N’Zonzi and Nasri – Premier League Cast-Off’s Influencing the La Liga Title Race
16th November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Sevilla are taking La Liga by storm this season with a vibrant brand of fluid, attacking football. Under the tutelage of new manager Jorge Sampaoli, the Andalusians are finally transferring their Europa League pedigree – which has seen them lift Europe’s secondary trophy for the last three seasons in a row – into domestic action.
Despite currently sitting fifth, the top of the division is tight and they are genuine title contenders, and were even top of the pile for a short period just a couple of weeks ago.
At the heart of Sevilla’s emergence among the Spanish elite this season are two players who will be familiar to regular Premier League viewers.
Steven N’Zonzi and Samir Nasri have been solid Premier League performers in the past, but neither marked themselves out as world beaters during their time in England. So, to those who do not follow La Liga closely, it may come as somewhat of a surprise that both are now key figures in the Spanish title race.
Towering French midfielder Steven N’Zonzi spent six seasons in England, three with Blackburn Rovers and three with Stoke City.
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Sevilla signed the former France under-21 international in the summer of 2015, forking out a fee of £7 million to secure the player.
N’Zonzi initially struggled to influence games in Seville, and cited the city’s notoriously hot weather as having affected his performances. But by the second half of his maiden La Liga campaign, the 6ft 3ins midfielder began to settle into his surroundings and soon became a key player for Los Rojiblancos.
Under manager Unai Emery’s intensive and demanding set-up, N’Zonzi was the central midfield organiser. The former Amiens player also showed that, despite his reputation as a physical and athletic powerhouse, he could also play a bit. With a range of passing that either went unnoticed or unutilised in the Premier League, the 27-year-old was dictating play in the most technically proficient league in Europe.
As the man tasked with acting as a deep-lying shield in front of the defence, N’Zonzi showed a growth in his game when it came to tactical discipline, awareness and anticipation. He was averaging 2.3 interceptions per game compared to his high mark with Stoke of 1.0 per match; he also averaged 1.3 clearances per game in La Liga and 2.1 in the Europa League – his best clearances average at the Britannia Stadium was 1.2 per game in 2014-15.
And despite the increased defensive responsibility, N’Zonzi also chipped in with four goals last term, equalling his best return for the Potters to help his side finish seventh in the table and retain their Europa League crown.
When Emery was snapped up by French champions Paris Saint Germain to take over from Laurent Blanc this summer, Sevilla replaced the Spanish tactician with the man who had masterminded Chile’s first ever Copa América triumph in 2015, Jorge Sampaoli.
The 56-year-old Argentinian is a disciple of the eccentric and influential former Athletic Club and Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa, and Sampaoli employs many of the unusual tactical principles espoused by the man nicknamed El Loco.
As such, Sevilla have become a complex puzzle for opposition teams to figure out. With their fluid and ever-changing formation, N’Zonzi is the constant and reliable calming influence in the centre of the park.
To that end, N’Zonzi has become arguably the most important player in Sampaoli’s Sevilla. He is the one who plugs the gaps by dropping into the defensive line when the full-backs bomb forward to join the attack; he is the one who’s intelligent movement of the ball allows the rest of the team’s midfielders to operate in advanced areas and interchange positions.
It’s no surprise to anyone who has watched Sevilla at length this season that N’Zonzi has reportedly become a transfer target for Barcelona.
When Samir Nasri joined Arsenal from Marseille in 2008, there were high expectations of the young player. As a Marseille-born attacking midfielder of Algerian descent, comparisons were made to three-time World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane.
Such talk flattered Nasri a little and undoubtedly heaped undue pressure on the player, but his talent and potential was obvious.
At Arsenal, he was not an instant success but gradually developed into one of the best creative midfielders in the Premier League. After Nasri turned down a contract offer in 2011, the Gunners reluctantly sold the Frenchman to rivals Manchester City for £25 million.
In recent years, as City have continued to spend big on signing the latest available superstars, Nasri’s influence at the Etihad diminished.
A fallout with new manager Pep Guardiola at the beginning of this season saw the 29-year-old made available for loan.
Sevilla, who are perhaps the most successful proponents of the “Moneyball” recruitment blueprint, are always on the lookout for a bargain. Sporting director, Monchi, is well attuned to spotting a player who is being undervalued by his club; Nasri fit the bill and was signed on a season-long loan.
With his best years supposedly behind him, and with an attitude that has been questioned both at club and international level, few expected Nasri’s time in Seville to amount to much.
But the 41-cap Les Bleus star immediately set about proving his doubters wrong. Sampaoli deployed Nasri in a more central role than he has been afforded since his days as a youngster with Marseille.
Instead of being stuck out wide as he had been for most of his time in north London and Manchester, Nasri has been playing as a central attacking midfielder at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and has been a revelation in the role.
Responsible for linking play between the midfield and the attack, Nasri has the freedom to move around the final third, run at defenders and utilise the superb movement of team-mates like Luciano Vietto, Vitolo and Franco Vázquez by slipping through perfectly weighted, defence-splitting passes.
It is testament to Nasri’s superb start at Sevilla that when he was recently ruled out with a thigh injury, onlookers were questioning whether his absence would put paid to the club’s title challenge. His determination to return to action ahead of schedule also speaks volumes about his happiness in Seville and how he sees his role within the team.
With a 91.3 percent pass completion rate, Nasri is making an average of 64.5 passes per game this season, compared to just 34.7 with City last term, and even better than his previous career-high of 55.9 for the 2013-14 season.
Nasri has been allowed to influence proceedings at Sevilla more than he was ever trusted to in the Premier League and he is thriving with the added responsibility.