The home crowd was stunned after Hernâni raced on to a Nikola Vukčević ball and calmly slotted it past Joel Robles in the seventh minute.
Fortunately for Real Betis, they managed to keep their composure, figure out how to unlock the Levante defense and take home all three points in a 3-1 La Liga win. Joaquín had a hand in all three goals as Loren Morón recorded a brace and Borja Iglesias grabbed the third.
This tactical analysis will examine how Levante’s compactness and lack of press led to their demise. Also, we’ll look at how Betis’ tactics allowed them to be able to play through Levante and utilise Joaquín’s deadly crossing ability en route to victory.
With the absence of Nabil Fekir, Rubí set out his Real Betis side in a 4-1-3-2. Paco López countered with a 4-1-4-1, but don’t let Levante’s listing of a flat-four midfield fool you.
Levante entered the game with a clear plan to take away the middle channel. Those four midfielders were very compact, both in attack and defence. In defence, they tended to squeeze their numbers into three consecutive vertical channels. For example, if Marc Bartra had the ball in the central channel, Levante would position themselves in the centre and the two half-spaces. As they recovered the ball, they were just as narrow in attack.
Real Betis responded with a fantastic approach. When Betis had the ball, Joaquín played a free role, finding space on the right-wing and looking for play to come his way as Betis progressed into the attacking third. As you see on the starting positions map, Joaquín played just as high as his forwards, Iglesias and Morón. The remaining Betis midfielders played a standard triangle with William Carvalho operating as the pivot.
Levante’s compact shape
While occupying three of the five vertical channels, Levante set out to take away the middle and force Betis to progress via the wings. As the starting position map shows, Levante’s five midfielders were never far from the central channel. Even as Betis worked the ball to the wings, Levante generally sent one player to defend, everyone else preparing to defend the cross and track runners.
Here you can see the narrowness of the Levante defense in action. Sergio León’s job is simple; eliminate the passing threat of Bartra. With the ball at Aissa Mandi’s feet, Levante can now press, attempting to force a poor decision.
It was all for nothing as Betis’ midfield showed excellent awareness to provide line breaking options to their centre-backs. Andrés Guardado and Sergio Canales routinely sought out the gaps between the Levante holding midfielders (first Vukčević, then Nemanja Radoja in the second half) and the four attacking midfielders.
If this is what Paco López had in mind, the lack of pressure on Mandi gave him plenty of time to pick out his midfielders. Betis exploited the gaps in Levante’s defense, routinely picking out the penetrating pass and running at the back four.
On those rare occasions that Levante were successful in forcing Betis into the wings, they prioritized defending the cross, sending as few players as possible to defend in the wings. Coke and Toño were left to fend for themselves if isolated against either Joaquín or Álex Moreno. The issue is that the lack of coverage gave the Betis attackers time to pick out high-quality options. As we’ll discuss later, Betis’ movement in the box was another thorn in Levante’s side.
Levante were more concerned with their shape, frequently winning the ball in the low block and playing directly upon recovery. As the statistics bear out, containment was a clear priority.
Betis pressed high every chance they could, limiting the ball over the top (which is how Levante scored their only goal) and recovering the ball higher up the pitch. Betis’ high press created all three of their goals. On each occasion, Levante’s sloppy play in their defensive half, combined with the sprinter’s mentality when they recovered the ball, created massive gaps in their defence.
With Levante prioritising playing to their high targets, the Betis high press effectively forced poor passes and decisions. Since Levante’s recoveries tended to come deep in their own end, those long and intermediate-range passes were only making it to midfield.
Further, with only one player starting high and the midfielders rushing forward to play off the forward, Betis had numerical superiority and better direction of momentum. That helped them recover 28 balls in the middle third, restarting their attack with Joaquín and the forwards already in optimal attacking positions.
Real Betis’ build-up
Despite Levante’s best efforts to contain Betis’ attack, their tactics played right into the hands of their opponents.
Rather than playing a true 4-1-3-2, Betis’ formation played out like a 4-3-3. The exception was the forward line, which placed Joaquín in a free role on the right while situating Iglesias and Morón more centrally. The benefit here is that Betis always had two players in the box to meet Joaquín and Moreno’s crosses. On the day, Joaquín completed four of five crosses (80% success rate) and Moreno chipped in with three successful crosses out of seven (43%). As a team, Betis was 24/11 (46%) when crossing.
With Joaquín demanding attention on the right and the two forwards forcing the remaining defenders to commit centrally, Moreno pressed high up the left-wing.
Joaquín was a constant threat. Here you see Betis during a switch of play. After unbalancing the Levante attack to the left, Betis are able to play out of pressure and initiate entry into the attacking third.
You can see Antonio Barragán directing Mandi to play Joaquín, who’s comfortably situated alone off-screen. Mandi plays to Canales, pulling Toño even further from Joaquín. Since Toño must respect Canales’ presence in the central channel, Canales holds the ball just long enough to give Joaquín the best chance at a successful action.
Joaquín orients his body to see the Levante backline. He uses this information to play as high and wide as possible and maximizes his time and space on the ball.
Once the ball reaches him, Toño’s recovery run opens up several options for Joaquín. He elects to drive towards goal, cut back and return the ball to Canales, who blasts a shot from just inside the box.
Look at the space behind Toño. Levante correctly assumes that Joaquín is not going to beat them on the dribble. However, the lack of coverage routinely forced Toño to defend more conservatively, allowing Joaquín to calmly analyze his options and pick out his target. If Morón had finished his first goal directly off the cross, rather than hitting the post and finishing the rebound, Joaquín would have had assists on all three goals.
Betis movement in the box unlocks Levante
Betis’ patience in the final third, especially through Joaquín, paid off. When the ball arrived at his feet, that’s when his two forwards went to work.
In this play, Barragán commands the attention of Toño, freeing Joaquín to make his run into the half-space. Notice the positioning of the two forwards. Morón is between the two centre-backs and Iglesias between the centre-back and right-back.
As Joaquín approaches the ball, Iglesias peels away towards the penalty spot. Given Joaquín’s crossing ability, that’s an easy delivery for the veteran. Sergio Postigo must respect the possibility of the cross to Iglesias, so he leaves Morón to eliminate the threat of a cross to Iglesias. You can see that he’s cheating forward, leaving Morón unopposed at the near post.
Joaquín’s beautiful delivery finds Morón at the near post. As mentioned, he fires his header against the near post and finishes the rebound. His virtually unopposed goal is not only a credit to Joaquín’s delivery but also the run of Iglesias. Without Iglesias pulling Postigo away from the middle, the rebound is at least contested if not cleared.
Betis consistently found gaps in the Levante defense and Joaquín’s seven key passes were the catalyst for Betis’ 3.72 xG. Plus, their dominance in the attacking third limited the Levante attack, holding them to a 1.32 xG.
Though you can see what Levante wanted to accomplish, they played right into Betis’ hands. The midfield’s inability to deny penetrating passes from the backline to Guardado and Canales forced them to improvise defensively and routinely restart their attacks from deep positions. The lack of hold up play and support underneath their forwards hampered their ability to break the Betis press.
For Betis, Joaquín cleared the way for a comfortable win as they’ve now picked up eight points in their previous four games. Other than Hernâni’s goal, they’ll come away pleased with the performance as they were excellent in every department. They’ll look to continue this run of form against Villarreal and climb closer to a European return.
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