Written by Andrew Miller
Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment at the Benito Villamarín last summer represented much more than just another manager in Betis’ recent conveyor belt in and out of the club. It was a true statement of intent.
Hiring a household name with proven tactics and Premier League-winning pedigree wasn’t only an admission that the often-criticised board of directors were finally hearing what the fans were saying, but an action beyond their words to show they were all on the same page. “Now is the time for improvement, and it must stem from organisational change”.
Last season was a stark reminder that relegation back into Segunda is a very real and daunting possibility for any club in LaLiga, even one of the size and with the resource of Real Betis.
On paper, hiring Rubi, a relatively young head coach cut from the same philosophical cloth as Quique Setién, seemed like perfect transitional move. The club invested record amounts of money to surround the former Espanyol manager with the quality needed to get Betis back into European football and continue to build upon the foundations laid by his predecessor.
That included a 20th-century record transfer (and Betis’ second-most expensive ever) in Borja Iglesias – a player that Rubi himself had closely tutored and developed to become one of the most prolific strikers in the Top 5 European leagues just one season prior – and a seemingly low-risk, high-reward ‘Hail Mary’ signing of long-term Liverpool target and World Cup-winner Nabil Fekir from Lyon whose stock had fallen dramatically due to injury, and who was in search of pastures new to rebuild his once-stellar reputation at the elite level.
Couple that with the arrivals of Álex Moreno to fill the gap left by Junior Firpo’s move to the Camp Nou, Guido Rodríguez to provide some defensive grit ahead of the back line, and a 50/50 transfer agreement with Barcelona for blistering young Brazilian full-back Emerson – and the squad was well-rounded and bolstered with a nice balance of youth and experience to mount another charge on a top-half finish.
But they didn’t. Quite the opposite in fact.
Things started just as poorly as they ended for Betis last season. A gut-wrenching home loss to Real Valladolid in the opening game, an inability to capitalise on the “weaker” teams in the league and the worst defensive record of all 20 teams left a gaping, manager-sized hole that needed to be plugged to stop the bleeding.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Arrival
Of all the names thrown around in the summer, Manuel Pellegrini’s held significantly more water than his competitors. In fact, the Chilean has a reputation that very few managers in history can match: he is a Premier League winner, a Copa Sudamericana winner and has more than 300 first-division victories under his belt. As one of the most experienced managerial candidates in all of Europe, he is exactly the profile Ángel Haro scoured the globe for.
At the beginning of the season, Pellegrini had a huge job to do in turning over an inconsistent and incoherent squad without the budget to make any big-money signings. Claudio Bravo, Martín Montoya and Víctor Ruiz headlined an underwhelming summer of free transfers to add an element of depth and seniority to a worryingly leaky back line.
Barcelona and former Betis cantera graduate Juan Miranda was also brought in to deputise for Álex Moreno on the left flank, but after his torrid time on loan in the Bundesliga with a flailing Schalke team, it wasn’t a move that instilled much optimism into the Betis faithful.
Los Verdiblancos opened the season two victories out of two, with a last-second winner away to Alavés and a payback 2-0 success at home to Real Valladolid following last season’s opening draw – so the turnaround looked to be very much on. Two clean sheets in immediate succession, a revelation that hadn’t been achieved even once by Rubi, or by the club as a whole in LaLiga since December 2018 under then-manager Quique Setién.
But it didn’t take long for the vulnerabilities to rear their ugly heads once again. A blown 2-1 lead over Real Madrid at home, and a 3-0 obliteration at the hands of José Bordalás’ Getafe opened the floodgates for a rough two-month stretch of few highs and many lows.
Just one win against newly-promoted Elche in Betis’ four games during the month of November naturally raised tension and pressures from within, as the media began reporting that Pellegrini’s job may be in jeopardy.
Despite a blistering start to the season and scoring his first and second goals since joining Betis in 2018, William Carvalho struggled to make the defensive impact he was brought in to have. The double-pivot partnership of Carvalho and Guido Rodríguez wasn’t bearing enough fruit to justify their continuation, and following the Portuguese suffering a muscular injury, he was subsequently side-lined.
