In May, Sevilla captain Fernando Navarro eased the comedy-sized Europa League trophy above his head, grinned, and then strained beneath its weight. His team had just won Europe’s second most prestigious competition for the second time in two years and the fourth time in ten, reconfirming its position as the absolutely dominant force within Europe’s second-tier, sub-super-club level.
In the summer that followed, immediately, three of that team’s star players were sold off. Top-scorer Carlos Bacca, explosive right-back Aleix Vidal, and crash and bang midfielder Stephane Mbia have all disappeared to collect bigger wages elsewhere, and the club captain straining beneath the trophy is gone, too, for good measure.
Unlikely success has been met with what it is so often met with these days: a rough, remorseless stripping-away of the talent that helped achieve it.
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Usually what would happen now is that the club in question would return to quiet mediocrity having been “put back into its place.” And that would be fair enough. The qualitative difference in this instance is that the club in question is Sevilla, so we might well see a slightly altered end-result to the usual one. In fact we probably will. Rather than being put back into any place, the Europa League champions will start the new La Liga season expecting to be in exactly the same position as it was before—winning and playing exciting, quick football—and will no doubt be disappointed with anything less.
You see, this is kind of Sevilla’s thing. The fact of its summer being an exercise in selling key stars is nothing new or unexpected; instead, by now, it’s a concrete part of the Sevilla formula. It knows and to an extent (always to an extent) accepts that the financial power of others means it can’t afford to tie up its best players, so it works around that (systemically unfortunate) reality, and it does so more effectively than pretty much all of its contemporaries.
In the summer of 2013, Alvaro Negredo left for £17.5million and Jesus Navas left for £14million, both joining Manchester City. On top of them, Geoffrey Kondogbia joined AS Monaco for £14million and Gary Medel trundled off to Cardiff City for £9million. The end result? In the season that followed, Sevilla won the Europa League. Then the pattern repeated. Alberto Moreno joined Liverpool and Ivan Rakitic joined Barcelona in the summer 2014, but Sevilla won the Europa League again in 2015.
Somehow, Sevilla has become La Liga’s master of regeneration. It takes a hit, then it revives itself, then it renews itself. And then it repeats that process. Again and again, like someone advertising shampoo.
In large part its secret comes down to risk and control. Or, if you like controlled-risk. First it makes sure that it only loses two or three starting players at the same time, rather than allowing an ultra-destructive mass exodus that would require starting from scratch. Then it spreads its funds out over a decently-sized pool of potential replacements, rather than investing in a small number of players with larger prices.
The magic bit—if indeed there is any magic to what is really sensible risk-management—appears in the details of the players brought in. This club, like FC Porto in Portugal, is really good at looking in the places the super clubs don’t look. Mbia arrived from relegation-regulars Queens Park Rangers in England. Bacca had been playing for Club Brugge in Belgium. Grzegorz Krychowiak, the latest player linked with a big, shiny move away, was an unspectacular midfielder at a mid-table French team.
These are players who are or were all at the beginning of an upward trajectory, or due to start one, rather than players who have already reached any kind of peak. They’re basically guesses. The effect of bringing them in is that Sevilla gets a decent amount of duds who everyone forgets about because they were cheap, like Marko Marin, but then also that it ends up having sold £90million worth of players to Barcelona in the last eight years, Europe’s most successful club in that time. That’s the kind of figure that confirms a decent success rate at picking out talent that other people haven’t recognized.
It’s also the kind of figure that suggests that there should be no great concern about recovering from this summer’s standard stream of departures. Replacing Bacca, Vidal and Mbia are players such as Steven N’Zonzi from Stoke City (a man made of brick), Evgen Konoplyanka (the best player from the team Sevilla beat in that Europa League final) and Ciro Immobile (a reasonably prolific striker likely to be unreasonably undervalued after one bad season at Borussia Dortmund). Each of these players fits the successful model of the past as well as ever and, as such, there’s no reason to expect the old pattern not to reproduce itself. Sevilla is due for its yearly regeneration, the same as ever.
And indeed the early signs are good. Barcelona has already been shown what the latest version of Sevilla is capable of thanks to a last-gasp 5-4 UEFA Super Cup win not exactly the gap that the feeder-club-buying-club relationship really should suggest. Now we just wait for La Liga to start to see what Unai Emery’s new side can really do.
The only substantial change in the formula is that the club won’t start out competing for that comedy-sized Europa League trophy this season—this time, it’s in the Champions League, competing for that comedy-sized trophy instead.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter