It’s been a long time since Borussia Dortmund burst onto the scene and became everybody’s favourite hipster club. Their arrival in Europe helped expose Jurgen Klopp and his style to a much larger audience and the fans flocked. It’s time for the second coming.
Real Betis are a club most will know and historically one of the biggest in Spain with some of the most passionate and hardcore fans in Europe - their hymn isn’t bad either. In the second line of that tune, the fans sing that they are “like bullets from the canon” and like that, Quique Setien has fired his verdiblanco side up the table and has them on the cusp of a European place.
There are traces of Quique Setien’s love for chess in every football side he manages. One of the first rules of chess is to secure the middle of the board. Just a cursory look at their summer transfer business and you can see that the spine of the team and the centre of that spine was going to be important for the incoming manager. They signed four central midfielder players ranging from the defensive Javi Garcia to the attacking Ryad Boudebouz. After just four appearances in the league last season, he has also turned Fabian Ruiz, a youth academy product, into a pillar at the heart of his side too - but more about academy products later.
In an interview with ESPNFC recently, Quique Setien said that he only understands the sport through the ball. For all the low blocks, compact defensive schemes and the like, the devoted chess aficionado wants to beat you by not sharing the ball with you.
Setien turned Las Palmas into one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in La Liga during his spell there and while that ended in acrimony last season, he was not short of proposals in the summer. The one that he liked most was the one at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. “They know what they will get from me,” said Setien, who is unabashedly pro-possession regardless of the stature of the clubs he is managing or the scope of their ambitions.
Setien's style of play
La Liga’s top four sides have goals differences of plus 63, 36, 28, 43. Betis, in fifth, are minus one. They have conceded more goals than any other team in the league aside from Deportivo la Coruna and Las Palmas, who are both having historically poor seasons.
However, they have lost just four times since the turn of the year to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia and Celta Vigo. And while they might be riding their luck in terms of expected points and actual points, Setien’s style of play encourages risk and reaps rewards.
Their possession and pass completion percentage is up there with the very best in the league. Pep Guardiola, who has spent close to 600 million since arriving at Manchester City insists that he needs a certain type of player in order to be able to play the way he likes regardless of the price. He needs the highest quality players he can find and you feel Setien, who has slowly built a team of improving quality, is the same.
Just before the winter break, Betis were starting to show signs of a team punching above their weight. Lapses in concentration were becoming more frequent, mistakes were commonplace and tiredness was setting in. In their last eight games before that break, they lost five, drew two and won just one. It is a credit to Betis for sticking with their manager despite the unwanted jibe of naivety being thrown around whenever the silver-haired tactician was mentioned.
But Setien got to work and landed Marc Bartra from Borussia Dortmund in what might prove to be the very best signing of that window, almost definitely, and of the season, quite possibly.
He is leading the team with 65.9 passes per game since his arrival and gave them a little more quality when defending. He has become the most important player at the very base of Setien’s spine and his return to Spain has been an enjoyable one.
Setien’s Betis are attempting 125 more passes per game than his predecessor(s) could muster last season. The control that he wants, however, does not result in mindless launching of shots towards goal in an effort to outgun an opponent. They are taking less shots than last year and Setien’s reliance on ‘setting up the play’ is vital. There is a lot of supposedly docile passing around the middle but Betis’ quantity of shots has been replaced by the quality of shots they are taking. By preventing other teams from getting at them by not allowing them to have a say in how the game is played, logic suggest that Betis will determine who wins more often than not. You could say, it is the exact opposite of naivety from Setien as he tips the scales in his favour.
Setien has also increased his side’s expected goals and decreased their expected goals against since his arrival. They’re not massive discrepancies but enough to distinguish between a relegation-threatened season and a European-chasing one. When you consider the fact that they are taking less shots too, it highlights the point that the chances they are creating are in more dangerous positions. The two-fold advantage of this is that you are more likely to hit the back of the net and less likely to be counter-attacked on when they don't.
Looking to the future
They have reportedly already signed Pau Lopez, Espanyol’s goalkeeper who Spurs have been linked with constantly, along with Takashi Inui, who is a creative, controlled midfielder with lots of technical ability.
Meanwhile, Setien has given chances to Junior Firpo, an academy product who has started and finished all of Betis’ last nine league games. If ever you wanted a look at the versatility required of Setien’s players, just take a look at where the 21-year-old has played in those games. He has played at a left winger, left-back and even a centre-back on one occasion. Setien is not one to be dragged down by the dogma of where a player supposedly plays as he tries to innovate in order to achieve his end result; dominate the ball. (Pep, is that you?)
Another player, Loren Morón, who looked destined for a life in the lower leagues has burst onto the scene with five goals in nine games including a brace on his debut during a 2-1 win against a rival for the top six in Villarreal.
And as mentioned before, his trust in Fabian Ruiz has the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona sniffing around. Dani Ceballos left last summer because Real Betis didn’t give him the options to grow but with Setien at the helm and European football to offer, he might just be able to convince Ruiz that this is where he belongs. And he wouldn’t be wrong because due to pure osmosis, you improve under Setien given how many times you touch the ball.
Real Betis are getting younger and more technically sound.
As I said earlier, he has also been slightly fortunate in his endeavour but fortune favours the brave and Setien is, at the very least, that as he looks to take a sleeping Spanish giant into European competition, reshaping the way they play football in the process.