Vincenzo Montella struck all the right notes upon his presentation as the new Sevilla head coach. He spoke of the need to form a side who play with “spirit” and “passion,” of wanting his players to give their all, and of his desire to experience again the incredible atmosphere inside the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium that he first tasted as a losing coach with Fiorentina in 2015.
Now, he has to translate those words into reality, and quickly. Sevilla’s first league match of his tenure comes against city rivals Real Betis on Saturday. It is an emotionally charged debut and one that if lost would leave him needing to get supporters back onside swiftly.
They are understandably wary after witnessing the difference between what was expected from previous coach Eduardo Berizzo and what they saw out on the pitch. There was excitement upon Berizzo’s arrival given how attractive and assertive his Celta Vigo side were but while results were relatively good, performances weren’t. And when they lost, Sevilla often did so badly: 4-0 at Valencia, 5-0 at Real Madrid and 3-1 at Real Sociedad.
Individual quality led them to a solid points haul and qualification for the Champions League round of 16, but as a collective, there were few signs of Berizzo’s ideas taking hold. He was sacked before Christmas with the club fifth in the table but with a negative goal difference and underlying statistics that suggested their total of 29 points had been somewhat fortuitously accumulated.
Berizzo’s backers would argue that he was only a few months into the job, had largely favourable results and deserved more time to get the team functioning as he wanted them to. His cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment certainly complicated the issue, leaving what the club insist was a solely football-based decision looking a little heartless.
But it was taken and the styles of the candidates to replace him were so disparate that it suggested Sevilla had scant idea of what they were looking for. Walter Mazzarri was interviewed, as were Thomas Tuchel and Javi Gracia, before Montella emerged having spent a turbulent 17 months at AC Milan and signed a contract through to summer 2019.
Montella did good work with a number of Spanish players, including Marcos Alonso, Borja Valero and Suso, during his time in Italy. His sides play attractive, possession-based football, with an emphasis on attack. His references are good. But there are still some doubts.
Montella’s career began on an upward trajectory with a promising short spell at Roma, a good season at Catania and then three consecutive fourth-place finishes, a Coppa Italia final and a Europa League semifinal (lost to Sevilla) at Fiorentina.
His recent output has been more patchy. An ineffective half-season at Sampdoria was followed by a quietly impressive debut campaign at Milan. But after a summer of heavy investment, he was unable to wrestle coherence from a radically overhauled squad and was sacked in November with his side down in seventh.
Montella doesn’t speak Spanish and so will initially lean on his assistant Enzo Maresca, winner of two UEFA Cups and one Copa del Rey with Sevilla in his time there as a player in the mid-2000s, to motivate the squad and communicate his ideas. Maresca became a cult figure at the Sanchez Pizjuan, and his enthusiasm for the club should help form a stronger connection with the players than Berizzo and his staff were able to.
The immediate result has been a return to the fold for Steven N’Zonzi, who fell out with Berizzo and hadn’t played since mid-November. While his future is still likely to lie away from the south of Spain, he started in the 2-0 win against Cadiz in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday and has a decent chance of doing so again in the derby.
It was difficult to draw too many conclusions from the Cadiz match given that their second-division hosts employed an understrength side, but Sevilla were sharp in taking an early two-goal lead through well-taken strikes from Nolito and Jesus Navas — two players who have largely under-performed since their summer arrivals from Manchester City — and relatively comfortable thereafter. It was a solid start to Montella’s reign but the hard work now begins.
Sevilla’s target is still to make it into La Liga’s top four, while also enjoying good runs in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. They face Manchester United in the round of 16 of the latter competition in mid-February, giving Montella a month and a half, eight matches, to bring some structure to his side’s play and solve their lack of precision at both ends of the pitch.
More immediately, the derby awaits this weekend. Betis are on a bad run of form and the conditions look promising for Montella and his side to secure a victory that would boost confidence within the squad and give him some early credit with supporters. Style is not yet essential; effort, sacrifice and a good result will suffice.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.