Betis, Legends, and Dembele

We’re 15 or 16 matches into the La Liga season, depending on the team, and this is where the wheat has historically already separated itself from the chaff: the big clubs are on top, the wannabe newcomers or surprising starters are fading. Who can match the spending, the power, the ref-baiting decisions of the major clubs? No one, that’s who.

What I mean is, Real Betis arrive at the Camp Nou as massive underdogs, looking up at their Catalan opponents in the table to the tune of…hold on a second, Real Betis has 4 more points than Barça? That can’t be right. Let’s redo that math. Let’s see, Betis…mmhmm…carry the one…yeah, that counts as a win…well I’ll be damned. They’ve got 27 points to Barça’s 23, meaning even a home win will keep the “big” club beneath a club that hasn’t finished higher than 3rd since 1964.

That 3rd place was achieved in 1994-95 and is even more impressive than you might think because it happened in their first year back in the top flight after promotion from the second division. Impressive. Can you name their manager at the time? I’ll give you a moment to think about it while I talk about Barcelona.

Recently, a friend sent a Sporcle quiz to our group chat. I am going to spoiler this quiz in about 20 seconds, so you should click that link and take the quiz, then come back and read the rest of this. Do it. We’ll wait for you.

Hmm, that took you a little bit longer than I expected, but okay. Good job, anyway. In case you, for some weird reason, didn’t attempt that quiz, it was to name every Barcelona manager since 2000. There were 14 of them. In my infinite wisdom, I got 12 of them right.

I missed a certifiable legend in Charly Rexach (9th in overall appearances for Barça as a player, a Pichichi, and 7th in goals scored in international competitions; then 3 stints as interim head coach and that one season as the full time coach) because I’m a certifiable idiot. I am an embarrassment and my children are loathe to be seen with me in public.

But it’s the guy below Rexach that’s, well, not a legend. At least not for Barça. Lorenzo Serra Ferrer was an incredible manager. I don’t mean that facetiously, although he did look like this on the Barça sideline:

Llorenç Serra Ferrer (2000-01)

He’s also the answer to the first question I asked: he’s the guy who took Betis from the 2nd division to 3rd in La Liga in just 1 season. Yes, that bore repeating and even italicizing. He took over Betis, got them promoted, and immediately they went to 3rd. Then they finished 8th, and 4th, going to the CDR final (and losing to Barça). That’s incredible. But you’ve never heard of him. I’m convinced of that. He didn’t do so hot at Barça, finding himself out a job when his team was in 5th after 31 matches, 17 points adrift of league leaders Real Madrid. Today, Barça sits 14 points behind that same team from the capital after just 14 matches (a win puts them within 11 and on the same number of matches as RM).

But I’m not done with Serra Ferrer, not by a long shot. You see, after he left Barcelona’s bench, he ended up back at Betis a few years later, in 2004 to be specific and the team finished 4th again, but instead of losing the CDR final, this time they won it.

You’ve heard of other former Betis managers, of course, including Quique Setien, but this former Betis manager was also the guy who then transitioned after his coaching career was over to sporting director at Betis and built a very solid squad. Internal politics ousted him and Betis fell on slightly hard times, with Rubi managing only a 15th placed finish. Then they hired the man Serra Ferrer said he was trying to get after Quique Setien left: Manuel Pellegrini. And what has happened is a revival of sorts and now we’re here in the present.

Serra Ferrer is a legend, just not quite for Barça, so you’re forgiven for not knowing who he was.

And so, as I said, it’s time for the present. It’s Xavi time, it’s time for the squad to step up and show that it has internalized the lessons and tactics their manager is teaching them.

Real Betis have won their last 2 league matches by a combined 6-1, but they also lost their 2 prior matches to that by a combined 5-0. In addition, they just won 0-4 at Alicante in the Copa del Rey opener. So, a mixed bag, but they’re currently on a hot streak. Juanmi is their top scorer with 8 while Nabil Fekir leads them with 3 assists. They have a solid offense (3rd in the league with 25 goals scored), but a mediocre defense (10th in the league with 18 goals allowed).

Barça haven’t lost in the league since the last weekend of October when Rayo got their coach fired. Since then, it’s 2 draws and 2 wins, though none of those matches were truly convincing. Against Espanyol they arguably should have lost and certainly should have drawn; against Villarreal, there were missed opportunities on both ends that could have shift the result until Barça finally put it away late. Still, those are wins and 6 points any way you slice it.

What will Xavi be able to do differently tomorrow? He’s still missing Aguero, Braithwaite, and Ansu Fati from his forward line; Pedri and Sergi Roberto from midfield; and Moussa Wague from defense. Sport seems to think that he’ll start a 4-man back line with Alba and Mingueza at fullback, and Dembele as RW, meaning the midfield trio of FDJ, Busi, and Nico will be fronted by Gavi, Memphis, and Dembele.

I can easily see this because it will be important to maintain shape against a quick and aggressive Betis attack. The expected lineup includes former Barça players Cristian Tello and Marc Bartra as well as former Barça youth player Hector Bellerin, who was previously floated as a potential RB solution until Dest was brought in.

Speaking of, is the Dest experiment over? Has Xavi simply decided he doesn’t fit or does he just need more time to grow into the system? This is the question I have about a lot of Xavi’s decisions, including about Puig, about Dembele, and about Memphis.

Mohammad Butt makes a good point about Memphis:

And he also makes a good point about Dembele, but the end product has to come and it has to come now. There can’t be more building, another injury, more time. The team simply cannot sustain that from Dembele and that is not, in the end, necessarily up to Dembele. He may work as hard as he can (and I believe he does work hard) and he may still get injured. But the team can no longer support a player that requires a particular system to function and then cannot deliver.

I still believe he is absurdly electric and I love to watch him play. I want him to succeed like few other players I have followed. I want the team to succeed because of him. I want a lot of things, but I won’t necessarily get that night with [redacted in case my wife is reading] and Dembele won’t necessarily get fully healthy no matter how hard he works at it.

I look forward to what should be a wild match, but let’s not focus on Barcelona, who are maybe going to sell the Camp Nou naming rights very shortly and possibly add a bumper crop of new advertisements to everything in order to make some more cash to then waste on a terrible signing or maybe just renewing Coutinho (remember him? He won a penalty and looked kind of decent against Villarreal). Let’s instead focus on Betis, who are in danger of a ban from UEFA because of an unpaid debt. Barça wouldn’t know anything about debt. Nope. Nuh-uh.

Prediction: 3-1 Barça because I believe that home results will come in flurries under Xavi. Hopefully more people show up this weekend than have been turning out.