Captain Ivan Rakitic gathered his men and turned to the north. A couple of hours earlier, a banner had been hung across that end declaring “unity makes strength”, their version of the Marseillaise thundering round, and they were still singing in there now. Sevilla’s exhausted players stood before the fans, all those swirling flags, and listened. It was 11 o’clock and it was loud but the lyrics weren’t the same now and they hadn’t come to celebrate; they had come to apologise. “We had to,” Rakitic said. They had been beaten again, this time by Barcelona. Four weeks into the season and they have a single point, a crisis coming.
As the final minutes of a 3-0 defeat played out on Saturday night, the game long since lost, Sevilla’s coach Julen Lopetegui had stood on the touchline, blinking into the lights. Now, instead of heading down the tunnel out of there, his players stood on the pitch, silently facing the music. Suso bowed slightly, sorry. Hands were held up, palms together. They were there for some time, well after Barcelona had gone. The sporting director joined them, eventually guiding them to the dressing room. In the north end, the song appealed for testicular fortitude; in the other three stands, to where the players had turned next, it was different.
There had been moments, fault lines showing during the match, and the final whistle was met with whistles of their own from the fans. Behind Lopetegui’s bench, some turned to the directors’ box shouting “Out! Out! Out!” and later a group gathered by the gates chanting that they wanted the president José Castro gone. Inside, it sounded like there were calls for Lopetegui to leave too. By the end, many of the 40,257 had already departed, but that didn’t stop the whistles being deafening. Some pulled out white hankies and waved them in disapproval.
“I can understand that our fans are angry with us; it’s totally normal,” Rakitic said. “We too are really angry. I ask for forgiveness, but also patience and trust. His coach was trying to put it all into context: “The photo is ugly, I know that,” Lopetegui admitted. The problem is that the broader context may not help much, inviting the conclusion that their problems are not so unpredictable.
“The plan was going perfectly,” he insisted and, if by the time he said it that sounded a little empty, if by the end Barcelona might have got more than the three they did, he had a point. “Sevilla surprised us,” Xavi Hernández admitted and, with Isco making his first start, they flew at Barça.
On four minutes, Isco clipped a lovely pass into Rakitic, one on one, only for Marc-André ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal to flash out a right hand and somehow stop it, Ronald Araújo clearing the loose ball off the line. With 11 on the clock, a cushioned volley layoff from Joan Jordán set up Erik Lamela to score, but the flag went up. Three minutes after that, Lamela rolled in Marcos Acuña, who sliced wildly. Immediately, Youssef En-Nesyri cut inside, getting a clear sight of goal, but hit a weak shot. And a minute after that, Acuña’s superb pass sent Isco running all alone all the way into the area where from seven yards he sent the ball way, way over the bar. If, like the En-Nesyri chance, it was offside, it was also an astonishing miss and it wasn’t over: two minutes more and Isco played in En-Nesyri. Again he should have scored; again, Ter Stegen made an exceptional save.
Sevilla probably should have had two or even three; instead, Barcelona did. Gavi robbed Lamela, Sergio Busquets found Ousmane Dembélé, and they were away. Robert Lewandowski dinked it over Yassine Bono and although Fernando hooked it off the line, Raphinha nodded in. Fifteen minutes later it was two, Lewandowski controlling and volleying with an ease that was eloquent. Sevilla were done, a brief reaction at the start of the second half definitively ended when Eric García added the third.
“We started the game well and in two moments we’re two-nil down,” Rakitic said. “This is the difference when you have maybe the best striker in the world, when you can give him the ball deep, on the left, on the right, on his head, and he knows what to do with it. The first small moment he has, he’s close to scoring, and the second he scores. That’s the biggest difference.”
It is one of them. Sevilla do not have the best striker in the world. En-Nesyri has had his moments – in 2020-21, he scored an impressive 18 league goals – but even then Sevilla feared it might not last and hoped it would lead to a sale. Amid injuries and international duty last season he got five and he hasn’t been in double figures in any other campaign. Rafa Mir scored 10. This summer’s signing, Kasper Dolberg, has got six, six and in his last three Ligue 1 seasons and is returning from a shoulder injury. Lucas Ocampos has gone on loan to Ajax. “Football is goals,” Lopetegui said. “If you’re not effective when you’re the better team …” In Sevilla’s four games this season, they have had 69%, 61%, 66% and 61% of possession and taken 51 shots. They have scored three times.
