The Andalusian fire at the heart of the title race in Spain…
In Part 1, we talked about Real Madrid. The obvious story. The global behemoth that is currently sitting atop the LaLiga table. But now we need to talk about the opposition, those that are coming for the royal, white-clad league leaders.
There are two main trailing teams behind Los Blancos, which is typical for a LaLiga season. It is usually Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, right? The two other giants of the league usually challenge for the title, right? Well, not quite this season. The script is a little bit different this time around.
The chasing pack this season is, as of right now, Sevilla and Real Betis. The two Andalusian giants have been a class above most this season, taking advantage of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid’s struggles to cement a solid position in the race for the Champions League places and, maybe, the title race. And the most fascinating part of all of this is how they both reached that point through different methods. Sevilla currently have the best defense in the league on goals conceded (16), while Real Betis currently have the second-best attack on goals scored (41). The immovable object and the unstoppable force, so to speak.
And I get that this oversimplification of these two teams does not paint an accurate story. These are two very good teams that are both very well-coached and very well balanced. Players like Papu Gómez, Lucas Ocampos, and Rafa Mir are leading the line confidently for Sevilla. Guido Rodríguez, Hector Bellerin, and Álex Moreno, among others, have been performing well in more defensive positions for Betis. But these two teams are distinctly known for their respective key part of the pitch, and it is interesting how these two fierce rivals seem to be opposites of each other.
Sevilla are currently the best position to challenge Real Madrid, and their steadfastness in not losing key players in the January window, as well as their January additions, shows that this team and staff are committed to giving it their best effort to win Sevilla’s first league title in 65 years. They also likely have their eyes on yet another Europa League title, which has the added bonus this season of the final being held in Sevilla’s home stadium, the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. Sevilla are, on paper, a very well-rounded and balanced team, and while their attack has not quite been at the same level as Real Madrid so far this season, their defense has been phenomenal. The base of that defense has had quite a bit of transfer interest, but the ability for Sevilla to hang on to center backs Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos despite significant interest from England has allowed them to challenge for a title.
Sevilla have two genuine stars at center back, with Koundé being the brightest of the pair and one who certainly looks like a potential world-class player. They are both very strong, capable in the tackle and in the air, and both can play confidently with the ball at their feet. Both are, on their day, among the best in their position in the league. The fullbacks have also been strong, with Marcos Acuña shining on the left and the combination of Gonzalo Montiel and Jesús Navas on the right being more than capable. The system also benefits the team, with manager Julen Lopetegui forming a solid 4-3-3 with a solid midfield three, rooted by resurgent ex-Man City midfielder Fernando and no-nonsense Spaniard Joan Jordán.
There is also plenty of security between the posts, with Moroccan international Yassine Bounou quickly climbing to the ranks to be Sevilla’s number one over the last few seasons. Bounou is outstanding, being arguably the best goalkeeper in LaLiga this season and among the two or three best in that position last season as well. With cat-like reflexes, an alertness to any situation, and the capability to play with the ball at his feet and marshal his defense, Bounou is the perfect leader in defense for this well-drilled Sevilla back line. As he has been for the last year, he is very important for Sevilla’s success, and his impending return from the African Cup of Nations will be a big boost for Lopetegui’s team going into the heart of the season.
While Sevilla have risen to success on the back of their defense, their cross-town rivals Real Betis have done so on the back of a scintillating attack. They are a strong team in their own right, one that might be less of a contender for the title than Sevilla but certainly just as much of a contender in the Europa League (and I imagine the thought of winning the Europa League in your rival’s stadium would be exciting for Beticos). They have their own strength in balance, especially with the double pivot in midfield of Guido Rodríguez and William Carvalho, but the brilliance (and watchability) of Betis revolves around their terrifying three-headed dragon going forward: Sergio Canales, Nabil Fekir, and Juanmi.
The abundant talent of Fekir and Canales in particular has always been known, but we are now seeing the pairing at their best since putting on that green and white striped shirt. With seven and five assists, respectively, so far this season and both being among the top five in Spain in Shot-Creating Actions, it is hard to find a tandem more deadly and more potent in the attacking third than these two. These might just be the two best non-Real Madrid players in Spain at the moment, with Fekir in particular being a player who genuinely might be considered the best attacking player in LaLiga on form right now if it were not for the existence of Benzema and Vinícius. Canales and Fekir are the types of players you look to in big moments, the players who can make something out of nothing and turn a game around at a moment’s notice.
Almost hidden in plain sight behind Fekir and Canales is Juanmi, the third player in this attacking triad who provides the well-rounded finishing ability to the equation. Despite not being as flashy as the previous two, Juanmi is no less effective. With 12 goals in only 19 league appearances this season, Juanmi is, as of time of writing, level with Vinícius Junior as the third-highest goalscorer in LaLiga. He is also the second-highest scoring Spanish player in the league this season, only one goal behind Espanyol’s Raúl de Tomás, and was also awarded LaLiga Player of the Month for December, becoming the first Betis player to win the league’s player of the month award since they began awarding the honor in 2013.
If Fekir and Canales are the mystifying creativity, Juanmi is the ruthless finishing. He is not flashy by any means, but Juanmi knows just exactly where he has to be. He is an expert at ghosting past defenders, positioning himself perfectly to be on the end of a pass or cross, and once he gets the ball inside the penalty area, he has the skill, technique, and composure to finish well. His chemistry with Fekir and Canales is apparent for the viewer to see, and he also combines well with Betis’ target man, either Borja Iglesias or Willian José depending on the game. In a league full of flashy, star-power talent, Juanmi has floated a little under the radar by comparison, but it sure feels like he is going to make people know his name by the end of this season.
Betis themselves as a team, not just as individuals, are a remarkable story too. They were fairly strong under manager Quique Setién, but certainly became rudderless when the Spaniard left in 2019. Ex-Espanyol manager Rubi came in to replace him but was sacked with the club fighting relegation during the 2019/20 season. In came Manuel Pellegrini, the ex-Malaga, Man City, and West Ham manager who immediately changed their fortunes. They finished 6th in the Chilean’s first season in charge, an optimistic return to European football after a relegation fight, but they have now seemingly taken the next step to challenge for the meaningful places in the table. I had the opportunity to ask William Carvalho about what has gone into their side’s rapid ascent up the table…
…yes, I asked him. Not ESPN, not Sky Sports, not Diario AS, I did (with the help of Vikram for coming up with the question). We are big time journalists now, after all, but anyway…
…and while Carvalho did give a fairly media-trained answer about a strong collective and greater ability working as a team paired with high individual performance levels, the media-trained answer seems pretty accurate. This is a team that very evidently has a strong collective understanding, a team that knows how to play together and that knows the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of each other. Pellegrini has certainly built a strong system and tactic for them to succeed in, and the additions of Guido Rodríguez and Hector Bellerin certainly have improved the team, but it appears the secret behind Betis’ success is not all that hard to understand: they have simply grown better and closer over time.
Sevilla and Real Betis are truly the immovable object and unstoppable force, so to speak. Despite the differences within both teams, they have both done enough to put themselves in position to challenge for Champions League places, and maybe even a league title, come the end of the season. And who knows, we might also have an all-Andalusian Europa League Final in Seville to look forward to in May.
But what happened to the other two Spanish giants? We will discuss this in Part 3.
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