In the knockout stages of the Europa League, Stade Rennais hosted Real Betis at the Roazhon Park. With a fixture that left the drama for the final minutes, this tactical analysis shall examine how both teams performed.
Rennes were the side with the better form over the last five games, only losing to league leaders PSG. Real Betis, on the other hand, struggled badly against CD Leganes in a 3-0, despite showing success in the Copa del Rey and in La Liga.
Real Betis stayed with their regular starters, only switching to a 3-2-4-1 which kicked off more like a 5-4-1. Betis chose to have greater numerical superiority in the centre, thus going for a single-striker formation. Quique Setien anticipated Rennes to sit in a disciplined block that would require more players in the centre.
Rennes who have enjoyed commendable success with their 4-2-3-1 chose to sit in a defensive 4-4-2. The veteran Hatem Ben Arfa who has a history as a ‘football hipster’ despite his technical prowess was chosen to partner Adrien Hunou in the attacking pair. His recent form with Rennes has picked up consistency after several years of being on the sidelines with previous clubs.
Arsene Wenger once mentioned in one of his interviews by FIFA: “The 4-4-2 is the best formation to rationally occupy maximum area on the pitch. The 4-4-2 covers 60% in the centre and 40% on the wings.” Rennes’ game, especially in the first half, proves Wenger’s theory accurate.
Rennes draw first blood early
Betis’ problems began from the whistle. The wide midfielders for Betis stayed very deep in line with the back-three forming a very narrow line of five. This was rather unnecessary while facing a system using two strikers. Rennes were able to exploit the free width under two minutes. The left-back Mehdi Zaffane found himself in open space to assist Hunou for the early opening goal.
Rennes also had their full-backs overlap and overload the wide flanks on the counter, exacerbating Betis’ width issues very early. The French side clearly did their homework studying Betis’ weaknesses against Valencia who also sported a similar system. Having the attacking midfielder Joaquín pinned back and forced to defend paid off well.
Betis who seem to be struggling without Marc Bartra at the heart of their defence went with Javi Garcia instead. Although having a defensive midfielder while progressing out from the back helps, it is not a permanent solution. Betis already looked extremely vulnerable with the back-three against Valencia and Leganes, and also did here against Rennes. Javi Garcia, unfortunately, conceded an own-goal from a parry off Joel Robles. Things going from bad to worse for Betis.
Rennes keeping it tight
With Betis struck with two surprise goals under 10 minutes, the game only began after. Rennes sat back defensively in a mid-defensive block. They also kept spaces between the two lines of defence very tight. Attacking midfielders between-the-lines for Betis found hardly any room to create play, and had to often play it back.
For the next 20 minutes, this tactic seemed to work well for Rennes. Betis struggled to achieve any penetration often circulating the ball around through their wide players and defenders.
Cutting off Carvalho and reverse-pressing
Usually, when Setien faces such circumstances, they play the ball back to ‘keeper Joel Robles. From here they work on escaping out from the back with their defenders inviting the opposition to press. William Carvalho plays a crucial role here by dropping deep to create numerical superiority until a free passing lane appears.
Rennes cut the passing lane to Carvalho. With Betis midfielders choosing to stay higher, it was very difficult for the back-three to find a way around Rennes.
When Betis did manage to get into higher positions on the pitch, the forwards from Rennes would track back defensively to cancel out any numerical superiority that Betis could achieve. If they won the ball, a rapidly organised counter followed. If they couldn’t, they sat in shape and forced Betis to keep circulating the ball wide.
Betis’ positional adaptations
The impact of the ‘Mexican Messi’ in this game was phenomenal. Hitherto, Setien only used Lainez as a wild-card hoping for his dribbling ability to create chances in an organised system. But in this game, Lainez was brought on a half-hour into the game to replace Junior Firpo who picked up an injury.
Setien posted Andrés Guardado to the left wing. Giovani Lo Celso was pulled deeper alongside Carvalho and Sergio Canales. Diego Lainez was brought on to play as a playmaker behind Loren Moron.
Lainez started to attack higher up making things harder for the Rennes centre-half Edson Mexer. This also freed up Loren Moron who was able to sneak behind the defensive line a lot easier than before. Lainez also played wider in the right half-space, often linking successfully with Joaquín and Carvalho.
