As La Liga returns to action after another busy international window, the top of its table looks awfully unusual. There's no Barcelona sitting atop the standings, nor is Real or Atletico Madrid leading the way. Instead, it's an unheralded Sevilla side, led by a calming, difference-making manager, a point clear of the pack, though it's about to face its biggest test yet.
Saturday's visit to Barcelona's Camp Nou will be a telling moment for coach Pablo Machin and his impressive club. Its strong 5-2-1 start includes a 3-0 victory against Real Madrid and wins over Levante and Celta Vigo. But Machin is not getting carried away, and even he admits he is somewhat shocked to see his side leading the league.
“It’s obviously a surprise for many to see us lead the table, taking in mind we’re always used to seeing the usual three teams on top: Barcelona, Real and Atleti,” the 43-year-old manager told SI.com this week. “And it’s a surprise to us, too. But the way these players train and how much they have worked since the summer, then you can see the results on the pitch and it shows how hard work simply pays off.”
Barcelona may be winless in four league games (0-1-3) and could have its eye on next week's Champions League-Clasico double duty, but Saturday’s game will provide a litmus test for Machin's side, especially considering Camp Nou is no friend to Sevilla. The last time the Andalusian club won a league fixture at Barcelona's home stadium was in 2002.
But Machin enters this game feeling his team is extremely prepared, especially after learning some lessons from its 2-1 loss to Barça back in August in the Spanish Super Cup, in which Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved a stoppage-time penalty from Wissam Ben Yedder to secure the victory.
“I think this will be a totally different game," Machin said. "Naturally, we learn from that loss, but we’re a more developed squad from the summer. We have essentially the same players, but with a better understanding of what to do and what is required.”
What is definitely required Saturday is stopping Lionel Messi, especially after he was rested during this international break, continuing his hiatus from playing for Argentina.
“Messi to me, is not only the best player in the world, but he’s the most determined player in the world,” says Machin. “But football is a collective sport, and one player does not make the team. So just as Lionel Messi needs his teammates, we need our team to defend Messi and Barcelona. If we focus on one player then we wont succeed.”
Due to his pragmatic, organized approach to the game, Machin has been gaining a strong reputation in Spain. In the 2016-2017 season, he achieved promotion with Girona for the first time in its 87-year-old history. But what was perhaps more impressive was the work he did last season when Girona ended in 10th place, only seven points away from a Europa League spot. It was the best performance from a newly promoted club in 23 years.
Sevilla, like everyone else in Spain, paid attention and brought him to the team on a two-year contract. Since Unai Emery left the club in 2016, Sevilla had been dealing with managerial inconsistency. Jorge Sampaoli left after a year to manage Argentina, while Eduardo Berizzo, Vincenzo Montella and Joaquin Caparros (who replaced Montella as interim manager and is now serving as the club's director) all were in charge before Machin’s arrival. What the club needed was stability, and this is exactly what the young manager has provided.
On the pitch, Machin’s philosophy begins and ends with balance, and no matter the talent he wants his players to fully understand all aspects of the game. If you are a goalscorer, he will look at where you can improve when defending in transition. If you are a physical center back, he will ask for more movement and a better touch. It’s this kind of thinking that has helped his most important player, Ever Banega, evolve into his top form in a role outside of his usual playmaking one.
“The thing about Ever is that we’re now using him in an unfamiliar position, placing him as a sort of defensive midfielder/architect,” Machin said. “But as a result of this, we have attained more balance and distribution. He has also been able to shine defensively. He is a very versatile player.”
Attackers are also flourishing as Andre Silva (on a season-loan from AC Milan) and Ben Yedder have combined for 12 goals, while Pablo Sarabia and Jesus Navas each have four assists in the league. Aside from Barcelona, Sevilla has scored more goals than any other club in the top division.
But when reminded of these stats, Machin once again stresses balance and the need to be a complete player.
“Before anything else, any attacking player that plays for me needs to work for the squad in all areas," Machin said. "First, be a solid defender and be committed to the team, then the goals will come. The most sacred value is application and once that happens we can be ambitious offensively.”
Another intriguing aspect about Machin is his use of Twitter and how he utilizes social media to discuss his philosophies, give his latest thoughts on a performance or simply chat with supporters.
He is also known for making a few jokes along the way. In one particular tweet, for example, he made fun of his avatar’s appearance on EA Sports’s FIFA 19 video game.
“FIFA 19 is the first to have me ever wearing a tie on the bench,” he wrote in jest.
“Look, we have enough work outside of social media, but I do understand that these platforms are a key place to communicate and engage with our supporters,” says Machin, smiling at the thought of his Twitter indulgence. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not obsessed! My philosophy in life, just like in soccer, is balance.”
For now, all eyes are on Saturday, a chance for Machin’s men to maintain pole position in the league and for Sevilla fans to feel proud of their club.
“After the game in August against Barcelona, I saw how the fans were so proud of us, even after the loss, so we want to give them the same feeling,” says Machin, hoping for a victory this time around. “It’s important these players believe in me and my philosophy, and if they do, then we’ll be fine.”
It’s still early in the season but it's be safe to say that every Sevillista, players and supporters alike, has reason to believe in Pablo Machin.