Another apparent “blessing in disguise” was that of Marc Bartra’s heel issue, which had kept him out of the side since late December and not so coincidentally around the time Real Betis started to turn things around.
Engineering A Tactical Turnaround
The absence of Carvalho and Bartra opened the door for Manuel Pellegrini to re-evaluate how his team was set up. The familiar 4-2-3-1 formation remains, but with slightly less strict positional structure and a better sense of creative movement.
Víctor Ruiz and Aïssa Mandi became the first-choice centre-back pairing, allowing a more balanced and defensively astute protective wall ahead of the goalkeeper. Juan Miranda took Álex Moreno’s spot on the left flank which cut down on the individual errors that, game after game, left the centre-backs exposed and susceptible to pressure in key areas.
The Barcelona loanee contributes less attacking versatility than Moreno, but he’s a more intelligent and positionally aware option, which in turn, grants the forwards and wingers more space to operate out wide without having to worry about covering the overlap.
The return of Sergio Canales following his injury on international duty cannot be understated in this resurgence.
At 30 years old, the Cantabrian is having the best season of his career by a mile, and a lot of it is down to Pellegrini’s decision to re-jig the midfield and give Canales more space and freedom to drift out wide and cut back in across the middle where his impact in front of goal can be maximised.
In just 21 games, Canales has already eclipsed his goal contribution numbers from last season. He currently ranks 10th in LaLiga for total goals and assists, his shot-creations actions per 90 minutes have risen from 3.93 to 4.26 (which ranks sixth in the league) and the pressure to contribute defensively has been eased massively.
Last season the Spaniard took an average of 12 touches inside the defensive third compared to 7.61 this season, mainly due to the emergence of Guido Rodríguez as the team’s midfield enforcer, allowing Canales to maintain a position higher up the pitch. His average touches inside the final third have risen from 27 to 31 per 90, and his goals per shot on target have risen to a career-high 0.63 due to the higher-quality chances that he’s able to get on the end of.
Despite still being one of the top midfielders in the league, a big criticism from fans last season was the misuse of Canales in a double-pivot, leaving him out of his comfort zone and limiting his attacking contributions, so Manuel Pellegrini’s newly-embraced confidence in having Betis’ number 10 run the show has naturally gone down very well with the support.
A new lease of life under Manuel Pellegrini for striker Borja Iglesias has also been like a new signing for the club.
A position with no clear first-choice option until now, Pellegrini had relied on a sporadic rotation of Loren Morón, Tonny Sanabria and Borja, but with five important goals in his last five appearances, the former Espanyol hitman is finally resembling the player that Betis broke the bank for last summer.
The Push For European Football
Despite the shaky losses and visible inconsistencies early on, Betis are now firmly in contention for a spot in one of UEFA’s European football competitions next season, just three points behind Real Sociedad who occupy the Europa League spot and two ahead of Villarreal after 27 games.
Since the turn of the year, Betis have only lost two of their 11 LaLiga games (against second-placed Barcelona and fourth-placed Sevilla) and have gone toe-to-toe with some of their key top-six competitors on more than one occasion.
There was a rapturously important 2-1 victory over Unai Emery’s struggling Villarreal side to leapfrog them in the race for the final European spot. A gritty 1-0 home win over Getafe. A draw against derby rivals Sevilla. A draw against Real Sociedad who sit just 1 place above them in the table. Perhaps even more crucially, though, Betis have finally shown the consistency to put away lesser teams like Huesca, Cádiz, Celta Vigo and more recently a dazzling comeback celebration party over Alavés in matchday 26 after being down 2-0 in the first half.
There’s still a long way to go before the season concludes, but Manuel Pellegrini’s carefully coordinated turnaround of this team has given Betis fans a renewed sense of hope and excitement with the prospect of European football on the horizon, a strong core of international players to continue building around this summer, and a manager at the helm with the necessary tools to manufacture a new era at the Benito Villamarín.
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