Real Betis – AC Milan: Suso leads Milan’s second half recovery against toothless Betis (1-1)

Learning from their previous duel with Betis, Milan started adjusted into a 5-3-2 lineup, reverting from their usual 4-3-3 shape. Their plan only clicked until the second half, by adjusting the positions of Çalhanoğlu and Suso. On the other hand, Betis displayed their strengths and weaknesses. Their buildup from the back is rock solid, but they struggle at consistently creating dangerous chances.

Coach Gennaro Gattuso has a rebuilt Milan as a side who execute a slow careful buildup and defend in a conservative defensive block. This well-defined game plan has yielded them decent results in Serie A, where they are currently in fourth place.

Betis have suffered from a disappointing start to their season. The team’s collective mechanisms in defense and buildup look more solid than ever. However, Quique Setién’s team struggle at translating their possession dominance into more and better chances. This, combined with a bad finishing streak, has led Betis to become the second poorest goal scoring record in La Liga and a disappointing fourteenth place in the table.

Betis’ lineup for this game can be described as a 3-5-2 shape. Giovanni Lo Celso, William Carvalho and Sergio Canales were the central midfield trio, with Joaquín and Antonio Sanabria up front.

For Milan, Gattuso learned the lesson from his previous duel with Betis. For that game, it was easier for Milan to defend and play against Betis by shifting formation from their usual 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2, and that’s exactly how Milan started this game.

The curious center back trio for Milan was Cristián Zapata, Mateo Musacchio and surprisingly, Ricardo Rodríguez (who usually plays left back). Perhaps Gattuso wanted to take advantage of Rodriguez’s runs to more easily move forward when building from the back. In midfield, Milan used a center midfield trio of Tiémoué Bakayoko, Franck Kessié, and Hakan Çalhanoğlu, with Patrick Cutrone and a free-roaming Suso up front as forwards.

Betis dominates the first half through Canales and Lo Celso

Milan was stuck in the middle of two worlds: they wanted to stifle Betis’ buildup but also not commit too many men forward and protect their defense that way. The result of these concerns was a timid pressing game that achieved neither. With only their two forwards consistently pressing Betis’ back easily passing back three, Milan often found themselves at a numerical disadvantage.

Betis' structure in possession against Milan's 5-3-2 defensive organizationBetis’ structure in possession against Milan’s 5-3-2 defensive organization

Kessié tried to dart forward to solve this issue, but that meant a Betis midfielder would be left free. Milan was constantly outnumbered in central areas, and Betis could always find a free man to bypass Milan’s first line of pressing.

However, Betis’ favorite mechanism to dominate on the buildup is one that had already been used in their first duel against Milan. Midfielder Canales would stay deep and drift wide right, effectively playing in the right back position. Meanwhile, right wing-back Cristian Tello would push up almost like a winger and pin down Milan’s left wing-back, Diego Laxalt. This meant that Canales could constantly receive the ball in this “false right back” position without pressing from Laxalt, who was worried about marking Tello. Canales’ positioning acted as a consistently easy outlet to beat Milan’s pressing attempts.

Lo Celso was also very active in Betis’ mechanisms on the ball, both in buildup and creating chances. While Canales enabled Betis’ buildup on the right, Lo Celso often enabled the buildup on the left. He dropped deep to provide a passing outlet for his center backs as well as support a fellow midfielder Carvalho, who sometimes can struggle when put under pressure. If Canales already had the ball in a deeper zone, Lo Celso would provide a more advanced passing outlet in between Milan’s midfield and defensive lines.

Both Canales and Lo Celso were also key chance creators for their team, with their brilliant through balls launching wing-backs or strikers into the spaces behind Milan’s defensive line. Finally, from time to time these two (especially Lo Celso) liked to make forward runs to load the box and get into scoring position. That’s exactly how Betis’ 12th minute goal came about.

Milan’s initial struggles on the ball

Milan was the complete opposite on the ball. When playing out from the back, they had a similar three-versus-two numerical advantage to that of Betis, but they did not exploit it as well. Milan’s back three could often make it past Betis’ first pressing line – Rodriguez as a makeshift center back helped –  but Kessié and Bakayoko can struggle when trying to turn and play a forward pass under pressure.

