vaclík into Jony, who shot point blank into Sevilla’s goal. A well-deserved lead for Alavés going into halftime.

Promes and Sarabia help Sevilla become their usual selves

As a reaction, Machín replaced midfielder Mesa (who had been cautioned in the first half) for Ibrahim Amadou. This fixed none of Sevilla’s first half issues, so the second half started as disappointingly as the first. Sevilla only managed to produce a single shot (off target) in the first fifteen minutes. By the 58th minute, Machín decided to shake things up by replacing an inoffensive Mercado for Quincy Promes. Even though he is an attacking, Promes has been putting in a few shifts as a wingback in Machín’s system.

Thanks to his speed and skill at one-versus-one, Promes could create danger with little help from his teammates as well as aggressively and effectively break into space. Promes revitalized the Sevillian attack, and thanks to his efforts Sevilla produced two consecutive big chances, in the 62nd and 64rd minutes.

By the 69th minute, Machín decided to double-down on the offensive avalanche by replacing central defender Kjaer with Pablo Sarabia. Amadou moved away from holding midfield to replace Kjaer at center-back, and Sevilla finally regained their characteristic midfield trio of Vázquez, Banega and Sarabia.

Sarabia, Promes and striker Silva joined forces to demolish Alavés’s left flank. Sarabia pinned down Alavés left back Duarte and Promes moved forward to skillfully exchange passes with Sarabia and create overloads.  When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Meanwhile, Silva slipped through the space between the Alavés left back and center back to cause further damage. Sarabia’s efforts finally paid off at the 77th minute, when he let loose a devastating low cross into the six-yard box. The attentive Ben Yedder slipped in between Alavés’s center-backs to put it into the goal and tie the game.

Abelardo tried to revitalize Alavés’s midfield and forward lines by replacing Wakaso with Darko Brašanac (74th minute) and Ibai with Rubén Sobrino (83rd minute). After Sevilla’s goal, Alavés tried to stage a final attacking wave by bombarding their opponents’ box with crosses and set pieces. Brašanac managed to even hit the post in one such action, but in the end Alavés were not able to stage to clinch another one of their now trademark injury time victories (they have achieved four draws and wins through injury-time goals this season).


Abelardo has created a simple but incredibly effective team, with an orderly defensive structure, great play on the wings, and an outstanding set piece game. Alavés are yet to be beaten in their home ground this season, and now they seem ready to take their defending to the next level by trying more proactive defending schemes. Their uncharacteristic pressing approach shut down Sevilla’s attack during the first half. Even though they were dominated through a significant spell of the second half, they managed to react strongly in the end and almost obtain yet another last-minute victory. With their strong collective structure, their set piece game, and their persistent, never-say-die attitude, Alavés might be able to continue beating expected goal models and remain in European spots.

As for Sevilla, Machín has created an excellent offensive system, but it is still one that depends heavily on certain key players. The absences of Navas, Banega or Sarabia are hard to compensate for, and Sevilla can look like a completely different (and much less effective) team without them. The next step in Sevilla’s development as a team is to add further nuances and mechanisms to their tactical system so that they don’t depend so heavily on these players for buildup and chance creation.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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