Real Betis played Athletic Bilbao at Benito Villamarín Stadium in La Liga on Sunday, with both sides coming into the game in good form. Betis had started to recover from a poor start to the season with two wins on the bounce, while a win against Granada last weekend had brought Bilbao up into the top four. On this occasion, Betis went on to win 3-2 after a first-half hat-trick from the 38-year-old Joaquin put them 3-0 ahead. Bilbao did get a goal back in the shape of an Inaki Williams penalty just before half time, before Yuri Berchiche made it 3-2 with 15 minutes to play. The match finished 3-2 and the result pushed Betis up to 11th in the table, with Bilbao falling down to eighth after other results went against them. The following tactical analysis looks at the key tactics displayed by both sides and offers and analysis of the key individuals and systems that saw Betis secure a third La Liga win in a row.

Line ups

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics

Real Betis made a few changes to their line up, with Marc Bartra dropping back into defence at the expense of Aissa Mandi, with Edgar Gonzalez taking his place at the base of the midfield. Alex Moreno also came in to replace Alfonso Pedraza at left-back, while Diego Lainez replaced Nabil Fekir on the right side of the midfield. Athletic Bilbao made just the one change, with striker Kenan Kodro replacing Raul Garcia.

Betis’ system was essentially a 4-1-4-1, with Gonzalez covering the back four. Having said that, Andres Guardado tended to drop closer to Gonzalez to set play from deep in possession, with Sergio Canales tasked with connecting with Loren Moron in attack. Both full-backs were allowed to push ahead of the base of midfield, while Joaquin tended to push further forward than Lainez.

Athletic Bilbao used the same system, 4-2-3-1, that has worked to great effect for them in recent weeks, with overlapping fullbacks Ander Capa and Berchiche supporting attacks, and Dani Garcia setting the play from deep. Oihan Sancet continued in his number 10 role, while Inaki Williams continued to provide an attacking outlet on the right wing, positioned far higher than the left-sided Inigo Cordoba.

Real Betis start fast

Real Betis nearly put this game to bed within 20 minutes following an extraordinary hat-trick from the 38-year-old wide-man Joaquin. A stalwart of the Spanish game, Joaquin was the beneficiary of a powerful run down the right wing by full-back Emerson, whose cross left the former Valencia winger open in the centre of the box. The move came within two minutes of kick-off, during which both sides immediately looked intent on controlling possession. However, they also both wanted to press the ball at the top of the pitch aggressively, resulting in a frantic opening to the match.

Despite the frenetic pace of the game, it was a quality line splitting pass from Gonzalez that started the move, with the ball nearly setting Lainez free. Lainez was tackled, but the ball spillled for Emerson who raced towards the box and squared for Joaquin to make it 1-0.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Gonzalez splits the Bilbao press and allows Emerson to break forward for the opening goal

Gonzalez continued to be important as Betis looked to beat the Bilbao early on. He would routinely drop between Barta and Zouhair Feddal to create a three, and allow Emerson and Moreno to push Bilbao back. Bartra and Feddal both have experience playing at the base of the midfield too, and this gave Betis a real threat when passing from deep.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Gonzalez drops in alongside Feddal and Bartra, while Emerson and Moreno press ahead

This thread did become less common as the match wore on though and Gonzalez only completed 25 passes in this match. With Bilbao’s midfield three, full-backs pushed up and Cordoba tucked in, there was limited space in the middle of the park and Betis often had passes intercepted.

Despite being placed under pressure by the Bilbao press, Betis continued to look for high-risk line-breaking passes in behind the pushed on full-backs. For Betis’ second goal, Guardado found Moreno in space high up the field on the left side. Moreno then played the ball to Joaquin and he scored from the edge of the box.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Canales finds Moreno in behind the Bilbao back four

With the score at 2-0 after just 10 minutes, neither side looked to change their approach drastically. While Betis were more willing to drop deep when Bilbao were in possession, Betis players continued to pressurise the man on the ball. Falling into their 4-1-4-1 shape, the Seville-based side looked to cut out passing lines and prevent Bilbao playing through the middle.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Betis’ disciplined shape out of possession looked to stop Bilbao playing through the middle

