In an evenly contested fixture, the first-leg cup semi-final clash between La Liga mid-table contenders, Real Betis and Valencia, offered nothing short of pure excitement. Heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona battle it out themselves in parallel Classico semi-finals this month. This offers Quique Setien of Betis and Marcelino of Valencia a fair shot at the prestigious Copa del Rey. We shall examine a tactical analysis of the first leg between Betis and Valencia.
Having beaten Barcelona already at the Camp Nou and raising eyebrows in the La Liga with his spectacular positional play, the stakes were high for Setien who can potentially silence his former critics with a much-deserved piece of silverware. His tactical outplay of Espanyol in the quarter-finals to reach the semis is a study on its own. Meanwhile, Marcelino who raised Villarreal over three years of management has been trying to reproduce similar results with Valencia. His upsets of big teams in the league make his Valencia side no cake walk for Setien.
Line-ups and tactical set-ups
It was hardly a surprise to see Betis’ traditional 3-1-4-2 that has got them this far with success. William Carvalho, Andrés Guardado and Sergio Canales looked to offer loads of stability in the midfield. Perhaps the only unorthodox move by Setien was his decision to play midfielder Giovani Lo Celso alongside Loren Moren up top. Setien also chose the 37-year-old Joaquín to play as a right midfielder/wing-back after his previous impact against Espanyol. This move held its own advantages and disadvantages as we will see.
On paper, Valencia held a definite qualitative superiority over Betis when comparing both teams head-to-head. The Spanish international forward Rodrigo Moreno, Daniel Parejo and ex-Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin sought to dominate the centre of the pitch. New transfers this season, Denis Cheryshev, whom Marcelino worked with at Villarreal previously, and Kévin Gameiro were both a significant part of Valencia’s heavy artillery.
Marc Bartra who sits at the heart of the Betis back-three had to be substituted by Javi Garcia within 10 minutes. The role of the sweeper utilised by Setien is very dynamic, especially while playing out from the back. Hence midfielder Garcia was chosen to replace Bartra. The absence of Bartra, especially during the second half, was a blessing in disguise for Valencia.
Testing the waters
During the first half, particularly for the first 20 minutes, Valencia played very cautiously measuring their jab with a 4-4-2. Holding a low-block, they sought to force Betis to one side and explore potential spaces that could open up. Rodrigo was the first line of the press, while Santi Mina played more as a support striker. In central midfield, Coquelin was given freedom to play offensively while the experienced skipper Daniel Parejo sat as holding midfielder. Geoffrey Kondogbia’s arrival in later on during the game allowed Dani Parejo to play a more attacking role in midfield.
Betis stuck with their short-passing in the build-up, overloading one side and switching flanks. They held a marginal preference to attack on the right exploiting the presence of the dominant Joaquin. Ironically, Valencia also showed an asymmetric reliance to attack on the right. Their specific intention was to outnumber Junior Firpo and shift Betis’ marking focus off Cheryshev on the other side.
Although they found opportunities to counter-attack from the beginning, Betis’ priority was to force the attacking players of Valencia back. Having Cheryshev and his full-back partner José Gayà pinned into their block made life easier for Joaquin and Canales.
Numerical superiorities across the pitch
With a three-man-defence against a 4-4-2, Betis constantly achieved a 3v2 numerical superiority while playing out of the back. Carvalho always dropped deep often making it an easy 4v2 positional rondo for Betis. Valencia’s strategy to overcome this was to hit Betis on the counter. The centre-back partnership between the three – Aïssa Mandi, Javi Garcia and Sidnei – was new for Betis in the defensive phase. The introduction of Kévin Gameiro was the game changer to this strategy as we will see further on.
On the right side, playing a traditional midfielder Lo Celso as a forward held a prime tactical leverage for Betis. Lo Celso often dropped deep and overloaded the midfield combining with Joaquin, Canales, Carvalho and Aïssa Mandi. This ‘false-nine’ behaviour created a confusion at the back for Valencia’s centre-halves that Loren Moron could capitalise on. Lo Celso’s positional impact in this game for Betis simply cannot be measured by statistics.
