Chelsea talking tactics: Europa League maestros square off

The two most recent Europa League winners face off as Chelsea hosts Sevilla. What tactics does Julen Lopetegui employ in Spain these days?

It has been a rollercoaster few years for Julen Lopetegui. After a brief stint in Porto, the former Spanish youth team manager jumped over to the Spanish men’s national team. His record with the squad was exceptional and Spain looked like contenders for the World Cup once again. Then, just days before the tournament, he accepted the position at Real Madrid. Spain cut ties with him before the group stages. Perhaps the decision would have been justified had his stint in Madrid not gone terribly. He was sacked in only his third month with the club.

The following season, he took charge of Sevilla. There, his fortune and reputation turned around after a miserable 2018. Despite the Covid pandemic, Lopetegui led the Spanish side to fourth, qualifying for the Champions League directly. They still won the Europa League for good measure.

Now they travel to Stamford Bridge to continue their European adventures and Lopetegui’s redemption. What can one Europa League maestro expect from another Europa League maestro?

Sevilla tend to play in a 4-3-3 that shifts into a 3-4-3 or even a 3-diamond-3 in possession. The deepest midfielder often drops between the centerbacks to allow the fullbacks to push forward. The other two midfielders will then either stay in a line with one another or break away depending on the opponent’s shape. The primary focus of their attack is to control the ball before quickly releasing the wide players.

On defense, the side either falls into a 5-4-1 or a 4-1-4-1, again depending on the opponent’s own attack. They are not a full blown gegenpressing side, though they do tend to send players forward when the opponent attempts to play out from the back. They very much pick their moments, however, with few players actively pressing even when they do decide to do so. This leaves at least seven or eight players behind the play to cover if the press fails.

All of that should sound like a bit of a nightmare for Lampard’s team. Chelsea likes to press in numbers, which leaves gaps in behind. Sevilla likes to attack quickly when the space is created and Chelsea will give up plenty on the press. The Blues also like to play out of the back, which will lead to Sevilla harrying the defenders just enough to send it into Sevilla’s waiting defensive block.

In Sevilla, Chelsea is facing an opponent that is patient on and off the ball but ruthless when the opportunity presents itself. In short, they are probably Chelsea’s worst enemy based on the Blues’ current tendencies.

This being said, Lampard has shown a tendency to adjust for big games and have his side play in a more conservative 4-3-3 that presses much less aggressively. In fact, Chelsea’s plan against big teams shares a lot of similarities to Sevilla’s game plan on most days. Ideally, Lampard looks at this match as a game to play it safe and that gives Chelsea more of a chance than normal.

But if the Blues try to play as protagonists like they have most matches with a 4-2-3-1 this season, things may get bad for the team. Sevilla is a better team and, more importantly, a smarter team than those the Blues have struggled against this season (Liverpool aside). Lampard will have to find the same wit that outsmarted Jose Mourinho twice last season to get a result in this match.