Real Betis signing Rubi from Espanyol last summer was a statement of intent. It was a sign that the club were focused on building a sustainable future for themselves after a yo-yo couple of seasons back in the top flight.
On paper, the appointment worked perfectly. Rubi presented a somewhat similar style to Quique Setién (who Betis had sacked just a few weeks prior) with a strong, possession-based philosophy and marrying this with a newly upgraded playing squad should have brought considerable momentum into this season.
Unfortunately, not everything that works on paper, works on the pitch.
The club invested heavily over the summer. Borja Iglesias, who was Espanyol’s top scorer under Rubi last season joined the club in August to follow Lyon’s World Cup winning No.10 Nabil Fekir in headlining a new-look attacking line in the Benito Villamarín.
Alfonso Pedraza and Álex Moreno filled the gaping hole left by Junior Firpo after his move to Barcelona, and the club signed Spain under-21 goalkeeper Dani Martín from Sporting Gijón as an understudy to newly promoted first-choice Joel Robles.
The one leak that wasn’t plugged, however, was the record-breaking departure of Argentine midfield maestro Giovani Lo Celso. The 24-year-old joined Tottenham Hotspur on a similar loan-to-buy deal that brought him to Betis just a year before, allowing the team to facilitate the deals for their attacking reinforcements, but failed to sign a suitable “do it all” replacement through the middle.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly how it’s gone so wrong with Real Betis this season, but the defensive frailties are a good place to start.
Joel Robles has cost Los Beticos greatly with his run of poor individual performances. Some could argue he’s been a product of the terribly uncoordinated back line ahead of him, but the 30-year-old stopper shouldn’t get off that lightly.
The former Everton keeper has only managed five clean sheets so far in 34 games, which has Betis second last in the league for goals conceded just ahead of survival hopefuls Real Mallorca in the relegation drop-zone.
Robles fails even the simple eye-test. The indecisiveness on whether to come out of his box, apply pressure and lack of adjusting his positioning on set pieces always seems to leave something more to be desired.
Marc Bartra is another individual name that has been constantly on the lips of fans, and not in a good way. The former Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund centre-back has looked a shell of himself this season. Perfectly suited to playing out from the back, Bartra was signed from the former Bundesliga champions because of his ball-playing qualities to partner Aïssa Mandi in this system. Under Rubi, however, it’s been a season of careless mistakes, unnecessary fouls and a serious lack of understanding between the defence and midfield.
The loss of Giovanni Lo Celso cannot be understated. The Argentine’s ability to tie everything together was the glue that held the squad together on the pitch, operating as a single cohesive unit and they never managed to replicate that. Guido Rodríguez has picked up his performances in recent games, slotting nicely in just ahead of the defence but doesn’t bring anywhere near the same attacking threat or creativity that Lo Celso did.
The defensive issues are the biggest problem for Betis this season, there is no doubt about that, but there’s also a camaraderie aspect that feels missing within this squad. The unspoken recognition and understanding of movement, positioning, the inter-play between the wide players and the strikers never blossomed the way anyone expected it to.
Borja Iglesias was brought in for a record 28 million euros and has struggled massively to make almost any impact at all. Bringing a proven reputation of link up play with the midfielders, dropping deep to pick up the ball and create space for the players around him, and finishing the chances around the box that should have been served up on a silver platter from Nabil Fekir. The reality, however, is three goals in 31 league appearances for the club and a constant struggle to involve himself in the build-up, having been overshadowed by Loren Morón’s blistering start and never quite managed to recover.
For Rubi, it just never clicked.
Arguably the most exciting and highly anticipated new signing since Ricardo Oliveira in 2004, Nabil Fekir has been the clear-cut best player in the team, and yet, being constantly deployed out of his preferred position the entire year has limited his effectiveness, and that solely comes down to Rubi.
What makes Fekir such an influential star is his ability to react to turnovers and initiate a counter-attacking run, his vision and passing open up lanes and spaces that no other player in the squad could see, his low centre of gravity and strength make him the perfect “turn and distribute” asset ahead of the midfield, but under Rubi, was condemned to a life of playing wide on the right and cutting inside with the ball.
Couple this with Sergio Canales playing as a deeper-lying option on the left-hand side of a double pivot, Marc Bartra slotting into a defensive midfield role that he has no business being in, and on-loan Barcelona starlet Carles Aleñá used sparingly as an impact substitute to cover defensive gaps, it just all seemed to go wrong for Rubi.
It’s no secret that there are deeper issues at play with Real Betis. The club still has whiplash from past failures and a period of yo-yoing up and down the Spanish top flight, but the foundation of a possible success, is at least evident in this squad. There’s a good mix of younger players beginning to shine through the cracks, the in-their-prime blocks of which to build around still have a lot to give, and with the right coach who knows how to bind them all together, they’re not a million miles off another European adventure.
With Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment looming, Betis will be looking to the highly experienced Chilean to install a clear identity which the team has seriously lacked in the last year, and most importantly, some much needed stability.