Last Saturday, Betis welcomed Catalonian-based side Espanyol to the Estadio Benito Villamarín in match day twenty-nine of the La Liga season. Coming into the match, Espanyol found themselves comfortably perched in the lower half of the table, away from any kind of relegation scrap but also a fair distance away from the European spots. Contrastingly, Real Betis were right in the mix for the lower European spots. Knowing their nearest rivals in the table, Girona, had a trip to the Bernabéu the following day, this posed as a great opportunity to draw level on points with the seventh-placed side heading into the international break.
Betis’ Positional Play
One of the things that has been so impressive about this Quique Setién side this season has been their adaptability to alter their tactics towards their opponents each game, whilst still managing to maintain a good level of consistency in the systems they use. Right now, Setién appears to have hit a perfect level of balance between managing the attributes of the squad and altering tactics to exploit specific opponents’ weaknesses. This was evident in Saturday’s clash with Espanyol where their orchestrated attacking movements worked on a number of occasions. What’s more, each possession that takes place includes an incredibly precise level of detail, ensuring Betis have qualitative, numerical, positional and/or dynamic advantages across the field.
As pictured below, these were the setups for both sides. Quique Flores appeared to be replicating the approach of Valencia’s against Betis, that had proved so successful a fortnight prior to this clash. This involved pushing the wide midfielders up into the first line to overload Betis’ back-three. However, this was poorly executed due to the lack of vertical compactness since the midfield and defensive lines behind them failed to push up to apply adequate pressure to central receivers. What’s more, Betis’ structure was perfectly set up to exploit this open-channel approach from Espanyol. Forming a diamond centrally, whilst maintaining width through the positioning of the wing-backs enabled Betis to overload the channels between each Espanyol midfielder, whilst also occupying the centre. With the vertical connection between Ryad Boudebouz (the player at the head of the diamond in this picture) and Javi García (the player pictured at the base of the diamond), Betis could thus open the space for either receiver as neither of Espanyol’s central-midfielders could step up too high nor drop too deep as it would allow for increased open space for one of the two Betis midfielders.
Although Betis’ approach centrally was much better than it was against Valencia, another flaw in Espanyol’s approach was their inability to close down the space for wing-backs to receive and play in. Valencia ensured they could easily double-up, or even triple-up, to pressure the wing-back and then direct play into one tight passing lane. Espanyol weren’t set up to force this kind of trap due to the open space in the second line of defence either side of the pressing shape and the numerical overload Betis had.
Having discussed the flaws of Espanyol’s defensive structure, here’s how Betis looked to exploited this…
Betis had been pulling off this kind of orchestrated attack throughout the first half. The first step was to draw Espanyol to one side. This was done by using Jordi Amat to bring the ball more central, thus attracting a press from the ball-sided wide midfielder, therefore narrowing Espanyol’s shape. Amat would then lay it off to one of the two other centre-backs, Marc Bartra or Aïssa Mandi. There was a staggered positioning to the back-three, with Bartra deeper, to open up the space further for when they received, making them harder to press.
The next stage involved passing through Espanyol’s first line. There are a few parts to this – drop-in movement triggers, diagonal entries and wall passes. With Betis’ interiors positioned on the blind-side of Espanyol’s midfield, whenever one of the centre-backs was unpressured with the ball, that was their trigger to make a drop-in movement. And, since they were moving from the blind-side, their movements were untracked.
Equally, another key aspect of possession play under Setién is the use of diagonal passes. These open up the angles more for the receiver, who can play on the half-turn, making it easier to play off of than facing almost entirely with their back-to-goal. This can be seen in every move Betis produce.
Finally, there is the feature of wall passes. This links back to that stretching of space vertically between García and Boudebouz. Wall passes are a great way of evading pressure and creating better angles for the next player. As can be seen below, Fabián (the first receiver) is in no way prepared to turn with the ball coming into him as he has a presser and he’s not fully forward-facing at this point. Compare this to García, who is on the half-turn and is completely unmarked. This shortcut into him to evade the cover shadow of Espanyol’s central presser means he can receive with a completely open angle facing towards the forward options, especially since he can’t be pressed due to the open blind-side positioning of Boudebouz and Loren (the striker).
As emphasised above, Boudebouz plays a key part in stopping the central-midfielder from being able to step up and press García. Again, there are a number of steps to this next phase and a number of triggers. A key one refers back to what happened with the open centre-backs. When García opens up the play, this is the trigger for Betis’ interiors to push up into the last line and fill the half-spaces higher up the pitch. Although both of these players are being tightly covered here, there is another way to evade this, again, similar to the way they evaded Espanyol’s first line of pressure.
Whilst the interiors push forward, Boudebouz contrasts this movement by dropping towards the ball. This time he does have an active marker, but it’s the centre-back, which is good as that opens up Espanyol’s last line of defence further. From here, Boudebouz can be used as the middle-man to access the interiors through the use of wall passes, just like how they did to get it into Javi García. This creates a number of dynamic advantages for the next receiver as they receive forward-facing, taking the ball in their stride and the Espanyol players also aren’t able to keep up with the movement as it forms from the blind-side of the nearest marker. What stays true to this pre-planned attack is that it will always be fed into Fabián, in the right half-space, to keep play to the more congested side.
The final part of this attack is the switch. Going from overload to underload. What’s great about this is that both Boudebouz and Fabián are perfectly able to execute this, as the ball that is required is better coming from a left-footed player who can execute an in-swinging switch of play. Just before that, however, there are more triggers that are used to open up the space further. First is that of Loren. Since one centre-back has already been dragged out of position, the initially ball-far-positioned striker then acts to drag his marker across to the previous centre-back’s position, so to once again skew Espanyol’s defensive shape towards the right side. Additionally, there is the half-space movement of Andrés Guardado, on the ball-far side, who can attract two markers (the one nearest to him in this picture and potentially the opposition’s full-back, if his runs are advanced enough). This can act as a decoy but it can also provide an easy option for the ball-carrier to play it inside if necessary.
Now, the most important part of the attack is Júnior Firpo. The wing-back is the player exploiting that change from overload to underload. He begins deep but once the ball-holder in the ball-far half-space opens up the angle, that is the trigger for him to make the run into the box off the back of the opposition’s full-back. Similar to Callejón’s well-known back-post runs for Napoli, this looks to make use of the attacker’s blind-sided positioning and the dynamic advantage created by the momentum of his run. The aforementioned advantage of it being an in-swinging pass here is that the player can receive the pass in their stride, whereas an out-swinging pass back away from goal might make it hard to control in the same way.
Ultimately, this possession passage that was able to exploit Espanyol’s defensive structure on numerous occasions is what to led to Betis taking the lead through Júnior. Here are some examples of this in un-anottated video form, including the goal and this annotated example. Although they don’t always include every single step of the example above, they include the core aspects that are needed to break through Espanyol’s lines of pressure, as well as the rotations Betis commonly use to maintain a positional structure and to open up passing lanes. Additionally, this consistent structure enables them to counter-press effectively and break up Espanyol’s attempts to counter.
So, Setién has claimed another three-points and his Betis side has taken another crucial step towards European qualification inside the manager’s first season at the club. And, with this new system in place, Setién appears to have found a structure that benefits the strengths and the weaknesses of the profiles in this side at a key point in the season.