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Tactical Analysis: Sevilla and Roma’s stalemate in the Europa League final

An unstoppable force met an immovable object as Sevilla took on Roma in this year’s Europa League final last night.

The Spaniards boasted an incredible record of six wins in six Europa League/UEFA Cup finals before this one, but they faced a Roma side led by José Mourinho.

The Portuguese manager had won each of the five continental finals he had taken his sides to, including the inaugural Europa Conference League with Roma last year.

Something had to give here, and ultimately it was Mourinho’s record that ended. We had to go all the way to penalties for that to happen, but only after a 1-1 draw at the end of normal time and a 40+ minute extra time period.

That this match started in May and ended in June sums it up better than any amount of words in a match report can, but we’ll have a go at explaining events anyway.

Let us start with the line-ups, where there was one big surprise.

In his pre-match press conference, Mourinho stated that Paulo Dybala would only be fit to play for about half an hour, so everyone expected him to start on the bench.

However, he was named in the starting XI alongside Tammy Abraham up front, but the rest of the selections were as expected.

As far as game plans went, Roma’s was known to everyone. Even the most basic of statistics told you what they were going to do – their average possession figure of under 40% in this season’s Europa League knockouts made it clear that they were going to dig in and defend.

Indeed, from the get-go, they set out in a centrally compact 5-3-2 block, happily sinking close to their own half so their defensive line was not too far away from the box.

The front five’s job was to prevent Sevilla from playing through the middle and forcing them to go out to one side.

In the first half, things went very well for the Italians. They restricted Sevilla to just five shots, of which four were from outside the area and only one was on target.

More importantly, they took the lead with one of their two shots, with the goal coming after a turnover in midfield and a quick forward pass to Dybala, who finished the chance very well.

Sevilla did not change what they were trying to do in the second half, though, and it eventually worked for them.

While Roma’s previous opponents tried to break down the staunch block through the middle, Sevilla were happy to play along as their opponents wanted them to and channelled their forward passes out wide. Their passmap shows just that:

Once they got into the final third, they bombarded their opponents with crosses. Ultimately, they attempted 40 such deliveries, with a fair measure coming from either side.

There certainly was a bias to the right, where Jesús Navas put in a fantastic shift to both help his side progress the ball and then get it into the box.

The ex-Manchester City winger was responsible for a quarter of his side’s crosses, including the most important one.

In the 55th minute, he created a little bit of space for himself to swing a ball into the box, which ended up going into the back of the net after an inadvertent touch from a Roma defender.

Sevilla put in 20 more crosses between their goal and the end of the long extra time period, but they never looked like scoring again because they did not pose much of a threat in the box.

Roma seemed happy to take the game to penalties but did pose a threat from set-pieces, coming closest to grabbing a late winner when Chris Smalling’s header from a corner struck the crossbar in the 131st minute.

Thereafter, the Europa Conference League holders made some very questionable decisions. Their first three penalty-takers were defensive midfielder Bryan Cristante and centre-backs Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibañez, of whom the latter two failed to score.

Sevilla sent their attackers first and finished things off with Gonzalo Montiel, who repeated his trick from the World Cup final with some VAR assistance after having his initial effort saved by an encroaching keeper.

And with that, after about three very long hours, Sevilla proved that their Europa League credentials were even greater than Mourinho’s European finals record.

Stats and images courtesy Wyscout, Opta via Fbref and WhoScored, and Between The Posts.

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