Real Betis need real bite for midfield balance

STATS ZONE OVER EUROPE: FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as England, Champions League and Europa League). Paul Wilkes – editor of laligauk.com – uses Stats Zone to analyse the Europa-eyeing Real Betis... 

In next Saturday's closing round of La Liga fixtures, Real Betis require just one point at Levante to ensure Europa League football next season. After a difficult few years, it's arguably where a club of their size should be.

Scouts from across Europe have been arriving at the Benito Villamarín, alerted by the club's precarious financial situation and attracted by the team's impressive midfielders.

Beñat has been linked with Liverpool and Athletic Bilbao, whilst Jose Cañas leaves on a free this summer to join Michael Laudrup's Swansea City. The two players have tremendous passing ability and would be useful additions to many squads, but at times they have struggled together in a midfield unit.

Manager Pepe Mel has used a variety of systems this season. His two most notable choices have been a 4-2-3-1, with the double pivot pairing Cañas and Beñat or using one of them with Atlético Madrid's on-loan defensive midfielder Rúben Pérez, and a 4-3-3 where the three have played together with Pérez sat at the bottom of the triangle, with Nono slotting in occasionally due to injuries and suspensions.

Beñat, Cañas and Pérez: options

Up until the first Seville derby in November, Betis had lost just four of their opening 11 league matches. Pérez had played in only two of those defeats; one against his parent club Atléti, who were at that time brushing aside all-comers with relative ease, and the other against Málaga where he was withdrawn at 2-0 down, with Betis going on to lose 4-0.

In that match at Sevilla, the Verdiblancos conceded two goals in the first six minutes and were trailing by four at the break. When Pérez gained two yellow cards in quick succession not long after the restart, it added numerical inferiority to tactical infirmity. Sevilla ended up winning 5-1, a victory margin unsurpassed in this derby since 1943.

After that, Pérez started just one match in the next two months. Clearly distrusting the midfielder's lack of discipline, Pepe Mel often used him as a substitute to maintain a lead with 10 to 20 minutes of a game remaining.

When he was returned to the line-up as part of a three-man midfield, Betis only conceded two goals in three matches, until he was sidelined through injury. With Pérez out of the side, they conceded seven goals in a three-match spell against Real Sociedad, Osasuna and Valencia; his return, in a 4-3-3 formation against fellow Andalusians Granada, helped produce a 5-1 win. Then came the return derby at the Villamarín.

Taking into consideration what happened last time, Mel matched his opponents with 4-2-3-1 and opted to leave Pérez on the bench. Betis were continually exposed in the transition, as neither Cañas nor Beñat offered enough protection for the back four.

Sevilla's José Antonio Reyes and Ivan Rakitić took full advantage of the space afforded to them between the lines, putting them 3-0 up after barely half an hour. The Croatian's passing wasn't as accurate as the Spaniard's, but his direct running was often unmarked.

Mel managed to wrestle a draw from the game as they seized upon individual errors and the coach made good use of his bench, as he admitted afterwards: "The 0-3 so early was because we did not put into practice that we had tried not to leave Rakitić on his own. We have done that wrong."

But he didn't immediately learn his lesson: Real Madrid's Mesut Özil enjoyed similar success in the following match, and this time Pérez was introduced after just half an hour.

The holding midfielder has now started four of the last five matches, with the team keeping two clean sheets in the last three. He might not catch the eye like his midfield partners, but his function is probably more important in terms of balance for the side overall.

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