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Sevilla: Inside the innovative La Liga club emerging as title contenders

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It was an innovative moment that captured both Sevilla’s growth on the pitch and their burgeoning reputation off it – legendary Brazil forward Ronaldo, O Fenomeno, beaming down from the screen at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to welcome Anthony Martial to the club on loan from Manchester United.

The calibre of player recruited is something Sevilla are excited about – a deal director of football Monchi was working on for almost two months – while the marketing that complemented Martial’s arrival gives a snapshot into the mechanics of a club where everyone is pulling seamlessly in the same direction.

Sevilla return to La Liga action at Osasuna on Saturday sitting second in the table and hoping they can reel in Real Madrid’s four-point lead to win a first league title since 1946.

It would be a huge achievement for a club who, despite becoming kings of the Europa League and winning the continent’s second-tier competition six times this century, have never really threatened to break Real, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid’s domestic stranglehold since returning to La Liga in 2001.

The Andalusians have evolved massively in that time but especially in recent seasons, as midfielder Ivan Rakitic observed when he returned in 2020 after a six-year spell with Barcelona.

“When I came back I was really surprised by the big steps the club did,” the 33-year-old, who anticipates even “bigger possibilities to come”, tells BBC Sport.

“The level of the team, the players the club can sign today, is much different than maybe seven or eight years ago. All these big players, they really want to be part of Sevilla.

“Now players don’t have to leave to be in a big club because Sevilla is fighting for everything, for all titles.”

Just as important as their arrivals during the January transfer window are the players Sevilla kept hold of.

Rakitic, the first non-Spanish player to captain the side since Diego Maradona in 1993, feels rejecting a bid from Newcastle for defender Diego Carlos shows the club’s ambition.

“For Diego and the other players it is a big motivation to see the club is aiming to bring players of the highest level like Martial to us,” adds the former Croatia international.

“This is where Monchi and the president are working in a perfect way.”

Monchi is the club’s former back-up goalkeeper turned sporting director, the person Rakitic calls the “most important man in the club” who “lives it 24 hours” and the one who brought him to Spain from Schalke in 2011.

“When I started to work with him it was just unbelievable,” explains Rakitic, impressed by Monchi recalling games he played for FC Basel in Switzerland at the start of his career that the player himself struggled to remember.

“He was really able to explain all my games to me, all my ways. You can see with these details he is ready 100% and knows what he needs for his team.

“It’s not only like signing a player for his team. It is like signing a player for his family, and this is maybe the big difference.”

In the 22 years since he first took on the role, via a short stint at Roma, Monchi has helped establish Sevilla as one of Europe’s most-envied clubs for their impressive youth system, vast global scouting network and masterful recruitment.

Monchi still counts Dani Alves, sourced from Brazilian side Bahia and sold to Barcelona six years later, as his best signing, but until recently Sevilla’s model has involved cashing in on their most-prized assets and reinvesting that money.

This season, however, their fine form comes on the back of seeing off interest in Jules Kounde in the summer and Carlos in the January transfer window – defenders Monchi regards as among the best in Europe and who have contributed to Sevilla having the division’s best defensive record.

“Each player at Sevilla, it’s as if they are my children,” says Monchi. “You have to bring them on board and you have to get to know them. Sometimes I have them in my mind and most of the time in my heart.

“Jules is a fantastic player. Today he is a central defender for the French national team but if you asked about Diego Carlos I would say the same. In Spain, at his level, (David) Alaba and (Eder) Militao are at a very good level, but under them Diego Carlos is there.

“These are players who have improved at Sevilla. Jules and Diego weren’t the players they are today when they joined us and this is why now I feel like they’re my children. This is why I speak very highly of them, because I really believe in these players.”

Monchi insists the transfer policy has not changed – he says there has not been an appealing enough offer for his players – but he also feels the club’s position in the market reflects their own evolution.

“If we analyse in detail all the specific movements Sevilla have made in the market we can see that each time the club tries to grow even more,” he explains.

“If we look at this winter transfer window, there has been a player from Manchester United and one from Porto (Tecatito Corona). In the last winter market we had Papu Gomez (from Atalanta), in the previous one we had Suso from Milan.

“We are trying to use all our financial and working capacity to ensure the growth of Sevilla is sustained and constant.”

One key evolution in Monchi’s recruitment has been the use of data and artificial intelligence in scouting, player development and training. Two years ago the club created a department specifically for this purpose.

“I am in love with data. I am in love with analysis!” says Monchi, who says he could talk for an hour just on this topic.

“We have special football apps; we are working to achieve special supplementary work for our scouts using data. The growth of the club in this area is incredible and it is one of our stepping stones that has really helped Sevilla.”

However, one of Monchi’s shrewdest appointments, and a figure who has helped bring those off-field developments to fruition on the pitch, is that of former Spain and Real Madrid boss Julen Lopetegui, an innovative coach Monchi sees as a “perfect fit” for Sevilla.

“When I decided to sign up Julen I had a snapshot in my mind and today it is a lot better than that,” he says. “Julen is obsessed with his work and his position from a football perspective and he has a lot of virtues.

“One of his main virtues is the fact everyone who works at the club has their eyes and ears open. A lot of things are demanded from us and that’s important. That a club is ambitious but has a coach that is even more ambitious, who really wants to continuously improve, is very useful.”

Sevilla fans are on a wave of optimism and excitement at the prospect of ending a seven-decade wait for a league title and it feels like a potentially defining moment for a club who have managed to ride out injury and Covid problems this season.

Soon they will look to renovate or rebuild their iconic Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium as well as building a new sports complex for the first team that will include a restaurant, hotel, water area and state-of-the-art gym.

That has been made achievable by La Liga’s deal with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners,alongside Sevilla’s footballing success, growing reputation and emergence as a global brand.

“We are trying to challenge and break the status quo,” says general manager Jorge Paradela. “We have demonstrated we can achieve more with less.

“This is a team that never gives up, never surrenders. We need to always stay ahead of the game – that should be our ambition.”

This brings us full circle to Ronaldo’s welcome video for Martial, a moment that encapsulated how everyone at the club is working with the same “vision”.

Despite only being a temporary signing, it was a personal touch that meant a lot to the France forward and simultaneously made a huge splash on social media that attracted fresh eyes to Sevilla.

“It was really emotional to see Ronaldo on screen,” explains Paradela, who has been impressed by the staff he inherited when joining last summer.

“We knew he was Martial’s iconic player. We just reached out to him and he was really excited about it and we organised it very quickly.

“That is a trademark of this club – when a new player arrives we look at his needs as a person as well. We want to make things really easy for him from the first moment.”

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