The production team at the Estadio Benito Villamarín for Real Betis vs Barcelona on Sunday night could have installed a dozen spidercams above the pitch and not one of them would have been at risk of being hit.
That’s because the ball hardly left the ground in the Quique Setien derby.
This was always going to be a fascinating match-up between two teams who have learned from Setien to pass, pass and pass once more and it lived up to the billing as Barça came from behind to win 3-2.
Setien spent the past two seasons at Real Betis, converting them into one of the best passing teams in Spain. In 2017/18, Barcelona had the most possession in the league with an average of 60.0%, Real Madrid were second with 57.8% and Real Betis were third with 55.9%. Then, in 2018/19, Barcelona were top again with 61.4% and Real Betis were second with 59.4%.
The problem last season, though, was that all of that possession wasn’t being converted into goals, with Los Verdiblancos having the ninth-fewest shots in the league with 443 and the eighth-fewest goals with 44. It became possession for possession’s sake in the petri dish of the Benito Villamarín and Setien was sent on his way, with Rubi coming in to establish a slightly more pragmatic style.
Once Ernesto Valverde was sacked at Barcelona in January, and once several other coaches had said “no” to the directors at the Camp Nou, Setien was given the job he’d always dreamed of and took over at Barcelona, turning them into even more of a passing team than they already intrinsically were.
Over his first seven games in charge, the Catalan club have averaged 73.4% possession and have averaged 796 pass attempts per game, completing 90% of them.
On Sunday night, the 61-year-old took his new team to face his old team for a clash of similar styles. Although Setien established a three-at-the-back system at Real Betis and although he tried to implement a similar system in his first few games at Barcelona, both of these teams set up with back fours, Real Betis in the 4-1-4-1 they’ve been opting for in recent weeks under Rubi and Barcelona in the 4-3-3 that has been the norm over the past decade – albeit with the interesting wrinkle of Arturo Vidal playing as a false No.9 to compensate for Barça’s injury crisis in attack.
As was expected, both teams tried to pass out from the back and both teams tried to press the other as they did so. When this worked it worked well, but it was something of an all-or-nothing tactic, especially for Real Betis. They had 14 total interceptions as Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet struggled in the absence of the injured and suspended Gerard Pique, but the first time that Real Betis committed and missed they ended up conceding.
That was in the ninth minute, after Sergio Canales had put Real Betis ahead from the penalty spot, when Emerson came inches away from intercepting a Lenglet pass to Frenkie de Jong. Having gambled and not pinched the ball, acres of space opened up for De Jong and, after combining with Lionel Messi for the Argentine’s first assist of three, the Dutchman put the ball in the back of the net.
Real Betis became more cautious after that. Their press became more sporadic and they were happy to spend 10 minutes here or 10 minutes there sitting deeper and catching their breath, relying on the excellent Guido Rodríguez to protect the back four. This was very un-Setién. This is the dose of pragmatism that Real Betis were looking when hiring Rubi in the summer.
Yet it didn’t work. It’s not just because Barcelona went on to win the game through a Lenglet goal at a freekick, before he and Fekir were both sent off. As the clock ticked onwards, the Blaugrana chewed up more and more territory and pinned their hosts further and further back. They could have scored multiple goals, while Real Betis finished the second half without a single shot – neither on nor off target.
This game was built up as a de facto referendum on Setien-ball and conclusions will be drawn after it finished Football Club That Just Sacked Setiien 2, Football Club That Just Hired Setien 3.
Yet the reality is that the true verdict on Real Betis’ life without the Spanish coach and Barcelona’s life with him will come from fixtures other than this one. It’s both clubs’ games against the likes of Getafe, Leganés, Real Valladolid and Alavés that should be evaluated when it comes to judging the respective decisions to fire and hire this coach.