Which might matter a little less if it wasn’t for what Lopetegui calls a “glass jaw”, Sevilla a team that “goes off course at the smallest setback”, that has to learn to “stand firm”. Instead, as El País put it, they’re a flan, which isn’t the most solid of desserts. They look a little like a team who have had their defence torn out. Diego Carlos went to Aston Villa and Jules Koundé joined Barcelona – on Saturday, he provided two assists. Goalkeeper Bono no longer has his cape, Diario de Sevilla says, while centre-back Marcão, signed from Galatasaray, hasn’t appeared yet. Tanguy Nianzou is 20, a new arrival and was the only actual central defender in the teamagainst Barça.
If there is a club that has overcome the sales and somehow come back even stronger, that has actually made a virtue of departures, it is Sevilla. Monchi, the sporting director, is a man who inspires faith, trusted to release at the right time, replacements ready. This time, though, feels slightly different, the sales a little more forced. A poll in one Seville paper had 81% of readers describing their window as a failure. Which may in part be about expectations, and that doesn’t always help much either.
Monchi and Lopetegui not unreasonably argue that it is still early in the season: “We haven’t just signed them for August; we’ve signed them for five years,” the sporting director says, while the coach talked about “paying the price for a difficult pre-season” where players are “not yet in their best condition”. But maybe there is something deeper. Monchi admitted that this is a return to a policy temporarily left behind, ambition having driven them to push harder than perhaps they should for what they saw as a unique opportunity to compete for the league. They couldn’t keep players like Carlos and Koundé for ever. And after two years of pandemic, sales were inevitable. In fact, Monchi admits first-team salaries are still too high: €175m when they should be somewhere near €140m.
All of which means a shift in objectives, a sense of something lost, something fading. Accepting less is not easy; accepting this is harder still, even if Monchi did approach fans after defeat at Almería and insist that they had been through far worse. Yet nor is this entirely new, a one-off; the issues scoring goals certainly aren’t. If Sevilla hoped to compete for the league last season, those hopes slipped in the spring. They only lost two of their last 18 league games in the 2021-22 campaign, it is true, but they only won five. They scored nil or one in 12 of those, a problem not fixed.
At the end of the season, they celebrated Champions League qualification for a third consecutive year – an achievement too easily overlooked, the club claimed – but that night there was a refusal to confirm that Lopetegui was continuing and a sense of something not being quite the same which lingered even when he announced he was staying. Writing in AS, Juan Jiménez described the signing of Isco, the manager’s protege and a personal request, as a gift offered as a way of manager and sporting director making up, but doubts remain, patience already waning.
And now they have already been beaten three times – last year they lost four all season – making this their worst start in 41 years; they have never had fewer points at this stage. Yes, they should have won more of them, fortune not exactly favouring them, but it is not like they have faced the hardest sides: they lost at Osasuna and Almería, and needed a late equaliser to get a draw against Valladolid. Tension builds, division too. If the north end appeals for unity, others are not so sure. “We have to be better, we can be better, we’re going to be better,” Nianzou said. “When we win a game, everything is going to change.”
Barcelona might have been that game, an opportunity. There were six changes, three debutant starters, and the noise, oh the noise. The opening minutes suggested something might shift. And then, suddenly, it was over. By the end, it was no contest. And next up: Manchester City, and Erling Haaland who terrified them last time he was among the opposition. “Sevilla have a thousand ways to lose,” one local paper put it, “the question is when this freefall will end.” Lopetegui was offering no miracle solution, but did see some reasons to be cheerful, despite it all. “When bad things come you have to work, grit your teeth and convince the players,” he insisted. “The rest is yadda yadda and yadda yadda doesn’t help.”
“It might sound strange, but we did a lot of things well today and if we carry on like this,” we can do something good,” Rakitic said. First though, he took his teammates to the north end of the Sánchez Pizjuán and said sorry.