“Given the choice between a tractor and football, it was an easy decision.” No one in Pablo Machín’s family of farmers liked football and Gómara – population then 752, population now 310 – was a town without a team, but Pablo had other ideas. This was not among them, mind you. A defender whose career was ended by a torn cruciate, he had not got very far – Spain’s regionalised third tier was the highest level he played – and, although he took his coaching badges while doing social work in lieu of military service, the first team he coached was a school team and he qualified as a teacher instead because there was no way he would make it. The team he coaches now began this weekend as the best in Spain.
Machín is only 43, which makes it sound as if it all happened fast. It feels as if it has happened fast too, not least because it is only four years since he left the province of Soria where Gómara stands exposed on the plain, and one and a half since he made his primera debut, but it has not really. It is 20 years since that knee injury. He worked as an analyst, goalkeeper coach and assistant and, although he finally managed Numancia, his team, he departed in tears, the atmosphere bitter, and fearing it was over. When someone finally called, it was a club in administration and on the verge of relegation. He, meanwhile, was alone: the day he won his first game, he celebrated by going to the cinema, one of two men sitting silently in the dark.
It had begun. Girona went up to primera and a whole lot more; and this summer Pablo Machín joined Sevilla. Even then there were doubts. Which is one reason why there are so few doubts now, even after the team that went into the weekend top came out of it no longer there. Four weeks into the season, Sevilla had won once, on the opening day at Rayo.
They had been beaten by their rivals Betis and got turned over at home by Getafe. There were angry whistles – insert your own rage against the Machín reference here – and chants for the president, Pepe Castro, to resign. Four weeks later they led the league for the first time in a decade (the opening day apart), having scored more than any Sevilla side since their one title success in 1946.
“A few weeks ago it was all a disaster; now we’re top,” Castro said.
That week Machín had taken a stroll round the club’s museum. During one interview a couple of days later he was asked: “Did you ask them to make space for you?” – a variation on the old joke about thieves breaking into a stadium, stealing everything they could find and police looking for a man with a carpet, adapted to a club that has played 17 finals, made the Uefa Cup their own and won nine titles in 12 years, but has not won the league for 72. Set up for the punchline and better still the headline, Machín replied: “What I saw was a lot of corridors; there’s space for more cups still.”
Few seriously expected the league title to fill one of the spaces. Castro talked about keeping their feet on the ground, insisting: “The league is not our objective.” Machín said he would wait to see where they were with eight or 10 games to go before knowing what their real level is, admitting: “I don’t expect to stay there.” Nor did they. That same weekend they faced Barcelona, first against second, and lost.
At the same time, though, Machín admitted it was hard to control the excitement in a city like Seville and the league is silly enough this season that the idea did not seem quite so daft. Sevilla were off top at the end of week eight but back there at the end of week 13. On the Friday night Alavés could have gone top but did not; on the Saturday night, Barcelona could have gone top but did not; and at the same time Atlético Madrid, too, could have gone top but they did not either.
So the following night Sevilla did. A week on, on Sunday night, they had to come from behind to get a draw at Alavés, slipping off the top again. That allowed Barcelona to regain the leadership.
And that, it may be thought, is that.
But this time there is optimism that it need not be. Sevilla might not be perfect but they have impressed under a new manager and a new sporting director, off the back of a 2017-18 season that, while containing great moments, ended badly. Asked if their top spot was anecdótico, Machín replied: “No, it’s meritorio,” and he is right. His preference for 3-5-2, so successful at Girona, has fitted Sevilla well, while some pieces have fallen into place almost by chance. Injury has meant relatively little opportunity for some of their signings; it has also meant trying things that he might not have done otherwise.
The Getafe game was a turning point, bringing a slight shift in system. As Machín himself puts it: “The injuries made me go a little mad and say: ‘If we have a lot of attacking players and they are in good form, why not challenge us to make a solid team from eminently offensive players?’” That meant an extra striker, Wissam Ben Yedder joining Andre Silva up front: their partnership has worked perfectly.
It also brought Ever Banega to the role of defensive midfielder and left Franco “Mudo” (The Mute) Vázquez deep with him. It gave greater responsibility to Pablo Sarabia too, an attacker as midfielder: his introduction on Sunday night was fundamental again.
It worked. In their next four games they scored five, six, three and three. Madrid were torn apart. Ben Yedder has six goals; only Cristhian Stuani, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez have more than André Silva. Only Messi has provided more assists than Pablo Sarabia. Jesus Navas has flown, perfectly suited to the wing-back role. Banega – yes, Banega – has won the ball back more than anyone else in Spain.
“He’s our lighthouse, our guide,” Machín says. “He may not have the physique but he makes up for it with knowledge and tactical intelligence.”
He has not always made life easy for himself – this is the man who ran over his own foot, breaking his ankle; whose car caught fire; and who was spotted one-hand internet surfing – but, says the centre-back Sergi Gómez, “he makes life easy to for. You just give him the ball and he sorts everything out.” As for his midfield partner, Machín says: “He might be mute but …” But he, a player supposedly of subtlety, slipping in and out of games, puts the boot in too: there is more consistency to go with the quality.
The doubt may be how long they can keep this going. Sevilla have already played 27 games this season going back to July, which may in part explain some of their success in the short term. There is an inescapable reality too: other teams are stronger – and yet perhaps less strong than in previous seasons. Barcelona do not entirely convince. Nor do Madrid and Atlético. Only one of the top eight won last weekend and this is a league where the two top scorers, Stuani and Iago Aspas, are from Girona and Celta, a league that will give you a chance. None of Europe’s top leagues have changed leadership as often.
Three points separate the top three, five the top five. Leganés, bottom, beat Barcelona. Eibar hammered Madrid. The side that Sevilla drew with on Sunday beat Gareth Bale and company too. The night they defeated Madrid, Alavés briefly went top and this weekend they were momentarily second. Now in a Champions League place, Alavés have not lost at home since April. Since Abelardo has been in charge, only three teams have better records. It took a late Ben Yedder goal to rescue a point for Sevilla.
“We could taste the victory,” Banega said, but they could not take it. Sevilla slipped off the top again. Both times they lasted just a week at the summit and there was perhaps a bit of back-to-reality about it. But, Machín insisted, this was a good result and maybe he was right. Sevilla might not be back on top again but they are back and no one expected this, not even Machín. “If we’re in a Champions League place at the end of the season, I’ll be clapping with my ears,” he said.
• “We played frankly very well,” Santi Solari said. Which was true in the first half when, in the words of Santi Mina, Valencia “stank”. But the only goal was an own goal and in the second Valencia had the chances, four clear opportunities, to have caught Real Madrid until Lucas Vázquez added a second. And what a difference Dani Carvajal makes.
• Leganés: three away goals all season; four away goals in one afternoon.
• Espanyol: another team with the chance to go top who did not take it have now lost three in a row. This time Getafe beat them 3-0. The first was perhaps the most Jorge Molina goal Jorge Molina has ever scored.
•Barcelona were not always brilliant and Messi looked a little bored at times but Ousmane Dembélé, who seemed to be trying to break the Cruyff turn world record at one point, was good. Gerard Piqué scored the first. And then Messi and Carles Aleñá combined for a lovely second.