Somebody, sooner or later, was going to get it right at Betis. At least, that was the hope. Quique Setien, for a season and a bit, brought success on the pitch but didn’t get the club. Pepe Mel won hearts and minds, as well as plenty of football matches, but couldn’t take Betis the extra mile to challenge the big boys.
In total, nineteen different coaches have held the top job at the Benito Villamarin since the last time Betis truly had a team worthy of their enormous fanbase. That was 2004/05 when they won the Copa del Rey and qualified for the Champions League under Lorenzo Serra Ferrer.
Everyone from Héctor Cúper and Javier Irureta to Gus Poyet and Víctor Sánchez has had a crack since. None have got as close to getting Betis back to those heights as current boss Manuel Pellegrini is right now.
To some extent, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Pellegrini has a CV that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that he is a good football coach and that’s more than can be said for a host of Betis’ recent appointments. The Chilean is part of a select group of just 11 managers to have won the English Premier League. His most recent job in Spain saw him guide Malaga to the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League, having gone a stage further in the same competition with Villarreal in the mid 2000’s.
If there was a doubt when he took charge, it was perhaps his age and whether Pellegrini still had the drive to take on such a big project as revitalising a Betis side that had just finished 15th in LaLiga, only scraping past 40 points under Rubi in 2019/20.
66 at the time and in the middle of a pandemic, he’d have been forgiven for opting for a simpler life rather than upping sticks once more to take on a job that had become something of a poisoned chalice.
Given the difficult economic climate for all Spanish football clubs, it wasn’t as though he was going to have the kind of resources available to him as he did during his stints in England, the most recent of which was an unsuccessful time at West Ham. Indeed, Betis have only made one permanent signing that involved a transfer fee since he took charge – the €3.5m spent this summer on centre-back Germán Pezzella.
So, just how have Betis transformed in less than 18 months under Pellegrini, into a team that is not only back in Europe but currently sitting 3rd in LaLiga, 4 points above defending champions Atletico Madrid and 9 clear of Barcelona as we near the halfway stage in the 2021/22 season?
The answers perhaps best lie in small improvements and smart solutions across the pitch rather than in the shape of a radical new direction which you’d be forgiven for thinking Betis needed after the failures of Rubi’s year at the club.
The Chilean, popularly known as “the engineer”, has gone about his business in a typically calm and understated manner. He didn’t come in shouting and screaming, demanding instant improvements from his players.
There was no short-term fix or brief honeymoon period that new managerial appointments can often bring to underperforming teams before things go awry again. Indeed he didn’t even get off to a particularly good start with Betis losing 9 of their opening 16 league games under his stewardship. They conceded 3 or more goals in 6 of these defeats, including a 4-3 loss at Levante in their final game of 2020.
However as 2020 rolled into 2021, something changed in the green and white half of Seville and suddenly Pellegrini’s quiet revolution, not dissimilar to some of those witnessed before at previous clubs including Manchester City, started to deliver tangible improvements and with it better results.
The year started with the derby against Sevilla and a really strong performance in a 1-1 draw at the Benito Villamarin. A decent Copa del Rey run in January also helped to breed confidence and Betis would go on to only lose two more games in the 2020/21 season in LaLiga as Pellegrini’s side steadily climbed the table to an impressive 6th place, their joint best finishing position and highest top flight points tally in 16 years since the season they reached the Champions League.
Gaps in the defence were patched up and Betis were starting to exert much more control on games thanks to the qualities of the likes of Sergio Canales and increasingly Nabil Fekir whose resurgence has been one of the key features of Pellegrini’s reign.
However even in the summer, there was still a sense that Betis had largely overachieved in the second half of last season. The addition of European football to their workload threatened to make life a lot more difficult while the suspicion was that defensive issues may well return after the summer departures of Aïssa Mandi and Emerson Royal, half of the back four which had helped Betis secure Europa League qualification.
