Quique Setien met Rubi in Seville for the second leg of the Copa Del Rey quarter-final. Real Betis hosted Espanyol with a 1-1 aggregate from an evenly contested first leg. In a match of nail-biting margins, Betis managed to edge past Espanyol into the semi-finals with a two-goal advantage. In this tactical analysis, we see how Setien’s Betis outplayed Espanyol.
Changes in line-ups from the first leg
For Betis, Giovani Locelso joined William Carvalho in midfield allowing Sergio Canales to rotate with Lo Celso in offensive transition. Zouhair Feddal was benched in favour of the experienced Sidnei in Betis’ defensive trio. Diego Lainez, hailed the ‘Mexican Messi’, the hottest property that Betis secured from CF América this transfer window. He was chosen to start for Betis after an impressive performance in Betis’ 1-0 defeat to Bilbao.
Espanyol stayed with the same lineup from the first leg except for Víctor Sánchez coming in for Sergi Darder. Pablo Piatti played deeper and wider than he did in the previous week. This transformed their usual 4-3-3 into a more stable 4-4-2 with Borja Iglesias and Léo Baptistão up top.
Espanyol’s compact 4-4-2 meant that there was less space in the centre of the pitch for Betis to exploit. Betis also played safe in the first 15 minutes hesitating to compromise their defensive structure with overlaps and penetrating runs. They sought to play the direct ball to Loren Moron or his fellow forward Lainez who looked to create chances. Espanyol’s defensive was too strong for such simplicity in Setien’s initial tactical approach.
After the first 15 minutes, Betis transitioned more patiently in their attacking build-up. They looked to overload one side of the pitch and switch the play to free the man on the other side. However, Espanyol’s central midfielders Víctor Sánchez and Marc Roca were quick to close down Carvalho aggressively. This gave less time and space for Carvalho to mobilise the midfield in a regular manner that Betis progress up the pitch.
Espanyol pressed Betis very differently from the first leg. Their aggressive man-oriented press to cut down Betis playing out from the back earned them an early goal in the previous leg. In this leg, they were more economical, sitting disciplined but bursting into a press when Betis faced their own goal. Both teams waited for the other to err and counter, proving the first 20 minutes a true stalemate.
‘Chess’ versus ‘Temple Run’
In Betis’ attacking transition we saw Setien’s side building up logically like pieces on a chessboard. Move after move, Betis tried luring Espanyol out of position seeking the right moment to penetrate. Espanyol’s attacking transition saw a burst of players from his defensive block bursting into spaces between and behind the Betis’ stable shape. Metaphorically it was comparable to a mobile game of ‘Chess’ against ‘Temple Run.’
Espanyol’s runs were targetted at a very specific Betis movement. Betis often sat back in a back-five in the defensive phase. The centre-backs in the half-spaces, Aïssa Mandi and Sidnei were dragged higher to cover either a dropping forward or the space left by Sergio Canales and Lo Celso respectively.
Espanyol would specifically use these moments to burst in-behind the break in the defensive line. Should Baptistão end up in an offside position before a through pass could be played, Piatti and Sánchez would continue sprinting into the same space. It was impossible for Mandi and Sidnei to adjust their body orientation rapidly to track back in time. So, Espanyol enjoyed fair success with this tactical exploit. However, Betis always managed to have sweeper Marc Bartra and ‘keeper Joel Robles read the game ahead and cover.
Espanyol clearly did their homework on set-pieces as they created early chances to score. Espanyol astutely capitalised on Borja Iglesias’ ability to win headers on aerial duels. Baptistão almost scored in 25 minutes, hitting the crossbar completely unmarked from a pass headed on by Iglesias.
The side from Barcelona opened the scoring once again in this leg from a free-kick. It was Baptistão yet again who enjoyed ample time to find the far corner courtesy of poor man-marking by Loren Moron. Espanyol also managed a golden opportunity in the second half from another free-kick routine. Robles was forced into a quick-reflex parry of a header won by Iglesias.
Betis themselves gained their share of set-piece success in extra-time with Aïssa Mandi taking advantage of the confusion and hectic clearances around Espanyol’s six-yard box.
Following William Carvalho’s injury in the second half, Guardado replaced him in the centre of Betis’ shape. In came the Betis veteran hero, Joaquín, who took over from Francis Guerrero on the right flank. Although Diego Lainez enjoyed a decent game with noteworthy take-ons, Setien brought on the experienced striker Sergio León at the hour mark to tweak Betis’ attacking dynamics.
In the final half hour, we clearly saw Setien’s chess pieces making big moves across the board. Betis played more direct and with a higher tempo. Quick runs in from out wide and in the centre unsettled Espanyol. Joaquín often drifted wide himself to receive the ball and progressed up using give-and-goes with someone in the half-space. Mandi and Sidnei attacked the half-spaces more boldly overloading the midfield.
Betis equalised with help of Joaquín picking a stealthy run by Lo Celso into the zone 14. Lo Celso converted it with brilliant technique in the tightest of spaces at the heart of the Espanyol defence. Following the equaliser, Espanyol continued tenaciously to punish Betis on the counter-attack, narrowly missing a few chances.
The dying minutes of the regular 90-minute period witnessed thrilling end-to-end action. If Setien’s chess pieces were being taken off the board with Espanyol’s swift counters, the latter found themselves running out of lives with yellow cards piling up. A necessary tactical foul by Marc Roca saw him pick up a second yellow arguably sealing the game for Betis.
Sergio León: The Super Sub
Having already created a handful of problems for Espanyol defenders, Sergio León was a game-changer in extra-time. His goal to put Betis in front minutes into the first period was both tactical and technically brilliant. The freshest pair of legs for Betis, León ruthlessly attacked the defensive line of a 10-man Espanyol. Dropping his markers deftly, he cut inside onto his stronger right to finish elegantly.
With a goal advantage, Setien chose to not sit back defensively to protect the lead. Instead, Betis continued with the same intensity having an overall numerical superiority. Espanyol were left for dead and the game culminated with Betis’ third goal from Mandi.
The Algerian Mandi who has risen to fame under Setien was undoubtedly the Man of the Match. His performance in the second half and his goal in extra-time was extraordinary. He was easily Setien’s special chess piece that caused the most damage to Espanyol. He played a phenomenal role in Betis’ win and helped them advance into the semifinals of the cup.
This two-legged quarter-final between the northern and southern Spanish sides held no dearth of excitement and will become a classic archive. Quique Setien’s positional play stood dominant over Rubi’s Espanyol, but the latter showed a remarkable performance of contesting them with their physicality and work rate. Alongside the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Setien’s Betis deservedly secure a place among the final four of the Copa del Rey and will face Valencia in the semi-final next week.