Meanwhile, Çalhanoğlu seemed very uncomfortable in his deeper, more fixed position on the left and couldn’t provide the buildup solutions his team needed. Milan’s buildup depended excessively on a free-roaming Suso, who had to move everywhere to allow his team to move up the pitch.

The gap in quality between the buildup phases of both teams explains Betis’ possession dominance in the first half (67% versus 33%) as well as Milan’s struggles to create chances. The only way Milan could get into Betis’ box was from early crosses.

Milan turns the tables thanks to Suso’s position

To Gattuso’s credit, he did some much-needed adjustments for the second half. Milan’s 3-5-2 started looking more like a 3-4-3, with Çalhanoğlu and Suso playing winger roles like the ones they play in Gattuso’s usual 4-3-3.

Because of this alteration, Milan were now able to press Betis’ back three with their front three of Çalhanoğlu, Suso and Cutrone. No more numerical inferiority. This also made it harder for Betis’ center backs to connect with Canales in the “false right back” position, forcing the midfielder to move more centrally. Betis could still beat Milan’s press due to the outstanding technical and tactical quality of their players, but they had lost their system-level advantage.

Milan’s positioning when they had the ball against Betis’ 5-3-2 low defensive block

Milan’s game on the ball also improved. Compared to the first half, the roles of Çalhanoğlu and Suso were inverted. Now Suso stayed mostly on the right wing while Çalhanoğlu had freedom to roam throughout the attacking front. Suso—much like what Canales did in the first half—would soon find a system-level advantage against Betis.

Suso would stay right and move behind the backs of Lo Celso and Joaquín, while right wing-back Borini would aggressively push up between Betis’ left center back and wing-back. This allowed Suso to constantly receive the ball in between Betis’ defensive and midfield lines with little marking on him. Being the creative player he is, he would then threaten Betis’ box by cutting inside and shooting or crossing into the box.

This threat pushed Betis back and allowed Milan to keep the ball for longer periods of time and even counterpress. In the first 25 minutes of the second half, possession was evenly split between both teams (49% from Betis versus 51% from Milan). Suso’s persistence on the right wing led to a foul on Musacchio at the 61st minute, which would then turn into Milan’s set piece goal, scored by Suso himself.

Setién reacts to stabilize the game, but Betis gets too impatient

Setién would react quickly to the conceded goal by substituting Joaquín for midfielder Andrés Guardado. Lo Celso moved to Joaquín’s position as a forward in the 3-5-2, while Guardado would take the position of left central midfielder. Guardado is a better defensive asset than Joaquín or Lo Celso, and helped mitigate the issue of Suso receiving without any marking.

Soon after, Setién would also substitute the lackluster striker Sanabria for Loren Morón. Morón is more mobile, because he drifts wide more often, and better in link-up than Sanabria, and his presence allowed Betis to more easily build attacks in the final third.

These changes allowed Betis to push back Milan and monopolize the ball again (71% versus 29% possession) in the final twenty minutes. However, Betis could not turn their possession dominance into chances.

Conditioned by the impatience of their demanding home crowd, Betis players started looking for more vertical passing options instead of the more careful buildup instilled by their coach. Guardado, Lo Celso and Canales are outstanding through ball generators and created some good chances by doing this, but the reality is that Betis, collectively speaking, was attacking more poorly. In the end, the team’s increasingly desperate attempts to win the game would often be short-circuited by a focused Milan defense.


This game is yet another example of Betis’ strengths and weaknesses. Week in, week out, they play out brilliantly from the back, dominate possession, counterpress and asphyxiate rivals. However, they often can not turn this control into consistently good chances and shots. Betis is a team with many great playmakers (Canales, Guardado, Joaquín, Boudebouz, Lo Celso) but perhaps they don’t have enough attackers who are elite at moving into space and take advantage of those brilliant passes.

In this match, Milan once again came face-to-face with their limits as a team. Gattuso adjusted well in the second half and has instilled some calmness and patience on the ball, but there’s only so much he can do. The stark reality for Milan is that they still don’t have the individual talent to dominate top opponents on the ball, and that forces the team to spend most of their time defending in big games. This is why Milan depends so much on Suso for all tasks on the ball, from buildup to creating chances.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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