He was appointed as a measure of desperation in times of crisis with the sole aim of avoiding relegation. Yet, in the space of just six weeks, Jose Luis Mendilibar has been dreaming Sevilla of a very different goal – another Europa League trophy.
The 62-year-old, previously best known for keeping minnows Eibar in the top flight for six seasons on a shoestring budget, was selected to replace Jorge Sampaoli as Sevilla boss in mid-March.
These were desperate times. Sampaoli’s brief but turbulent five-month reign had unfolded with a run of three bad defeats in four games, leaving the team just two points clear of the relegation zone.
The energetic Sampaoli had been accused of confusing his players with endless tactical tinkering.
Most clearly, this was demonstrated in a home loss to Osasuna when midfielder Oliver Torres received a tactical instruction sheet from the Argentine coach, prompting full-back Marcos Acuna to angrily grab the paper, to crumple it into a ball and toss it with disdain. on the ground.
The antidote to the excessive strategic demands of the dismissed Sampaoli was clear: the arrival of Mendilibar, hailed as the most ‘back to basics’ coach in Spanish football, who wasted no time in saying exactly how he thought the team had to change.
“The idea is to play more simply, period.” he said ahead of his first game in charge at Cadiz. “If you just play it’s harder to make mistakes.”
The improvement was immediate. A strong performance saw Cadiz beaten 2-0, with one of the goals coming as defender Loic Bade kicked a free kick 60 yards down the field, Bryan Gil kicked it in and Youssef En-Nesyri ran for to mark. Like he said, simple.
The goal was called ‘poetry’ by local newspaper Diario de Sevilla as it ‘summarized perfectly how it is also possible to win with another type of football’.
If you thought Spanish football was all about short tiki-taka passing, think again.
This old-school style has continued to invigorate Sevilla to an unexpected degree, with previously underachieving players thriving under the clear and calm instructions given by their new coach.
To push high up the pitch, to put pressure on the opposition, move the ball forward as quickly as possible and use plenty of width to send a steady stream of crosses into the penalty area.
Thanks to the team’s newfound leadership and confidence, Mendilibar’s seven league games ended in five wins, one draw and just one defeat, banishing relegation worries and raising hopes that European qualification might still be within reach.
But the real highlight came in the Europa League quarter-final against Manchester United, which had been more or less abandoned by many as a hopeless task.
Instead, it resulted in a resounding 5-2 aggregate victory as Mendi’s men used the second leg as an invitation to tear the opposition apart from start to finish.
As the first leg of Thursday’s semi-final at Juventus approaches, the triumph has many Sevilla fans beginning to believe that their team will once again lift a trophy that has become “their own” in recent years.
They won a remarkable six Europa League titles between 2006 and 2020, including three in a row under Unai Emery from 2014 to 2016.
Bookmakers disagree. Sevilla are rated underdogs for the competition behind fellow Juve semi-finalists Bayer Leverkusen and Jose Mourinho’s Roma.
But Seville under Mendilibar is an entirely different proposition from the jumbled mess they had become towards the end of Sampaoli’s reign. They now know exactly how they want to play and execute those shots with a determined sense of conviction.
They are also relatively fresh. The staging of Saturday’s Copa del Rey final, which Real Madrid won against Osasuna, meant there were no La Liga games of the weekend, so Sevilla head to Turin without a match since the 3-2 home win over Espanyol last Thursday. .
However quickly he transformed the fortunes of the team, Mendilibar’s future remains uncertain.
The short-term interim nature of his appointment was reflected in the fact that he only received a contract until the end of the season, and long-serving director of football Monchi refused to be fired. on whether the Spaniard will stay or if a new coach will be appointed this summer.
There will also be a lot of movement in the transfer market. Four members of the current squad are on loan and Monchi has already admitted that costs will have to be cut if the squad fail to qualify for Europe.
Thanks to the remarkable improvement inspired by Mendilibar, playing the Champions League next season as a reward for winning “their” Europa League – again – is within reach.
And if that happens, the new Sevilla boss is surely here to stay.