Merino steadying Betis ship

Since 2009, Real Betis have largely been spring-boarding between the top two divisions in Spain, spending three seasons in each one prior to this term. The club endured one of the worst La Liga campaigns in nearly a decade when they suffered relegation in 2014 and ended that season with just six wins and 24 points to their name. At the time, it seemed as if they were heading backwards again, and looking at the way they went down, it looked like it would be a while before they could recover.

Then, midway through last season, Pepe Mel returned for his second managerial stint at Betis and steered the club to a Segunda Division title and immediate promotion back to the top flight. In just a matter of months, it looked like Betis had rediscovered themselves as had the relationship between the club and Mel, who had been sacked twelve months prior to being re-hired after a short, disappointing tenure at West Bromwich Albion.

But the reconciliation didn’t last for long, despite its early promise. By mid-January of this year, they found themselves near the relegation zone again and on a run of six games without a win, which saw Mel unceremoniously sacked for the second time in just over two years by the club. It was a disappointing state of affairs and left Betis in a sticky position in their bid to stay up.

Not many were sure about who’d be Mel’s replacement and if he’d be a worthy successor to a fan favourite at Benito Villamarin. It turned out to be Juan Merino, one of Betis’ all-time highest appearance makers, who was inexperienced as a Coach with only a couple of years in management with the likes of Xerez and Betis B to his name. It was a gamble, but it was one they had to take at this point in juncture.

It’s proven to be a gamble that’s paid off ever since. Betis have lost just five out of 16 games under Merino, with victories over Valencia, Espanyol, and Las Palmas as well as credible draws with Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Celta Vigo to date under his guidance. Merino, who initially took the job on a caretaker basis, was subsequently kept on permanently and earned a contract until June 2017 within three weeks of taking over thanks to his good immediate results.

Merino turned them from the attacking side they were under Mel into a more conservative, counter-attacking team who still like to play on the ball as often as possible. Adding players like Martin Montoya and Charly Musonda, who have impressed, on loan in January helped him in realising these changes, as well as the reinstatement of Foued Kadir in the team, having been frozen out by Mel. Most importantly, he's brought confidence back to the players and that’s translated into positive outcomes on the pitch.

Betis have racked up 41 points, and with three games to go, they look near certainties to stay up now, while their turnaround under their former youth product and club legend is well near complete. So now, with their Liga status all-but-secure for next season ahead of this weekend’s visit of Spanish and European champions Barcelona, it will be interesting to see the direction Betis go in, now that they have the burden of relegation worries off of their shoulders.

Merino may have succeeded in keeping the team up, but now come new expectations and challenges which lie ahead. How he’ll handle them will show what he’s really capable of as a Coach at this level and if he is indeed the right man to lead the club forward.