The opening matchweek of La Liga’s 2016-17 season was, well, eventful. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid planted their respective flags into Spanish soil, as expected. While a late stunner from new boys Alaves saw Atletico Madrid throw away two points. All in all, an amazing 40 goals were scored league-wide, with a full quarter of them coming from a single match. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the match Jorge Sampaoli was involved in.
The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Sevilla’s home stadium, has been the backdrop to some of Spanish football’s most enthralling Primera matches over recent years. From last November’s 3-2 win over Real Madrid, to the 2-3 reverse fixture loss a season earlier, to many nail-biting affairs before, between, and since, the Rojiblancos’ home showcases as if it were God’s private home theater.
But it’d be improper to not, now, place Saturday’s welcoming of Espanyol at the top of the Pizjuan Classic list. It was simply that emphatic, and that obvious, of an opus. How often do any of us, anywhere, get to experience a genuine 6-4 top-flight thriller? And on the opening matchday, no less. Appropriately, it was the one man who we all knew would set the Iberian sky alight the moment he arrived that played conductor on the night.
On his Spanish league debut, Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli fulfilled any and all expectations set before him. For starters, he needed to win. Check. He needed to put together an active side who would attack and compel. Check. Most importantly, he needed to be Jorge, the obsessive Marcelo Bielsa pupil known for throwing caution to the wind, and then setting the caution on fire to make sure it was actually dead. CHECK.
To be fair, Sampaoli’s opposer on the day, Espanyol coach Quique Sanchez Flores, played his part as well, setting his new-look Blanquiazules up in a similarly attack-heavy manner, daring Sampaoli’s men to outbang them. After the first ten minutes of action at the Pizjuan, both combatants were ramming horns together, and the Match of the Year scent had already begun to linger.
A wacky starting XI thrown out by Sampaoli — that included Hiroshi Kiyotake and Vitolo as wingbacks, Gabriel Mercado as a sweeping centre-half, and a whole lot of interchanging and position-swapping — immediately started spreading its wings and battering its Catalan foes. Although Pablo Piatti put the visitors ahead in the 8th, it took only seven minutes for Pablo Sarabia to bring Sevilla level. A debut Luciano Vietto goal then took the lead for the home side.
There’d be another lead change in Espanyol’s favor, but new boy Vietto again popped up to equalize just before the interval. Ultimately, it was Sampaoli who was able to make adjustments in the dressing room at the half, turning the tide and eventually flooding the visitors. A Rojoblancos onslaught in the second-half, including goals from Franco Vazquez, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Hiroshi Kiyotake, made it 6-4, sealing the three points for Sevilla. As far as possible Jorge Sampaoli introductions go, this one might’ve been the most Sampaoli-esque.
Perhaps more than any other football manager I’ve ever seen, Jorge Sampaoli visually obsesses over his team’s performance on the sidelines. Although he doesn’t do it in the overtly boisterous way of Jurgen Klopp, or even his predecessor, Unai Emery, he does emit intensity. It’s just that rather than gesticulate between the players, the bench, his staff, the officials, and the supporters in the stands, in an Emporeratic way, Sampaoli deliriously rules over his players on the pitch and their actions. At times, he resembles Mr. Miyagi trying to catch a fly with chopsticks, the fly being ball and the chopsticks being his eyes. His heads swivels uncontrollably, as if there’s too much tactical ongoings for him to fathom. Still, his facial expression never changes, and he never backs away.
You’ll also never see Sampaoli resigned to his dugout like Sir Alex or Vicente del Bosque. He’s fully engaged in the football, fused amid the game’s movements like the chemicals emanating from the grassy pitch. In every way, Sampaoli is the 12th man.
So you see, it’s not really a surprise that Sampaoli’s teams take on his image, even as early as the first week of the season. His direct methods of coaching demand immediate responses from his players. He yells a directive, they obey. If they don’t, they probably won’t last long. It’s as simple as it is brazen.
This doesn’t mean that Sampaoli’s style is fool-proof, of course. Logic would tell you that if a team has to overcome four goals every time out, as Sevilla had to against Espanyol, then problems surely lie ahead. We’re still very much in the “group stages” of the Liga campaign, after all. Sampaoli’s teams are built to thrive in an early-season environment of kill-or-be-killed. (This is perhaps why his Chile creation performs so ruthlessly in knockout competitions.)
But the Argentine’s most recent job posts — the Chilean national team and Universidad de Chile — have resulted in a surplus of silverware, which leads me to believe any impending pitfalls have been taken into account. Simply put, the guy knows what he’s doing.
Time will tell whether or not Sampaoli’s model holds up longterm against the loftier sides. So far, we’ve seen it falter when matched against the similarly prejudice attack of Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, although a competitive debut against the world’s best team shouldn’t be overly scrutinized. But either way, the Argentine’s target is clear: to exist within a Big Four as opposed to outside of a Big Three. That also means making a genuine charge towards Champions League glory rather than another triumphant Europa League walkabout. If there’s a place where Emery “failed,” it’s there.
Sampaoli and Sevilla now face Villarreal this Sunday at El Madrigal, which is a considerably lesser task now that last year’s breakout boss Marcelino is no longer in the picture. The Yellow Submarine do, however, pose a similar high-energy countering threat to Espanyol, but with a platoon of proven goalscorers. If Matchweek 1 is any valuable indication, and it probably is, there will be goals. Maybe not ten of them. But then again, maybe.