Setien’s Real Betis – How Real Betis managed to become solid defensively

Setien's Real Betis | FI

“What moves me and what drives me has always been the same. What I feel for the ball, what I enjoy, as a player and now as a coach, the satisfaction I feel when I see great players, seeing moves build, understanding how passes flow, seeing it all fit together. That I admire,” says the man who managed to put Las Palmas last year and Real Betis this year on the map of Spanish football and made them a force to be wary of. Quique Setien, ladies and gentlemen.

Triangles all over the pitch, quick dazzling short passes, build-up play from the back like the top clubs, risk-taking, visible teamwork, and amazing team goals; all those are seen in Setien’s teams which, at first, gives an impression that a top club is playing and not a middle-table one. For the romantics, Setien is one of Cruyff’s angels who came out of nowhere to give hope back to humanity. For the realists, however, he’s a loser; but why’s that?

Judging by his teams’ style of play, goals are bound to be conceded due to the huge spaces that are left behind the marauding full-backs who remain upfield to stretch play. It’s not strange for full-backs to be high upfield, but if there’s no central coverage and decent counter-pressing in play, this tactic is a suicide; and that’s exactly what happened with Setien in Las Palmas and in Betis before the winter transfer window.

You might be wondering why I wrote “before the winter transfer window”, the reason for that is my main topic of the article; how did Setien improved Real Betis’ defensive aspect?

1. Marc Bartra

The purchase of ex-La Masia central defender Marc Bartra from Borussia Dortmund proved to be the catch of the season for Setien and Betis. The Spanish defender knows all about positional play since he came up from Barca’s youth ranks, leading us to the reason Setien immediately featured him in the win against Villareal and made him the rearguard’s leader ever since.

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Picture Courtesy: WhoScored

As shown from the table above from WhoScored, I compared the 4 central defenders Setien used in most of his games after the January transfer window. Even though Bartra is the one with least appearances, he beats his teammates in the match rating, tackles, clearances, and average passes per game. That’s quite enough to notice that Bartra emerged as the main figure in Setien’s backline therefore leading them to the impressive defensive display we are witnessing.

Setien’s system focuses on building from the back via the defenders and goalkeeper, hence the ball-playing abilities of said defenders must be high in order to implement the system efficiently. Let’s have a second look at Bartra’s passing figures (first picture), he’s the most player to attempt passes from the back when comparing him with his teammates; of course, his accuracy drops the more the passes are played and that’s due to the risky line-breaking passes that the Spaniard attempts. However, with Setien risk is a must if the team has to put in a good performance, and that’s the mentality of most big clubs playing the game nowadays.

2. Switch to 3 at the back

This is the reason why Betis have become all the more solid at the back since the turn of the year. This would not have been possible if not for Bartra’s signing, one thing leading to the other. After Bartra’s arrival, Setien’s choices regarding tactical diversity increased instead of only implementing his favored 4-3-3 since the beginning of the season. Therefore, we saw the 3-5-2 come back to play for Setien which coincided with the team’s brilliant run of clean sheets in La Liga.

But how would playing 3 at the back enhance the team’s defensive performances?

A. 3 central defenders instead of 2:

There’s a common misconception around the football community that any formation that includes 4 at the back is much more solid defensively than any that includes 3 at the back. I find that wrong and kind of prejudice. When playing with 4 at the back, only two are central defenders and the rest are full-backs, meaning that the central space is covered by a pair of players. However, when the switch to 3 happens the central space becomes occupied with an extra player; not forgetting to mention the wingbacks that complete the chain to form a line of 5 when in defense.

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As seen in the image above, defensive stability is vastly increased particularly in the central areas of the pitch where most threats come from; thus forcing the opponents to the wide areas. Furthermore as I mentioned above, the backline transforms into a chain of 5 when defending due to the wingbacks tucking in with their teammates. When transformed into a back five, half-spaces are covered which adds a lot of complications to the opposition in regards to breaking down such defensive organization.

B. Numerical overload against strikers

Most teams in La Liga employ two strikers upfront. In this case, the 3 defenders would find themselves in a 3vs2 situation throughout the game whether in possession or out of possession. Meanwhile, when defending with a back four that includes two central defenders, they would be busy with the two strikers thus becoming exposed to runners from behind or risk being beaten in terms of dribbling and speed.

When it comes to having possession of the ball, the 3vs2 and potentially 4vs2 (with the GK) that arises would help the team in breaking away from pressure and moving the ball upfield with ease and speed. This point brings us back to the inclusion of Bartra in Betis’ squad, Marc knows how to adjust his position and body shape in order to open up passing lanes to himself and to others. His stint with Dortmund went well but personally I believe that his career is going to take an upward trajectory with Setien because his style perfectly complements Quique’s tactics.

C. Increased comprehension of style

One thing that often gets forgotten is the fact that players aren’t machines that can be programmed into a style of play and expect them to perfect it immediately, especially when it comes to Quique Setien’s Juedo de Posicion model and the technical level of Real Betis’ players. In the end, this isn’t Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Manchester City, this is Real Betis for the love of football! The fans never imagined that such a coach would come and transform their season not only into a successful one when looking at the results, but also with attractive attacking football.

As we are entering midway through April, the players seem to be much more confident with Setien’s system when compared to their performances in November. This reflects on their defensive organization because, as we know, good spatial positioning on the pitch would result in not only impressive attacking movements, but also formidable defensive solidarity and effective counter-press. Week by week Betis is edging closer to a European qualification which would be historic for the club, not forgetting to mention the fact that they are above Sevilla in La Liga’s table; sweetest gift to Betis’ supporters.