During this game, Lo Celso made 40 successful passes, including one key pass, three out of three successful take-ons and won five duels of the 12 he engaged. These figures are unusual for a striker, the position which he played.
Attacking from out wide
Both teams sought to play the ball into the wide flanks behind each other’s defensive line. They would then force crosses in for their attacking forwards. Valencia created dangerous opportunities with this play, almost always from the right side with Carlos Soler and Christian Piccini. This is where the lack of defensive discipline on man-marking the aerial balls almost cost Betis. Cheryshev and Mina were caught poorly marked on multiple occasions.
Betis, in fact, scored their first goal with the same tactic. After using Lo Celso’s positioning to release Canales behind the Valencia back line, Canales sought an aerial pass in. Canales, being left-footed would curve the ball towards the keeper. Usually, these balls are less of a problem for a keeper than the ones that swerve away from them. But Betis had Guardado and Firpo burst into the 18-yard box, and Canales’ passes had enough weight and power to land beyond the far post. One such pass, although off a corner played short, managed to find Loren Moron back again from Sidnei who received it at far post.
Valencia looked far more dominant when they tried to hold possession themselves. In attempts to stretch the play, the wide midfielder and fullback would take turns to position themselves in half-spaces. Cheryshev and Gayà’s partnership in this regard was the perfect example. An important outcome of this rotation on the flank by Valencia neutralised Joaquin at least in Valencia’s attacking phase. Nonetheless, Betis managed to get lucky with their second goal with a goalkeeping error from Valencia.
Kévin Gameiro: Valencia’s lethal ‘wild card’
If the first half went to Betis for their positional superiority, the second was clearly claimed back by Valencia. Kévin Gameiro, hailing from Atletico Madrid’s rapid counter-attacking system is well known for his pace. At the hour mark, when Valencia’s forwards were being outplayed by numerical superiority, all Marcelino needed was pace.
Valencia had to patiently wait for unique opportunities to hit the Betis back-line. This opportunity seldom came in complete attacking phases, so they had to pick moments of transition. Gameiro, unlike Mina, ran at the back-line ruthlessly while Rodrigo looked to connect play from the middle. It was Valencia who were asking questions repeatedly in the Betis defence coming into the second half.
Valencia’s first goal was a perfect example of the impact of Gameiro’s substitution. With Cheryshev and Gameiro attacking key spaces behind the Betis back-line, the positional chess master Setien was beaten by pace. Gameiro’s runs also set up Cheryshev neatly in another instance which was only stopped by the crossbar.
Valencia’s dramatic equaliser in injury time was a moment of individual brilliance from Gameiro. He quickly received and passed the ball onto Rodrigo. Then, he displayed a spectacular 40-yard sprint that beat even a seasoned defender like Sidnei. Rodrigo’s pass was timed to perfection and found Gameiro back again who found the back of the Betis net. Gameiro undoubtedly stole the man-of-the-match for his performance.
Idealist versus pragmatic football?
The final half-hour was when Bartra’s absence hit Betis hard. His intelligent reading of the game makes a big difference in stopping such attacks. At multiple key moments, Carvalho’s and Guardado’s defensive work rate and timely intervention rescued Betis from collapsing. Rodrigo was credited three key passes, two of which were in the second half. Mandi was forced to make three interceptions in the final 15 minutes alone.
Valencia’s dominance in the second half was part-attributed to the introduction of Gameiro’s pace alongside Rodrigo Moreno and Cheryshev and part to Setien’s obstinate refusal to go defensive in order to defend a lead. At this level of the tournament with such high stakes, the question of idealism over pragmatism in tactical approach looms big over the tinkering innovator and chess-inspired Quique Setien.
Both Betis and Valencia have played each other to a goalless draw in the La Liga in September and are held 2-2 on aggregate moving into the second leg. There is very little to separate the two tactically and each holds its own advantages over the other. Betis will have to rely more on luck to secure a spot in the final in the second leg at the end of the month. Valencia, on the other hand, need to be meticulous in confronting Betis tactically and study loopholes in their game model.
With the first legs of both semi-finals culminating in draws, this season’s Copa del Rey is an undoubted thriller. With everything to fight for, we’re sure to only expect more action and tactical battles in the coming weeks.
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