A year is all it took for Jorge Sampaoli to shape Sevilla into his own work of art. The Andalusian giants became an extension of his own personality. Of course, he took over a title-winning team, but one which struggled to break the mould at the top of La Liga. The team played without fear, relentlessly attacking through a fluidity, which came naturally regardless of which opponent was put in front of them. Jorge instilled a tremendous passion within his players which drove them to the greatest lengths for the benefit of their team. Sevilla’s underdog story mirrors that of its players, many of whom were cast aside; players such as Jovetic, Nasri, and N’Zonzi. With Sevilla, Sampaoli showed the world that it is not so much the players that matter, it’s the system that they play in. They were no longer a cup team, they were a force to be reckoned with in La Liga too.
Sampaoli revolutionised a team which had lost key players during Unai Emery’s reign, and he did so by bringing the best out of players which were vital to the vision he had for the club. One of those players was Stoke standout Steven N’Zonzi.
A journeyman youth career through the northern regions of France meant that from a young age Steven struggled to find a club which he could call home. His life on the pitch mirrored that of his nomadic lifestyle off it. Due to his height, coaches at the Camp des Loges (Paris Saint Germain’s training facility) deployed him as a combative target-man. Soon after realising his ability on the ball, he was moved further back to an attacking midfield role, with his physicality giving the Frenchman an unmatched advantage at a young age. As he developed, teams began to realise his potential as a defensive-focused player, and so the Steven N’Zonzi we came to know at Blackburn Rovers and Stoke was born; a hard-hitting, no-nonsense central midfielder.
N’Zonzi fell into the trap of consistency at Stoke; he got the job done week in, week out. For a central midfielder, it’s a key trait, yet it is one that is often overlooked. Although Steven shone at the Potters, he never really set himself apart from those whom he shared his position with across the Premier League. From his time with Tony Pulis, it was clear that N’Zonzi had set his heart on bigger and better things; he handed in a transfer request at the end of his first season at the club. N’Zonzi’s first season under Mark Hughes was turbulent, to say the least, and he again unsuccessfully pushed for his second transfer out of the club in two years. His final season at the club and arguably most impressive, saw the Frenchman awarded Stoke’s Player of the Year award for the first time. Shortly after, a bid for £6.8million from Europa League winners Sevilla was accepted. Steven wanted more from football than Stoke could offer him, and Unai Emery answered his call.
It was not Unai Emery who managed to bring the best out of N’Zonzi though, despite the club winning their third successive Europa League trophy in his first season. In truth, he struggled to keep up with the intense style of play and climate in the south of Spain. It was not until the appointment of Sampaoli that N’Zonzi was able to demonstrate his raw talent on the European stage.
Sampaoli’s guidance has forged N’Zonzi into a complete midfielder, he has become everything we expect from the central role; mobile, intelligent and reliable at the cost of eye-catching moments on the field. He is simplicity personified; clean tackles, short, quick passes and the ability to control the game are crucial to his style and he executes all three with ease. Off the ball, his leadership allows him to orchestrate his team and keep them fighting until the final whistle, as they did so against Atletico Madrid in October – a game which N’Zonzi himself scored the only goal, launching Sevilla to the top of La Liga.
Under Sampaoli, Sevilla pressed intelligently in central areas which benefitted N’Zonzi in both defence and attack. The press allowed him to attack the ball knowing he had adequate support in the centre of the pitch so that if his opponents beat him they would not be able to progress forward. If he won the ball, his versatility and intelligence allowed him to remain a danger to his opponents regardless of where he was on the field – often in wider areas where he has a physical advantage over most full-backs. However, Sevilla rarely committed just one player to their press, which decreased the likelihood of their opponents creating anything through the centre. With the ball, Sevilla’s pressure allowed them to be fluid in attack, again suiting N’Zonzi who if not involved in the initial press, was often the central focus point of their build-up. With his teammates having won the ball back higher up the pitch, N’Zonzi was able to sit back in a commanding position in the very centre of the pitch, as a kind of anchor; he was an immediate outlet who had a full 360-degree view of the field. More importantly, he was able to identify areas which the opposing team had left open during their build-up and were now scrambling back to cover. On the other hand, if his teammates pressed and failed to win the ball, N’Zonzi was in a prime position to intercept any forward pass or an attacking move through the centre.