It was from deep that Betis scored their third goal, dispossessing Bilbao deep in their own half before breaking quickly. Moron then picked up the ball and played the ball to Joaquin who made it 3-0. Despite having territorial dominance, Betis caught Bilbao on the break twice within 20 minutes and put the game all but out of sight.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Dani Garcia is dispossessed in the Betis half, allowing the home side to launch a counter-attack

While Bilbao did have a slight edge in terms of possession throughout the match, Betis were generally more secure when they were on the ball. Betis had a higher pass accuracy, 84% to 81%, played a smaller number of long balls and were better able to move the ball to the edge of their opponent’s box. Betis were also better able to keep up the intensity of their press, with Bilbao’s showing a significant drop off in the second half especially. Meanwhile, Betis created higher xG chances and had more shots on the game in general. However, to score three first-half goals on just 0.69 xG, suggests some good finishing from Joaquin in this match.

Athletic Bilbao hit back

Athletic Bilbao came into this game full of confidence coming off the back of a recent run of good form. However, while trying to impose their game on Betis, they were caught on the break too easily and within 20 minutes found themselves 3-0 down. At 3-0 down though, Bilbao continued to look to dominate the ball and push their full-backs on.

A key part of their attacking play revolved around getting Williams into space to either run at his full-back or cross dangerously across the face of the Betis goal. Williams has great speed and can also dribble aggressively, with his threat causing defenders to back off. He put in a number of dangerous balls that could have seen Bilbao get back into the game sooner if the forwards had been able to connect.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Williams finds space on the right-hand side, while his threat in behind causes Moreno to back off

On the other flank, Cordoba plays more of a linkman role, looking to connect with the number 10 Sancet and the overlapping Berchiche. However, Cordoba had a number of passes miss their target in the first half which caused potentially promising attacks to break down.

Despite falling 3-0 behind, Bilbao continued to press the Betis backline in an attempt to force them to play long and prevent them from playing out from the back and dominate possession. This approach was effective for a period in the first half, although they lacked the fitness to keep up this high-intensity approach for the full 90 minutes. Having said that, by employing a zonal system, they could use their positioning to cut out passing lanes which meant they could keep Betis penned in without having to complete as many sprints.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Bilbao position their attackers high up the pitch to prevent Betis from playing out

Bilbao got back into the game just before half time when a long throw caused Moreno to handle the ball in his own box. Williams scored the resulting penalty and the teams went into half time at 3-1.

In the second half, Bilbao lost their control on possession as their pressing became less intense and their formation change prompted a change in approach. At the break, the Basque side substituted Cordoba and replaced him with Unai Nunez, a centre-back. Nunez slotted into a back three alongside Yeray Alvarez and Inigo Martinez, with Williams joining Kodro up front and Berchiche and Capa playing as wing-backs. The change was intended to give Bilbao more goal threat, but in actuality they became less dangerous, creating just 0.9 xG in the second half.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Bilbao moved to a back three in an attempt to create more attacking opportunities

The lack of wide men to connect with the overlapping full-backs cut off an important attacking option for Bilbao in the first half, while Williams was not as effective playing centrally as he was on the right-wing. The front to were also less able to cut out passing lanes for the Betis backline, which meant Betis were able to playing from the back and retain possession more easily.

Bilbao resorted to playing straight balls to Williams on too many occasions in the second half, while the connection between Berchiche and Cordoba was lost. It was Berchiche who did get Bilbao’s second goal, scoring with a long-range effort that should have been stopped by Robles. However, it was one of just two efforts by Bilbao in the second half, who failed to create the same openings as they did before the break.

La Liga 2019/20: Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao tactical analysis tactics
Berchiche scores with a long-range effort to make the score 3-2


This was an intriguing matchup between two sides that prefer to dominate the ball and dictate the tempo of games. Bilbao certainly looked to assert themselves on Betis, but fell behind to three early goals from Joaquin. While the goals came as the result of good counter-attacks, they were also three excellent finishes and Bilbao could probably count themselves unlucky the 38-year-old was able to score on each occasion.

Bilbao looked like they might get back into the game later in the first half, but a tactical switch to three at the back at half time caused them to lose some of their threat and allowed Betis to dominate the ball until Bilbao pulled a second back through a long-range effort.

Overall, Betis’ clinical finishing in the first half proved the difference and gave them less to do tactically. Bilbao were open, but Betis were also inch-perfect in their passing and finishing and that allowed them to take their opportunities when they arose.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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