These positional changes made a big difference to Betis’ penetration. They looked remarkably more refreshing in terms of creating chances after Lainez was brought on. Guardado also gave a lot more stability on the left-wing than Junior Firpo.
Betis’ discovery of a fertile space
With the positional changes opening up Rennes a lot more, Loren Moron happened to find himself in a lucrative position. He was clear on goal, except Rennes’ keeper Tomáš Koubek was quick to come off his line to collect.
Within seconds after he distributed the ball, Lo Celso very intelligently attacked the same space that Moron found himself in earlier. This time Koubek wasn’t able to arrive on time, and a haphazard touch was enough to see it in the back of the Rennes goal. This was a subliminal reading of the game by the Argentine who learned from a previous situation.
During the second half, Betis deliberately targetted the same space especially when the play was forced back and the Rennes defenders were clearing their lines. Sidnei looked to fish out Sergio Canales who was the lone runner attacking this space.
Once Betis ‘tasted blood,’ they kept attacking that space throughout the game
A free man’s dream
One aspect mutually common between both sides in this game was the amount of room given to the free man. The free man is a wide player positioned in numerical inferiority with the idea of switching play from an overload. The free man also serves the purpose of pinning a defender. In this game, however, both sides neglected these wide players.
Rennes’ opening goal was one example. Betis’ second goal, albeit off a set-piece was another. A well-rehearsed routine from the training grounds, Sidnei was left unmarked while two markers focussed on Lainez. He astutely attacked the far post and converted a perfectly-weighted chip from Joaquín.
Past the hour-mark, Lo Celso assumed greater positional freedom. He dropped deeper linking play with neat one-touch combinations in the midfield which wasn’t possible with Rennes’ compactness in the first half. At times, he also drifted wide, stretching play as Rennes looked crippled after Clément Grenier’s injury.
Diego Lainez: Betis’ silver lining
Lo Celso deserved the Man-of-the-Match for his clever reading of the game, positioning prowess and the opening goal for Betis. However, Lainez’s performance in this game cannot be left unnoticed. He won an astounding six of his 12 duels despite playing as a forward and averaged a 93% pass accuracy.
His nifty footwork attracts defenders and creates spaces. But this game showcased his incredible positional sense which has made huge leaps from his first game with Betis last month. He is able to isolate himself in key areas of the pitch which helps the players around transition effectively.
His equalising goal for Betis was an apt reward for his game against Rennes and is certain to give the Betis fans a new chant to sing. Aside from salvaging a draw from this fixture, the Lainez away goal will perhaps be one of the most important goals for Betis should they progress further in this tournament.
Changes in Betis tactics for the second half
Betis opted to pass longer instead of the short passing game to mix it up. With Lo Celso playing more of a playmaker’s role, Betis exploited Rennes’ compactness.
Lo Celso also helped out defensively proving to be the deserving winner of the Man-of-the-Match. His positional freedom played a key role in Betis’ tactical change that helped them attack Rennes better during the second half.
Setien’s pawns offer more than pawns on a chessboard
Without doubt, Quique Setien has provided structure to this Betis side and developed a stronger game model this season. However, Setien must find consistency in his central midfield. His constant rotation of players in the central positions breaks the rhythm to Betis’ stable run.
Although it is an invaluable asset to have players who can multi-task, and adds a lot of value to their profile, each of his midfielders have different qualities that they bring to the side. These minor differences add up to change the palette of Betis’ game model in every fixture.
Betis has a brilliant set of players who are willing to adapt to Setien’s chess-styled approach to the game resembling those vital pawns on the chessboard without which it’s impossible to play. Yet, each of his pawns are unique and move differently, which must be taken into consideration.
Julien Stéphan’s Stade Rennais found themselves in an early lead, partly due to luck, partly tactics. But his strategy to defend that lead was worthy of appreciation. Had it not been for the way Betis adapted and Rennes’ poor man-marking on set-pieces, they would have secured a very important win in this leg. Such a result would have been a boost to French football this week with fellow compatriots PSG beating Manchester United in the Champions League.
Real Betis inched through to manage a draw and three important away goals. Although Diego Lainez and Giovani Lo Celso were fundamental in reshaping the Betis outlook through the game, Setien should hope that Marc Bartra returns to his position soon and saves Betis from the defensive crisis they are currently undergoing.
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