However, Betis have defied the broad trend when it comes to Europa League football scuppering the domestic campaigns of teams that aren’t European regulars. If anything they’ve stepped up a gear rather than fallen backwards in LaLiga despite Pellegrini’s commitment to regular rotation with even the goalkeeper position not immune from changes with Claudio Bravo sharing duties with summer arrival Rui Silva.
The Portuguese shot-stopper was one of a number of smart summer signings and their ability to recruit well on a very limited budget is unquestionably one reason why they’ve managed to outperform a host of rival clubs in Spain over the past twelve months. Loan arrival Willian José has proved an upgrade on Loren Morón when it comes to competing with Borja Iglesias for the striker role, while fellow loanee Héctor Bellerín has filled the void left by Emerson at right-back.
Pellegrini’s ability to get more out of the likes of Fekir and Iglesias, who was a shadow of his former self during his first eighteen months in Seville, has been impressive although not entirely unexpected given the qualities those players possessed. However the Chilean’s real masterstrokes seem to have come in his ability to resurrect the careers of what might previously have been politely described as journeymen players.
The most striking example this season has been Juanmi. The former Malaga, Real Sociedad and very briefly Southampton forward, made just seven league starts across the whole of his first two seasons at the Benito Villamarin, scoring just three goals. This term he has suddenly found himself in a left-sided role in the team that is clearly bringing the best out of him and the 28 year old has remarkably netted 10 goals already in LaLiga, a tally only bettered by Karim Benzema.
Juanmi was on target again in the 4-0 demolition of a strong Real Sociedad side at the weekend and there was even a brace for left-back Álex Moreno, a player who failed to score a single league goal during his first two seasons with Betis before producing some of the best football of his career so far this term.
Most Points in LaLiga in 2021
It’s those kinds of marginal and in some cases significant improvements in players across the pitch that have helped Betis kick on to the next level and statistically speaking they have been exceptional in 2021, with the sole exception of a difficult week prior to the most recent international break where they suffered three of their eight competitive defeats this calendar year (excluding penalty shootouts).
The nature of those three losses, all to nil against Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and city rivals Sevilla, suggested that Betis’ bubble may finally have burst with the demands of European football finally taking its toll. However instead Pellegrini’s side returned from a fortnight’s break rejuvenated, reeling off five straight wins in all competitions, including a 1-0 victory at Camp Nou. The only game they’ve failed to win since the derby defeat was a Europa League dead rubber against Celtic.
With the club riding high in 3rd place in LaLiga and through to a winnable Europa League knockout tie against Zenit, Betis supporters and pundits alike are frantically reassessing what might be possible this season. Having defeated Barcelona and Real Sociedad in their last two league games, a top four finish suddenly no longer seems like an utterly unrealistic dream.
Having largely lived in Sevilla’s shadow for much of this century and watched their neighbours win Europa League after Europa League, there is also another date that Betis fans will have in their diaries. That’s the 18th May when the 2022 UEFA Europa League Final takes place at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, the home of their arch rivals who also just happen to have dropped down into the competition.
While the field in the Europa League is a strong one, Manuel Pellegrini and his team have the opportunity to write their names into Betis folklore for eternity this season in Europe and the excitement surrounding the possibility, no matter how small, of lifting their first European trophy in Nervión next May will only grow once European football returns in February.
Having such a calm and composed character as Pellegrini in charge can only help the dressing room deal with the challenges of potentially competing on two fronts and handling the pride and pressures that come with playing in front of over 50,000 increasingly excitable Béticos each week.
It’s difficult to understate just how much it would mean to those fans should this fabulous calendar year prove to be the foundations for a genuine period of success as opposed to the kind of false dawn which they’ve become all too familiar with over recent years.
With only three major trophies won in their entire history, it’s perhaps a stretch to even refer to Real Betis as a sleeping giant. It’s more the case of a resting beast that only sporadically threatens to wake from its slumber, although usually only for a brief moment.
If Pellegrini can be the man to follow through on all this early promise and deliver a sustained period of success at the Benito Villamarin, it will rank up there with anything he has achieved during his long and overwhelmingly successful coaching career.