FEATURE | How Real Betis are exceeding all expectations

Sixteen games into the La Liga season and Real Betis sit in third place on the back of a magnificent win away at Camp Nou against FC Barcelona. Nearly exactly three years on from their previous fairytale win against Barça, things have never looked quite as bright for the men in green and white as they do now in recent times. Manuel Pellegrini continues to exceed all expectations. Under his guidance, there have been notable changes to things that had become typical of Betis in the past; and despite arguably not having a squad as good as their direct rivals in the table, Betis have kept punching above their weight this season.

Just a look at the simpler statistics is enough to suggest the improvement in Betis. Although Betis finished 6th last season, there is a stark contrast in their performance now compared to 12 months back. Betis’ tally of 30 points is 11 better than their haul this time last year. They’re seven goals better off and have conceded 12 less, resulting in them sitting 3rd instead of 11th. What makes this immense upturn in form even more impressive is the fact that Betis lost arguably their two most important defensive mainstays over the summer: Aissa Mandi headed to rivals Villarreal whereas right-back Emerson returned to Barcelona after the end of his loan spell, before eventually joining Tottenham.

The loss of Mandi and Emerson coupled with Betis’ unexceptional summer acquisitions meant that they were expected to fall off from their Europa League place. Their early-season form suggested as much, as they began the campaign with two uninspiring draws to Mallorca and Cádiz before slumping to defeat at home to Real Madrid. Betis followed this up by barely scraping three points against Granada, having to rely on a late goal of individual majesty by star man Sergio Canales. Betis then squandered a lead to Espanyol next, ending week 5 with just six points, the same old inconsistencies the main theme across all their performances.

Unprecedentedly, henceforth, Pellegrini engineered a spectacular surge in results. Key to this has been his success in reviving the form of fringe players, of whom winger Juanmi’s example shines brightest. Juanmi had thus far had a rather mediocre career at Betis, with two years of inconsistent end product and no decisive contributions, to the extent that even a meagre fee of €8 million seemed a waste for his services. But Juanmi has been flying in 2021/22. He sits third at the moment in La Liga’s top scorer list with nine and has come up clutch on more than a few occasions already. The hat-trick against Levante was the confirmation of Juanmi’s incredible run of form, and the winner against Barça came as no surprise a week after. Juanmi has his sync with ex-Real Sociedad hunting partner Willian José, and the two have contributed to more than half of Los Verdiblancos’ goals.

Portuguese midfielder William Carvalho has been another who has recaptured his form. A player of unquestionable grace and a very high performance ceiling, William had never been able to quite live up to lofty expectations in his three years at Betis and was inches away from a transfer in August. The failure of any move going through has been a blessing in disguise for Betis, as William has forged a great connection with Argentine Guido Rodríguez in holding midfield, allowing Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1 to flourish, and offering more freedom to the creative geniuses of Fekir and especially Canales. The examples don’t stop at just these two. Pellegrini revived a misfiring Borja Iglesias last season, and his free signings of Víctor Ruiz and Claudio Bravo (32 and 38 years old respectively) have performed well beyond expectation and become vital first-team players.

Not only has Pellegrini reinvigorated the older players, but a lot of young players have also grown in importance. Chief among them are defender Edgar González and winger Rodri Sánchez. Both developed in Betis’ junior teams. The former has come to prominence following Mandi’s departure, and has been the best centre-back at the club this season; the latter has proven to be a real livewire, displaying supreme confidence and control and not looking out of place even alongside two of the division’s best attacking midfielders.

Finally, praise must be showered on Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales. The two are always scintillating to watch and oh-so-crucial to Betis’ success.

In spite of the rich vein of form, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Betis could well be higher. An odd seven days amidst their great season – where they lost to Atlético and the heated derby against Sevilla either side of receiving a hammering from Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League – highlighted that the inconsistencies have not been ironed out. The defence still has several lacklustre moments, particularly through the fullbacks, and the worry of an error at the back seems to loom at large irrespective of how well the team flourishes at the other end.

Pellegrini, in contrast to his predecessors, has also managed to ensure another essential: to beat the teams that they’re expected to beat. Betis, for all their brilliant football and occasional giant-killing performances, have struggled for consistency in the past. Under the Chilean, however, Betis have dispatched inferior teams with more conviction.

Competition is rife in the European spots and Betis will need to be on their toes if they are to sustain this form. Pellegrini, fondly referred to as ‘The Engineer’, has successfully re-built the club after the disastrous 2019/20 season under Rubi. None of Pellegrini’s signings in his year and a half at the club have been fancy – indeed, Betis’ acquisitions in this period have cost merely €3.5 million combined – but they have been shrewd and perfectly aligned with his vision. He has overseen the resurgence of older players, trusted the club’s youth, and brought renewed confidence among the fans. Los Verdiblancos have come back from losing positions to rescue points and even wins a number of times under Pellegrini; the disgruntlement of fans at the Benito Villamarín consequently affecting the players’ morale is rarer these days. Betis now play vibrant offensive football, similarly attractive to the Cruyffian style Quique Setién aimed to instill some seasons back, along with a sense of ruthlessness. If Betis can minimise their defensive irregularities, there’s every reason that even the push for a Champions League spot can be prolonged well into the season’s climax.

Roddur Mookherjee

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