“I want to win too”, implored Real Betis manager Quique Setien in an interview last December, “but I want to win through a series of mechanisms and an interpretation that is different.” His words were a rallying cry for a side that hadn’t won in five league matches, raising questions about how viable the first year manager’s style was at a stage higher than the second division or a side fighting relegation. In Setien fashion, his words split the difference: of course he wants to win, but win without compromising a specific vision. It is the soccer version of both having and eating a possession influenced cake, filled with sweeping passing movements and quick interplay leaving defenders grasping for space.
Setien’s vision rose to attention last season at Las Palmas, remolding a side largely made up of second division players into a ball playing side that was the most entertaining La Liga team for the first half of the season. And albeit for one brief week after the second matchday, they were the only side other than Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to hold a first place position in the league. Last summer, the 59-year-old manager, 16 seasons into a journeyman managerial career in Spain’s second division, took over his biggest challenge in a Betis side with European aspirations. He got past the aforementioned midseason results drought. And with the help of a savvy winter signing, Betis currently side in sixth place in La Liga, firmly in a Europa League position.
Setien sides play the same way regardless of opponent: a 4-3-3 formation with a focus on possession, sometimes recklessly so, advancing play from the keeper through the center backs, and into the midfield without missing any shortcuts. In Setien, Betis got more than their fifth manager in two seasons, but a systematic overhaul in philosophy. His uncompromising vision earned plaudits in a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid last season in which his Las Palmas side held 55% of the possession against the European champions without panicking in the moment. They held steady at midtable before a late season swoon brought on by a disagreement between the manager and the board (Las Palmas currently sit in the relegation zone).
Still, Setien’s move to a larger club raised as many questions as it did excitement. His free flowing system at Las Palmas was seen as the perfect match for the soccer identity of the Canary Islands, but perhaps he would need to compromise under the pressure of a larger club. Betis’ 1-0 win against Real Madrid at the start of this campaign gave Setien much needed leeway from citics. As expected, there were goals: there was a 4-4 draw against Real Sociedad. They’ve lost one match 6-3 and two more by a 5-0 scoreline. They beat rivals Sevilla 5-3, then lost to Real Madrid a month later by the same score. They’ve given up 53 goals, the third most in the league. Regardless, they continue to play.
Betis’ recent run into a Europa League position coincides with the signing of ball playing center back Marc Bartra from Dortmund on the second to last day of this winter’s transfer window. The 27 year old graduate of La Masia’s calmness and passing have been essential for Setien’s first phase of build up play, and only at a $13 million clip. The chess obsessed Setien also notes how attack and defense compliment each other, and Bartra presents a double swoop of shoring up the backline with both his defensive instinct and his ability to keep possession. Betis have won six out of nine matches since Bartra slotted into the lineup, keeping five clean sheets.
Bartra’s signing is another example in a long line of productive acquisitions at value. Thirty-year-old defensive midfielder Javi Garcia, tasked with the Roque Mesa role from last year’s Las Palmas side as the linchpin in possession, cost under $2 million and has played 27 matches. The former Manchester City player is the type of signing that mid-table La Liga sides thrive upon, that of the highly rated phenom who left for foreign leagues too early in their career, never quite lived up to outsized expectations, and were brought back to Spain for value. Pacy 26-year-old winger Cristian Tello, another ex-Barcelona youth prospect, signed for $5 million and rewarded Setien with four goals and four assists in 16 matches.
The list of Setien inspired signings goes on, centered around savvy veteran finds. Versatile 31-year-old midfielder Andres Guardado signed for $3 million from PSV. 29 year old striker Sergio Leon, leading the team with 10 goals, signed from second division Osasuna for just $4.4 million. Taking a cue from Monchi’s playbook of finding value in Ligue 1, Betis signed 28-year-old attacker Ryad Boudebouz from Montepellier for $8.8 million. There is a trend to a Setien player in versatile, technical players in the mid to late 20s. In addition to style and entertainment, perhaps Setien’s ability to work with budget midfielders, wingers and attackers offers stability and sustainability amidst the nine figure transfers of their peers.
Setien’s first challenge with his new club was in dealing with the loss of 21-year-old midfielder Dani Ceballos to Real Madrid for just over $20 million. His response was defiance, asking why any Betis prospect would leave the club when Ceballos just sits on the bench. He’s asked for the midfielder to return home, and any neutral would be excited at the idea of Ceballos developing under his tutelage. At the very least, win or lose, he would always have the ball.
Vincenzo Montella was thrown into the derby fire in his first match as Sevilla manager against Setien’s side earlier this January in the aforementioned 5-3 loss in which Betis created a turnover and scored off the opening kickoff. Somehow, one of the fiercest rivalries in Spain ended up with two managers who both are criticized for erring on the side of romanticism, or having their sides play with too much personality.
Setien bluntly told Simeone before their sides met last December that while he respects his titles and accomplishments, he wasn’t a fan of Atleti’s style. He freely admits that while Simeone probably looks at his passing sides and scoffs, the Argentine manager has the tact to not say it outloud (Atleti delivered a trademark 1-0 win). But Setien’s observations provide a glimpse into Simeone’s influence on La Liga sides without the financial resources of Barcelona or Real Madrid. If last season’s Las Palmas side surprised through passing, this season’s surprises from Girona to Eibar play reactively through off-ball shape, determination, and perfecting the simple aspects of winning.
There is an implicit concession of losing when discussing a side’s focus on entertainment and style, that you either play pragmatically and grind out results or you become the people’s champion but never quite reach the extra gear of intensity and personality to get a result. While that may have been true earlier this season, Betis and Setien turned a corner. The manager now speaks of his sides rising confidence, saying they have the “illusion” they can win every match. We know his sides can entertain. We know they can score and will get scored on. Now, we’re seeing that the 59-year-old manager can get results on a grander stage as well.