Real Betis head into their UEFA Europa League tie against Manchester United full of confidence. Fifth in LaLiga and with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season, we look at how Manuel Pellegrini has taken them to this point.
Most Premier League fans will remember Manuel Pellegrini for his time with Manchester City before the Pep Guardiola era began at the club. But the Chilean – known as ‘the Engineer’ – rose to prominence during his spell with Málaga and then Villarreal. His Villarreal side made it to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League before losing to Arsenal. His Málaga team were a couple of questionable refereeing decisions away from doing the same.
The project he is currently overseeing in at the Benito Villamarín is one of Spain’s most exciting and it has even brought success to a club that wears its losses like a badge of honour. ‘Viva el Betis manque pierda’ goes the saying. It means we love you Betis, even when we lose. They won the Copa del Rey last season and it was their first major trophy in 17 years despite being, arguably, Spain’s third best-supported club.
They are currently ranked 29th in the Opta Power Rankings and are the fourth best team in Spain behind the big three, Pellegrini has brought order and stability to a volatile Real Betis squad. He has them chasing a top four spot in LaLiga and looking forward to the challenge of facing Manchester United in the last 16 of the Europa League.
Aside from a few tweaks to modernise his approach, Pellegrini still plays with a 4-2-3-1 and adopts an ‘organised chaos’ approach with versatile players littered across the pitch and in a system where freedom of movement is encouraged.
How does he make it work?
The Foundations of Real Betis’ Style
There is an idealistic streak that runs through the green and white of Betis. Pellegrini’s experience and his dedication to attacking football was a match made in heaven. Betis have always tried to play beautiful football and have often achieved that objective, Pellegrini the same. But within Betis’ attempts to play a possession-based style lay a fatal flaw. They might score three goals and dominate the game but they were also just as likely to concede four on the break. Calamitous defending and Betis almost went hand-in-hand and it always put a ceiling on their potential.
Pellegrini has fixed that with a more sensible approach this season. Betis no longer hold possession for the sake of it. They have fixed their transition defence and established a solid and reliable back four with an aggressive and consistent double-pivot. That is the platform upon which they have built one of Spain’s best attacks.
Their average possession figure in the league is just 50.5% this year, which is as low as it has been in the last six seasons. They have a higher expected goals per game rate (1.52) than any of the previous 10 seasons on record and have committed just one error leading to a goal this season – that number was as high as 13 last season. In 24 games across 2022-23, they have only made five errors leading to opposition shots, which is less than half their total overall last season (11), with 14 games to go.
Betis’ New-Found Defensive Solidity
Pellegrini’s double-pivot of Guido Rodriguez and William Carvalho is the perfect balance of defensive solidity and passing range. It is the launchpad for everything Betis do and it makes the attacking intricacies possible. Carvalho is the constant and he is most often accompanied by Rodriguez but that can sometimes be Andres Guardado.
The Chilean remarked after leaving Real Madrid that “it’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist”. In his Real Betis side, Carvalho is the one playing the piano.
Carvalho’s 163 passes into the final third is eighth in LaLiga among midfielders. He is the perfect box-to-box midfielder for Pellegrini. The Portuguese international reads the game well and can move seamlessly from defence to attack. There are key players like Sergio Canales and Fekir in attack but without the building block of Carvalho, none of it matters.
With Rodriguez and Guardado comfortable dropping into the backline and receiving the ball, it allows Carvalho to think one step ahead. Rodriguez has turned from a defensive midfielder into a deeper-lying playmaker. Carvalho has gone from a deeper-lying playmaker to a more box-to-box, progressive midfielder. The evolution across the squad follows this trend. Pellegrini prizes versatility and while they can both defend with the best of them, they are asked to step outside their comfort zone and do more.
The graphic below is the perfect example of Betis’ build-up and progression up the field. Guido is used when Mallorca decide to shut off passing options to Carvalho. Once Mallorca commit to stopping Betis moving the ball up the field on the left, Carvalho knows there will be space in front of the defence.
Fekir has dropped out of the number 10 space and Borja Iglesias is on the move too, leaving the midfielders overloaded and stretched. That’s when Carvalho moves forward, collects the ball facing goal and feeds Fekir.
The build-up is four-versus-six, and Mallorca are completely stretched. By committing more men to the build-up phase, it also means you’re less likely to get hurt if a mistake happens. Pellegrini has perfected the art of getting less from more in attack while ensuring the build-up phase is organised and insured against a mistake.
This is one of the key principles of Betis’ build-up. In this example, it doesn’t get to the point where Betis need to drop another player but with Guido dropping into the defence, it makes space for Canales or Fekir to drop too and sit beside Carvalho if necessary. The versatility Pellegrini prizes above most means Betis always have solutions.
Among LaLiga clubs his season, only Rayo Vallecano attack less through the middle of the pitch than Real Betis, but above is an example of the attacking midfield vacating space in front of the defence and Carvalho taking advantage of that space to use his playmaking ability. Only five midfielders in LaLiga have more than his nine through balls this season.
They use Canales and Fekir to pull the midfield and defence left, right and deep before sending the ball into the middle and then back outside again. It’s safer to lose the ball out wide than it is centrally and Betis’ improved defensive record speaks to a more solidly built team.
Vacating the number 10 position is Canales, Rodri and Fekir’s job before the injury. Filling it in order to link play is Borja Iglesias. He looks like a traditional number nine but drops deeper to link play when space appears. Likewise, Carvalho pushes forward from deep to find spaces where opposition midfielders have left unmanned as they try to keep track of Rodri, Canales and Fekir.
From there, it becomes a numbers game on the wing. Overlapping full-backs and inverted wingers help to confuse opposition defences with the creative Fekir and Canales also on hand to take the ball and take advantage of the disorganised opposition defence.
Pellegrini lost Alex Moreno during the winter transfer market but if there’s one thing Betis know what to do, it’s spotting a full-back and developing their potential. Emerson Royal and Junior Firpo being two of the most recent examples. Youssef Sabaly is another success story for Betis. They signed him for free two summers ago and he has become a mainstay in Pellegrini’s best XI.
Real Betis have been smart in the transfer market. This is partly due to economic restrictions in LaLiga, but they bought young players who have contributed immediately. But equally as important has been Pellegrini’s willingness to promote from within when necessary.
Rodri, for example, is 22 and has been at Betis since he was a teenager. He is the perfect example of the versatile attacker Pellegrini needs in order to make his system work.
Luiz Henrique, 21, has been a revelation too, since joining in the summer from Fluminese. Sergio Canales remains the most influential player on the team from a creative perspective but Luiz Henrique is a one-man shot creator on the right, cutting inside and using his direct speed to hurt teams.
The variety in their attack also means Pellegrini can change games when necessary. Ayoze Pérez, Juanmi and Rodri offer three very different profiles and have all featured on the left. They have gotten younger this year and the both Luiz Henrique and Luiz Felipe provide examples of some of the best summer business we saw in Spain last year. Abner, who replaced Alex Moreno after he signed for Villa, is another young player who has adapted well to life in Seville and under Pellegrini.
Pellegrini engineered improbable European cup runs at both Málaga and Villarreal – two underdogs. He also managed Real Madrid, winning a then-club record 96 points in 2009-10 and he won a Premier League title with Manchester City four years later. Real Betis are a massive club with a rich history but not a successful one, but Pellegrini looks to be on the path to bridging that gap.
Click on the image below for our preview of the UEFA Europa League first leg game between Real Betis and Manchester United: