How have Real Betis been doing?
Real Betis currently sit in 15th place, 4 points off the relegation zone and have just come off an impressive 0-0 draw with Villarreal. While Madrid can take no team for granted, especially if they can match the Yellow Submarines blow-for-blow, Madrid should expect to put away their opponents with a positive goal difference of 2 or more. The main reason for this confidence is the fact that Betis have lost their last 5 fixtures before the Villarreal game, with 3 of them being 4-0 scorelines. In that time period they have only scored 1 goal. Thus, there is no doubt that Betis are low on confidence at the moment and will tremble at the thought of hosting an in-form and newly motivated Real Madrid.
What to expect tactically from Betis
It is difficult to predict exactly what shape Betis will line-up in, as they have been deployed in a 4-4-2 marginally more often than they have played in a 4-2-3-1. Both formations are made for defensive-minded teams looking to break on the counter, but Juan Merino might just prefer the 4-4-2 so he can push up an extra striker to double his chances of converting the few opportunities that might come Betis’s way.
Regardless of what formation is chosen, Rubén Costa is guaranteed to start up top with his record of 8 goals and 2 assists in 20 apps (La Liga) unmatched by anyone else on the squad (no one else has more than 1 goal, and Joaquín is the only other player to have 2 assists). Jorge Molina is a likely partner for Ruben Costa up top, but the more in-form Dani Ceballos could be chosen to play a slightly deeper role just off the shoulder of Costa. Madrid must prepare for both situations because each choice provides something different for the Betis manager. At age 33, with only 0.1 dribbles per game, and a paltry 0.3 key passes per game, it is clear that Molina will not be taking on the entire Madrid defense anytime soon. Instead, at 189 cm, he will be the target for long balls and will be expected to hold up the ball until his teammates arrive. Ceballos offers the exact opposite of Molina. Most comfortable in central attacking midfield, Ceballos is dynamite with the ball at his feet, completing 1.8 dribbles per game and drawing a team high 2.4 fouls per game. Employing him will give Betis better ball retention and will give Betis the ability to exploit the space between Madrid’s midfield and defensive lines. The choice of Ceballos is a less direct route, but it is also a braver one that could pay off big time.
In midfield Joaquín is the outstanding pick. Along with Rubén Costa, Joaquín is easily Betis’s best player. The right midfielder has completed a team high 2.1 dribbles per game, has been fouled 1.6 times a game, has created a team high 2.1 key passes per game, and has 2 assists and 1 goal to his name. There is a reason Betis play the vast majority of their attacks down the right-hand side.
Across the rest of midfield Betis’s picks hover around average. Alfred N’Diaye is Betis’s best defensive midfielder with 2.9 tackles per game and 2.7 interceptions per game and his partner Petros is similarly solid in the middle of the park, but Xavi Torres, and Rafael van der Vaart have done little to show that they are legitimately good depth options for the Green and White. Betis are also fairly average on the left, with Cejudo and Portillo their best options and left-back Vargas having to deputize there once. Thus you can expect Betis to employ a flat midfield line with only Joaquín given the license to push up and roam. The two CM’s will likely never push forward and will direct almost all of their passes to the right flank, especially when a counter is on.
While Betis have fallen to three 4-0 losses over the past 6 games, their defense actually houses quality individuals. Right-back Cristiano Piccini is a good defender with 2.7 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per game and possesses a good connection with Joaquín up the right flank. Piccini is more than capable of pushing up in attack by himself as demonstrated by his 1.5 dribbles per game and is a decent threat from out wide with his 0.8 crosses per game. While he will probably be instructed to play in a more conservative manner against Madrid, any overload he provides could be key in distracting attention away from Joaquín and setting the marauding winger free. Juan Vargas is also a more than decent option on the left flank, providing 1.5 crosses and 1.2 key passes per game. However defensively he is quite weak, with only 0.9 tackles per game, thus giving opposition teams the chance to attack down Betis’s left flank whenever Vargas pushes up. The 2 center backs for Betis will almost certainly be Heiko Westermann and Bruno. Both have solid defensive reputations and have most certainly carried Betis on the defensive side of things. So Madrid’s forwards must come into the game focused and motivated if they are to create clear-cut opportunities against this center back pairing.
What to expect from Real Madrid
With Zidane clearly looking to play expansive and attractive football, he will most probably persist with a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid that will look to blow Betis away. Cristiano and Benzema are fit and ready to start up front, with either of Jese and James also ready to join them. Isco is likely to find his way back into the starting line-up after two impressive displays and Modric and Kroos are my picks for Madrid’s center midfield pairing. In defense Pepe,and Varane should start (Ramos will not play), while Marcelo and Carvajal will probably be the fullbacks.
My tactical articles have extensively covered how Madrid attack, so I don’t feel a need to reiterate that here. Instead what intrigues me is how Madrid will approach this match defensively. Los Blancos haven’t looked great at the back in their last two matches under Zidane, however, their match vs. Betis is a big chance to capture a clean sheet. In midfield it is imperative that the likes of Isco/James, Modric, and Kroos are positionally disciplined enough, that they can shift as a unit towards the left and right flanks (especially the left). With Joaquín and Piccini legitimate threats, Madrid’s left-flank is likely to be exposed on more than one occasion, making Madrid’s midfield support and the pressing of Cristiano Ronaldo (which has actually improved steadily over the season believe it or not) key in helping Marcelo out.
Rubén Costa is also another danger that must be addressed by Zidane. Costa loves to drift all over the pitch in order to create angles for himself and to cut inside to shoot. Thus the entire back line must be aware of his presence. It would be smart for the back-line to zonally mark their areas to avoid being drawn out by Costa’s movement. Additionally, it is also important that each fullback is in communication with his center back to prevent Costa from making a classic run in-between the two of them, as that will give Costa a clear sight of goal.
If Ceballos plays, Madrid’s midfield and defense will have to be further aware of another threat and will simply have to be switched on at all times. But in the likely event that Molina takes to the pitch, Varane and Pepe should simply be able to snuff the average forward out of the game.
Finally Madrid’s defense has got to be organized on set-pieces. Betis are a real threat when delivering the ball onto a teammates’ noggin and thus Pepe and Varane have to take control and organize their back line quickly and effectively.
Shots per game: 11.6
Shots conceded per game: 13.7
Goals from set pieces: 3/13
Fouls per game: 13.2
Shots per game: 20
Shots conceded per game: 11.8
Dribbles won per game: 11.3
Average Possession: 56%
Prediction: Real Betis 0 – 2 Real Madrid
Real Betis will give everything they have, but the attacking force of Real Madrid and the ball possession of the center midfielders should overwhelm the away side.
(All statistics taken from whoscored.com)