When Youssef En-Nesyri’s tame header trickled into the arms of Edouard Mendy in the closing seconds of Sevilla’s humbling night against Chelsea on Wednesday, it was hard not to feel sorry for the frontman.
On a night where Julen Lopetegui made a swathe of changes to the side, last year’s Europa League winners were thoroughly beaten 4-0 in Andalusia, with the North African forward cutting an isolated figure for the majority of the game in Seville.
Even though qualification was already sewn up, both sides opted to rest usual starters despite first place in the group up for grabs. In the end, Chelsea’s superior quality told, as Frank Lampard was still able to call upon talented players who many will argue should be in the Blues legend’s best line-up.
Lopetegui, on the other hand, utilised a front four that comprised a triumvirate of Franco Vazquez, Oussama Idrissi and En-Nesyri making their first starts in the competition, while Oscar Rodriguez had started one game on the continent before facing the London giants.
Breaking it down further, the fact all but the Moroccan have featured consistently in La Liga — one start for Rodriguez and none for Vazquez and Idrissi — emphasised the lack of cohesion in a rejigged Sevilla team.
Their xG of 1.4 per Fbref already seemed unlikely to the naked eye given the paucity of notable chances on the night, but the realisation that the starting attackers accounted for just 0.3 of their Expected Goals was beyond jarring.
Summing everything up, it largely explains why the Andalusians were unable to muster anything noteworthy going forward, and En-Nesyri’s performance suffered as a consequence of the changes to the side.
Given how players thrive on momentum, Wednesday night was especially disappointing for the North African due to his form going into that Chelsea game. The 23-year-old’s goals in recent weeks have been vital to Sevilla’s improvement in form in La Liga after a slow start to the campaign, while a splendid super-sub showing was crucial to a 3-2 comeback win over Krasnodar in matchday three on the continent.
What’s been particularly noteworthy about the young forward’s contribution has been the importance of his goals in the recent run of five goals in six before facing Lampard’s men: a three-minute brace to overturn a 2-1 deficit for 10-man Sevilla vs Krasnodar, the equalizer in an eventual 4-2 win over Celta Vigo and an 83rd-minute winner shortly after his introduction as Lopetegui’s team beat Huesca 1-0 last weekend.
The goal that began the striker’s fine run came against Athletic Club in late October but Los Nervionenses failed to hold on at San Mames, losing 2-1. Still, it doesn’t shed the assertion that En-Nesyri tends to score mostly important goals even though consistency remains the forward’s challenge.
This is somewhat evidenced by his mini drought after scoring a late winner against Levante at the start of the month, although it should be noted that the frontman started just one of the following five games after that strike.
In total, he’s won a quarter of Sevilla’s 16 points in the league but playing 90 minutes against Chelsea during the week probably counts against him for Saturday afternoon’s clash vs Real Madrid.
Lopetegui has largely rotated his two primary centre-forwards this season, and leaving the Morocco striker on for the duration of Wednesday’s clash hints at the former Real coach’s thinking for this weekend’s clash against the under-fire visitors.
This seems odd on the outside looking in due to de Jong’s scoreless run in the league since bagging in a deserved 1-1 draw at Barcelona. He’s netted just one goal in all competitions since but there’s an argument that the Dutch forward remains his manager’s first pick up top.
En-Nesyri not only leads the way for xG per 90 minutes in La Liga this season but also edges the 30-year-old for Shot-Creating Actions per game in the league, ties the experienced attacker for key passes per game and has missed more big chances, despite playing fewer minutes.
While the latter usually paints a negative picture in football analytics, the North African striker’s misses to the Dutch striker’s none probably suggests he’s more of a natural goalscorer than de Jong, to begin with.
Thus, it leaves Lopetegui with a choice to make against an ailing Los Blancos side he’ll want to beat badly. The Europa League-winning manager’s short history with the Madrid giants ended after four months and, even if doesn’t admit it publicly, will have a personal quest to beat his old side.
Saturday unquestionably represents the right moment to play Zinedine Zidane’s side, given their rather indifferent results which has reportedly put the three-time FIFA World Player of the Year on the brink of being jettisoned.
Despite facing the risk of falling 10 and nine points behind Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid respectively, there’s a feeling next week’s make-or-break Champions League showing against Borussia Monchengladbach and Madrid Derby next weekend may be prioritised over the imminent encounter in Andalusia.
Lopetegui’s team will fancy their chances against a Jekyll and Hyde Real team and, in En-Nesyri, the ex-Spain trainer has an in-form frontman capable of hurting Zidane’s outfit.
Whether the Sevilla boss chooses to trust him from the start, however, remains up in the air.