Europa League semifinal: Manchester United vs Sevilla - Tactical preview

Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla has conceded just five goals and is unbeaten in 13 matches since the restart. It faces Manchester United in the Europa League semifinal.

Sevilla boss Julen Lopetegui and Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.   -  AP

Manchester United will take on Sevilla – unbeaten since the return of football post the Coronavirus-induced break – in the Europa League semifinal on Sunday.

Julen Lopetegui’s side has conceded just five goals and has kept seven clean-sheets in its last eight matches across competitions and predominantly operates in a 4-3-3 system, dominating possession and using intense pressure to regain the ball.

Statistics indicate the emphasis Lopetegui places on ball retention. In La Liga, the team averages 55.9 percent possession – only behind the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid – while hogging a staggering 66.3 percent in the Europa League.


To derail Sevilla, United can follow the blueprint from Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, which narrowly lost 1-0 in the dying minutes of the quarterfinal on Tuesday. Right from the opening minute, Wolves’ 3-5-2 set up in a low block made it difficult for Sevilla to find space between the lines to create chances. United boss Solskjaer has switched between the 4-2-3-1 and the 3-5-2 formation in ‘big games’ in domestic football and has enjoyed success with the three-man system.

Wolves set up in a low block 3-5-2 formation.

Wolves had a three-man midfield in front of the centre-backs with the wing-backs tucked in on either side to man-mark the opposition full-backs. The five-man wall in the defensive transition will provide the necessary cover to cope with Sevilla's offensive full-backs. In attack, Wolves played winger Adama Traore behind striker Raul Jiminez. Traore’s direct running at pace was to provide the outlet against the high line defence. For United, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will likely dovetail in the front-two role and will have support from Bruno Fernandes as the attacking midfielder.

Dendoncker dispossess Banega outside Wolves' box.


Neves finds the pass to Traore, who gets the better of Fernando and begins the counter-attack.


Traore runs through on goal before he is brought down inside the box for a penalty.


With Sergio Reguilon and Jesus Navas pushed high up the pitch, Traore managed to expose Sevilla’s centre which only had Fernando and the two centre-backs for cover. Wolves’ plan could have fetched an early reward had Jiminez converted the penalty in the 13 minute after Traore single-handedly raced through Sevilla’s midfield and defence only to be brought down inside the box.

However, the Spanish side began to wear down Wolves players pinning them to their box with sustained pressure in possession and thereby negating the threat on the counter. While Sevilla had a total of 24 touches in the opposition box to go with 74 percent possession, Wolves managed only nine. Sevilla eventually got the breakthrough late in the second period from a set-piece routine to progress.


Ever Banega’s influence in Sevilla’s last two matches against Roma and Wolves were eye-catching. He is arguably the best passer in the side and completed 59 and 103 passes, respectively. The Argentinian capped these performances with an assist each, crucially putting in the cross for the match-winning goal against Wolves. He is also key for Sevilla during set-pieces with his technique from dead-ball situations and crosses into the boxes.

In the opposition half, the form of Paul Pogba in central midfield will be crucial to United’s chances. In Pogba, United has a central midfielder who can bypass the press and move the ball from deep in his own half with his dribbling. He also has the passing range to pick out attackers’ runs from deep.

Example of Pogba showcasing ability to resist a high-tempo press.



Sevilla's attack

Sevilla is patient in attack – passing the ball swiftly between either flank to create overloads against opposition defence. The passing triangles created in attack and off-the-ball running allows it to pull defenders from their position, which in turn affords space for an attacker. 

Let’s take a look at Sevilla’s opening goal from Reguilon against Roma in the second leg of the round-of-16 game.

Banega gets away from Mkhitaryan in build up to Sevilla's opening goal.


Banega plays cross-field pass to Reguilon.


Reguilon runs into the box before scoring Sevilla's opener.


Sevilla’s possession play pulled Roma’s players to the right but Nico Zaniolo on the top left of the screen failed to move into midfield to cut out the passing option to the unmarked Reguilon on the left. Banega shifted the ball to his left foot and switched play to the full-back to attack the space vacated by the right centre-back, drawn to the run of Lucas Ocampos. Reguilon moved into the Roma box to put Sevilla ahead.

Sevilla uses its two wide players – Ocampos and Suso to take up space in front of the centre-backs while the width is provided by the full-backs, Reguilon and Navas, who predominantly spend the game hugging the flanks to occupy the opposition wing-backs.

United’s struggles

United, too, likes to build play from the back, but its passing can be susceptible at times – a weakness Sevilla would look to exploit. United’s favoured attacking side is through the left channel. In the Premier League, Southampton showed the way with its pressing high up the pitch to force the ball wide to the right to Aaron Wan-Bisakka, who tends to be forced into errors while under pressure. Chelsea did the same in the FA Cup semifinal, where United struggled to impose itself in the game and ultimately lost 3-1.

After losing the ball, Sevilla players converge on Coady.


Neves under pressure loses the ball and Sevilla regains possession in the space of five seconds.


Lopetegui’s side will look to force United to commit errors high up the pitch. Here’s an example of Sevilla’s high-press against Wolves. In the 14 minute, after losing possession, Ocampos and Youssef En-Nesyri immediately converged on Conor Coady, who managed to bypass the press after a one-two with Joao Moutinho. The ball was played into Ruben Neves, who was not afforded time on the ball to find the outlet in Traore due to the pressure from Banega, Fernando and Reguilon. Sevilla overturned possession in the space of just five seconds.

A difficult choice for Solskjaer will be to leave out striker Greenwood, who has been instrumental post lockdown with his goal-scoring ability in favour of the 3-5-2 formation. Nonetheless, the 18-year-old striker offers United an option off the bench, which has appeared thin in recent weeks.

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