Real Betis and Nabil Fekir are a combination most people would not have even thought of a year ago. This is definitely one of the most curious transfers of this transfer window so far. It is, however, a very important season for both.
Fekir was reportedly very close to joining Liverpool last season with the English club reportedly willing to pay up to 70 million Euros for him. This season has been lacklustre for him after suffering a major injury. Betis ended up tenth in the La Liga table in the 2018/19 season. This was a very disappointing finish and they are undergoing major changes as new manager Rubi is appointed.
Fekir, aged 26, is an attacking midfielder who played for Olympique Lyon after graduating from their youth academy. He was an integral part of their Ligue 1 campaign in 2017/18 scoring 18 goals and assisting eight. In the 2018/19 season, his numbers dropped sharply. He scored nine and assisted just seven playing just one match less.
In Lyon’s system, the Frenchman usually plays in front of the central midfielders. In a midfield three, he can play as the attacking midfielder supported by two other midfielders or as one of two midfielders. He acts as the most direct link in transitioning the ball into the attack. Playing 17 matches as a secondary striker, he is still stylistically and tactically an attacking midfielder. He played 16 matches as the attacking midfielder in the 2018/19 season compared to 25 last season where he only played 12 as a secondary striker.
Usually given great cover by Lyon’s central and/or defensive midfielders, he has the freedom to move around the opposition’s lowest midfield line where he can receive the ball and supply the ball to the forwards. His passing, awareness, shooting and ability to drive the ball forward without being dispossessed are just some of the reasons he can switch between attacking midfield and secondary striker so often.
Contribution to the transition
Rubi’s Espanyol side played passing, possession-based football. To them, keeping possession was key as many times if no clear passing option were available, they would look to play the ball back. In such a system, playing Nabil Fekir as an attacking midfielder can work wonders. He is very good at riding challenges and not being dispossessed. Though he won 50% of all duels in the 2018/19 season, this was majorly in the final third considering his position. Many times, Rubi’s team will pass the ball back from an advanced position to the midfield if there is no good passing option.
This is where Fekir steps in. One of his strengths is driving forward on his own as a counter to the lack of scoring options. As the following series of images will show, the ex-Lyon man has great balance and will look to progress with the ball at his feet. As we can see in the first image, Fekir is being hounded by the opposition player after cutting in.
Now, this in itself is one of his contributions; being a very attacking-minded midfielder with a great long shot, he tends to draw players towards him almost anywhere in the final third. This, in turn, allows his teammates to make runs and become available as passing options. In the second image, we see him being outmuscled by the opposition player, where he almost loses possession.
But he still manages to keep balance and uses his momentum to turn. This quick turn catches the opponent off-balance and does well to demonstrate Fekir’s balance and ability to drive forward from tough situations.
What this does is, it allows his team to progress and transition into attack from a situation from which it would have been tough to.
Playmaking in the final-third
As manager of the Espanyol side, Rubi would have a lone man upfront with two players supporting him who also drop back into midfield occasionally. The Frenchman is an excellent asset for such a team thanks to his ability to keep possession and make great, accurate passes in the final third.
As an attacking midfielder or secondary striker, Fekir always has to be aware of the opposition when in the final third. Else, if he loses possession a counter-attack is highly likely. Along with that, playmaking simultaneously is a challenging task which requires constant focus and awareness. The 26-year-old is very good at this, averaging a 76% passing success rate in the opposition’s half. We have a couple of examples here which demonstrate his awareness and passing ability in the final third.
The first image shows Lyon having possession in midfield with the opposition playing a low block and also forcing Lyon to play the ball through the middle. The World Cup winner does well to identify this and he drops back into space to receive the ball.
As the three players surrounding him look to immediately close in on him, he flicks the ball along his body and towards Bertrand Traoré, taking four players out of the equation.
As this analysis shows, he has awareness in a high-pressure situation and ability to link play up in the opposition’s half. He also does very well to recognise the fact that the opposition will tend to aggressively press on him if he receives the ball and not just contain him with a light press.
We have an example here which shows his great reading of the game and ability to play great passes. Lyon have gained possession and are looking to make the most of the counter with Fekir leading the charge. His teammate, Moussa Dembele is making a run which is spotted by the defender who immediately looks to close down the space between him and the other central defender.
Fekir reads the situation perfectly and rather than playing the ball through the two defenders, he plays it to the near side of the left central-defender. This catches him off-balance and allows Dembele to receive the ball in a dangerous position.
This situation is just a specimen of the ability that Nabil Fekir has to think very quickly and not get affected by the pressure, both physical and mental, in the opposition’s half. These abilities will give a different edge to his new team as it allows them to have steady possession in the final third and keep possession.
The newly signed Betis player is very impressive in attacking contributions when in form as the 2017/18 stats showed. He has a knack for being accurate from long-range. Not just in terms of his shots but also in terms of crosses. His crosses are very impressive with especially great delivery.
In the following images, we shall take a look at his ability to pick a man and to deliver excellent balls. In the first image, he has possession in an area which is excellent for crossing. As he spots Moussa Dembele’s run, the options are to pull the ball back, cross it with a lob or drive it into his path.
The first option would be possible but there would be two defenders in front who could block the ball and significantly reduce the area which can be shot into. The second option would avoid the possibility of the ball being intercepted but it would mean that an aerial duel will be likely which would probably not be favourable as it’s a 2v1 situation.
The third option is the one Fekir chooses and chooses well. He plays a driven low-cross which reduces the chances of being intercepted but also avoids the aerial duel which results in Dembele slotting it home.
His decision-making at a fast pace in this situation and execution is excellent. This will definitely be one of his biggest contributions.
Many people think Fekir might have made a mistake going to a club like Betis, which is undergoing a transformation and is significantly weaker than his previous club, Lyon. However, in many ways this might have been a correct, nevertheless tough, decision from him. This is a club where he can not only fill the shoes of the player he’s said to be meant to replace, Lo Celso, but also establish himself on the global stage again by standing out in a system which seems very well-suited to him.
As far as the tactical aspect goes, Fekir will play a big part in Betis’ future. In terms of his influence on the team and importance to the essence of the team, this is one player who can definitely make himself a talismanic figure eventually.