Exactly a month ago in this column I wrote about the then-Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli and how he was acting so bizarrely, with such self-destructive tactics and scant regard for his senior players, confusing and aggravating them, that it was imperative the club sacked him. Imperative if Sevilla weren’t to be relegated that is.

I also asked: “Is there anyone in the right frame of mind, with the correct judgement criteria, in a position to weigh up the pros and cons of sacking Sampaoli. And to make a brilliant decision about what to do next?”

It turns out that the answer was: “Yes!” and it only took Sevilla 18 days to agree with me to get rid of the guy who seemed intent on dragging them down to the second division, as if he were some kind of bizarre double-agent.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, they replaced the apparent double-agent with a saboteur (a description to which I’ll return in a minute.) A highly successful saboteur who is working minor miracles.

His name is Jose Luis Mendilibar — a lean, craggy, sometimes fearsome Basque man who hates modern football technology, hates modern football jargon and openly mocks those coaches who think the ball is for sharing via 15 or 20 passes before an attack can be mounted.

Yes, you’re right. It is the same Mendilibar who produced miracle after miracle to keep Eibar in the top division, season after season, despite the town only having 27,000 inhabitants, the stadium only having a 6,000 capacity and the club having a negligible budget compared to everyone else in LaLiga.

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Since Mendilibar took charge of Sevilla the team has produced more of his near-miracles. From playing with leaden legs, total lack of self belief and paper-thin competitive aggression, Los Rojiblancos are suddenly like footballing “Robocops.”

Unbeaten in six, they’ve knocked Manchester United (2017 champions and 2021 runners up) out of the Europa League, beaten Valencia away (their most threatening relegation rivals) and defeated Villarreal (2021 Europa League champions.)

Mendilibar is somehow coping with a deluge of injuries and suspensions and he’s also taken over just when the entire city of Sevilla goes on a non-stop three week, hedonistic, all-night party binge (encompassing Easter week and then the 177 year old tradition of The Sevilla Fair.)

Having inherited a team which looked dispirited, accepting of failure and which was behaving like relegation would be a blessed relief, he’s made them bristle with “you won’t beat us” aggression, he’s made them free-scoring, he’s made them attractive to watch and, bless him, he’s saved Sevilla from relegation.

Not arithmetically safe yet, admittedly, but now with a sufficient point-cushion that those straggler-clubs below Sevilla simply are not going to produce enough out-of-the-blue victories to catch them and with an attitude which’ll win Mendilibar’s Sevilla a good swatch of points between now and the end of the season.

What’s more, they face Juventus in the Europa League semifinals for a shot at conquering their preferred competition (they’ve won it a record six times in 14 years) which would launch them back into the Champions League next season bringing huge, and hugely welcome, revenue while making it infinitely easier to attract the players their squad still desperately needs in the coming summer market.

Sevilla’s new manager is a saboteur not because of any possible similarity with the self-destruction Sampaoli’s decisions were inflicting on the squad. The description is about Mendilibar’s disdain for almost all things modern in football. Attitudes, terminology, technology, and the ephemeral fashionability of those who gather a host of badges and qualifications but lack real world experience.

He was born in the little Basque Country town of Zaldibar (population 3,000) which is about an hour’s leisurely drive from the French border. And did you know that’s the country where the word saboteur originated?

When the Industrial Revolution was hitting full tilt, in the late 19th century, French workers wearing wooden boots (or sabots) would sometimes break into factories and smash new, mechanized technology which was robbing them of mass employment by stamping on component pieces with that heavy wooden footwear. The term has stuck.

How is Mendilibar a modern-day football saboteur?

Not that long ago, interviewed by Spain‘s World Cup winning coach, Vicente Del Bosque, Mendilibar explained: “I’m the antithesis of the modern coach — you won’t catch me walking about with a tablet to show videos or make notes.

“These days it’s easy to feel a bit behind the times. You give a talk and people in the audience start asking you questions you don’t understand. People are going on about interval-training and things like that, stuff I’ve never heard of in my life and I’m like: ‘what on earth are you talking about? It’s certainly not football!’

“My philosophy as a coach hasn’t changed since I was working in the lower leagues. I like my teams to play closer to the opposition goal than to our own. When you play close to your own goal, you risk making mistakes and conceding goals. Having the ball just for the sake of it makes no sense.

“I see coaches with really bad players trying to play out from the back because they think it’s the ‘in’ thing — maybe if I had the best pair of centre-halves in the world I might try a bit of that too. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with booting the ball clear if that’s what the situation calls for. In football, the straightforward thing is usually the best thing. The real challenge comes in trying to keep things simple.”

Like terminology for example?

“In the past it was all about the counterattack, now it’s re-named — ‘fast transitions’ — they’re the thing! And if you don’t use that terminology, people think you’re behind the times.”



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Some of this, obviously, is in the “things ain’t what they used to be” territory — an eternal complaint. With Mendilibar, however, his smashing of the faddish, his disdain for hot new phrases and his unwavering penchant for simplicity is a blessed relief for his players. Confused, agitated and increasingly unhappy under Sampaoli, they now get simple, clear, demanding instructions.

Moreover, they are all played in the positions where they find it easiest to deliver. Basic? Old fashioned? Yes, but effective and popular from the evidence of Sevilla’s immediate revival under him.

Nevertheless: one thing, in his industry, has never, and will never, change. The pressure under which almost all players and coaches suffer.

“I must admit that I get very stressed. You should see me just before a game,” Mendilibar says. “The team will be out warming up and I’ll be pacing up and down the changing room, totally stressed out. I’ve seen players throw up because of prematch tension. Veterans and youngsters. You do get guys who manage to really enjoy the game but a lot of us struggle with stress.”

In spite of that, top quality poker players would recognize Mendilibar’s personality. When the stakes are high, he has zero fear about going all-in if he reckons the jackpot can be his.

At Old Trafford, 2-0 down and having survived an hour when it looked like Sevilla would be torn to shreds, the instant this daring 62-year-old sniffed that his team might have a chance, he threw on Jesus Navas, Suso and Youssef En Nesyri — all of whom were being rested for the all-or-nothing relegation street brawl with Valencia three days later. The 2-0 deficit suddenly became 2-2 in the 92nd minute.

At Mestalla, too, he deployed Ivan Rakitic, Marcao and Erik Lamela against Valencia (all of whom he knew were going to have to produce mighty work, from the start, in the second leg against United.)

Mendilibar believes you win what’s in front of you, never mind holding aces up your sleeve.

Then, having thrashed Eric ten Hag’s team 3-0 in the second leg, on a night of huge physical and emotional energy expenditure, only another three nights later, when Sunday’s home match against Villarreal was precariously balanced at 1-1, he summonsed the exhausted Navas, Lucas Ocampos, En Nesyri and Lamela off the bench — all but one of whom had put in huge 90-minute shifts against the Premier League side.

The team which had been showing their bewilderment, frustration and disdain at their last, self-destructive, coach responded with a 94th-minute winner (En Nesyri) to go eight points clear of the relegation zone.

Mendilibar will appreciate my straight talking when I state that none of this guarantees Sevilla will give him a permanent contract when the season ends. That’s just football.

So, for the mean time, saddle up and enjoy the ride.

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How soccer saboteur Mendilibar turned revived Sevilla