As an all-round central midfielder, N’Zonzi’s timing in the tackle is impeccable. Often a lone player in the centre due to Sevilla’s defensive structure, he found himself in one-on-one situations against his opponents throughout the season. Again, his intelligence shone through time and time again as he adapted his own style to fit that of his team. Like all great defenders, N’Zonzi rarely makes a tackle – only doing so when he absolutely must. Averaging just two tackles per game, he instead used his physicality to hold up his opponents and slow down their play, allowing his teammate’s opportunity to regain their shape. After sensing the danger and anticipating his opponents’ next move, N’Zonzi positioned himself close enough to his opposite number that should they receive the ball, he could be on top of them in an instant, disallowing any forward movement thereon. This anticipation, coupled with his patience, granted Sevilla time to set themselves in defence so they could look to win the ball back outside of their initial press.
Though there was never any doubt in N’Zonzi’s defensive capability, he lacked any real creativity during his time in the Premier League. Again, it was Sampaoli who unleashed the Frenchman’s attacking spirit and transformed him from a defensive midfielder to a revered attacking force. Again, it’s N’Zonzi’s intelligence on the pitch which cements his case. As stated before, his dynamism and versatility allowed him to be a threat in any part of Sevilla’s attack. He can play anywhere through the centre and even across the front three, again, where his physicality creates a mismatch against smaller full-backs. By far his most dangerous position, of course, is central midfield.
From the centre, Steven dictates the flow of Sevilla’s attack. The movement in front of him utilises his incredible vision and desire to get the ball between his opponents’ lines. He prioritises the simple pass but looks for the through ball whenever possible, either with a long ball towards the byline or a short pass in between the central defenders. He allows himself the opportunity to pick his pass by reading his opponents. With a teammate square on, N’Zonzi uses his body language to show the square pass. While doing so, a teammate in an advanced position moves either deeper or runs behind to create space between him and his opponent. The player which N’Zonzi is reading is the central midfielder (in the example in the picture, it could be any player between two teammates). The whole idea is to get that opponent to commit to the square pass in the hopes of winning the ball back in a favourable position, or the forward pass and look to bring the ball out from deep. Once that player commits, N’Zonzi is then free to simply choose the ball which his opponent has neglected which, all going well, should be a free pass.
“Read options” are a great counteraction when facing an aggressive press in any invasion-based sport – opponents push forward in the hopes of winning the ball back higher up the pitch at the cost of leaving teammates free in behind. The best examples are from American Football matches, where a Quarterback(Q) will read the Edge Rusher(E) with his own Running Back(R) in support, ready to receive the ball if necessary. The difference being in American Football, the Running Back’s position hides the ball from the Edge Rusher – if he stands still, the Quarterback hands the ball off and the Running Back is free to run to the right. If the follows the Running Back, the Quarterback is free to keep the ball and run to the left.
On the ball, N’Zonzi uses his size to give him an edge over his opponents. When dribbling, he lets the ball do the work for him, using his large frame and long legs to shield it from his opponents. He uses this dribbling technique well under pressure inside his own half, particularly against numerous opponents. His strength allows him to block the tackle and hold up the ball until an attacking lane opens up. If an opening presents itself, he’s not shy of dribbling through his opponents; his long strides allow him to accelerate and glide through players before looking for a forward pass. Of course, his heading ability is excellent and it brings yet another dynamic to his varied attacking style, allowing him to keep the ball alive both inside and outside his opponents’ area.
N’Zonzi looks like a man reborn at Sevilla, a club it seems he can finally call his home. Sampaoli’s guidance unlocked a part of Steven’s game which few others had even noticed before he joined in 2015. Of his 2,456 passes completed this season (with a whopping 90% pass completion rate), 73% were forward passes. His ability to regain possession and distribute the ball have seen him become a key player in Sampaoli’s Sevilla and have led to links of him joining Juventus in the summer. Given the opportunity to create and dictate, the comeback kid from the northwest of Paris has become one of Europe’s leading central midfielders, and can only progress under the wisdom of Eduardo Berizzo.