One of the big stories in La Liga in 2021 has been the rise of Real Betis, who have climbed into the top six with a run of six wins in eight games.
This positive form has been largely explained by a massive improvement in the Seville-based team’s defensive capabilities.
In the first half of the season, Betis had the worst defence in La Liga. They conceded 28 goals in their first 16 games, an average of 1.75 per game, allowing three or more goals on six occasions.
Since the turn of the year, though, they have only conceded eight goals in nine games – 0.88 on average – and kept four clean sheets in the process.
This is partly explained by the blossoming central defensive partnership between Victor Ruiz and Aissa Mandi, who have started eight of those nine games together.
Marc Bartra is currently sidelined by an Achilles injury, but the stats strongly suggest the former Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund defender should not be ushered back into the starting eleven when he recovers his fitness.
More than the performance of individuals, though, Betis’s big defensive improvement is largely a collective matter, with the team looking much more solid and compact, and as a consequence allowing far fewer goalscoring opportunities to the opposition.
The engineer of this welcome development is, of course, manager Manuel Pellegrini, whose work at Betis is so far further enhancing an already outstanding career.
He inherited a broken team that had been left traumatized by two seasons of bitter disappointment under predecessors Quique Setien and Rubi.
The struggles Pellegrini encountered in the opening weeks of the campaign showed that he needed time to heal the wounds left by a tough couple of years, especially defensively after Betis conceded 60 goals last season, second-most in La Liga.
But the experienced Chilean has his team well on the road to recovery now, turning them into a much harder team to play against.
At the other end of the field, it has certainly harmed at all that the squad’s forwards have started to find their scoring touch.
Borja Iglesias, in particular, has overcome a rotten run of form to become a regular on the scoresheet. The big striker only scored two goals in the entirety of 2020, but has more than doubled that tally just two months into the new year.
But the key lies at the back: if the new found defensive strength is maintained, Betis should continue to pick up plenty of points because there has never been doubting their attacking quality, with players like Joaquin, Nabil Fekir and in particular Sergio Canales capable of unlocking any defence.
With seven goals and five assists to his name, Canales has been one of the best players in La Liga this season. His versatility and workrate offers a great range of options for Pellegrini, and he really deserves more recognition as one of Spain’s very best attacking midfielders.
It is realistic to hope that Betis’s current sixth place in the table can be maintained until the end of the season, and taking the club back into European football would undoubtedly mark a major achievement for Pellegrini.