COLUMN: What’s Next for Real Betis? The Manuel Pellegrini balancing act and uncut gems

To Manuel Pellegrini, quality of life and other interests are as important as his football life. As he told Sid Lowe: “I ensure I dedicate a couple of hours a day not to the mind exactly but to other things: books, music, other sports, to studying history, literature, languages.” Pellegrini always remarks that his tenure as Malaga coach was the most enjoyable one from the perspective of quality of life. The return to Andalusia was undoubtedly one of the reasons that attracted him to the Real Betis project. 

However, I wonder if Pellegrini enjoys his warm Andalusian evenings, with a book in hand and his favourite music from the ’60s and ’80s, a bit less than usual this season. This Betis project arguably peaked in 2022 with a top-five La Liga finish, and their Copa del Rey victory, and things have grown… somewhat chaotic ever since. 

After three years of working with the club, sporting director Antonio Cordon suddenly left in February 2023. He was then replaced by former Getafe and Barcelona sporting director Ramon Planes, who left for Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia this January. Last week, Betis announced that the young up-and-coming executive, Manu Fajardo, who was already working in the club as technical secretary, will be promoted to sporting director. Cordon and Planes were competent at their jobs and kept a competitive squad for Pellegrini, but it came at the cost of a high wage bill. 

During the COVID pandemic, the club’s revenues sank significantly. Betis is the Spanish club with the fifth highest stadium revenue (€25m as of the 22-23 season), and that income largely vanished during the pandemic. Between this revenue decrease and the squad’s wage bill increase, Betis accumulated a staggering €87m in losses between 2019 and 2022.  

While Betis’ revenue finally recovered to pre-pandemic levels during the 2022-23 season, these losses had a massive impact on their La Liga-enforced salary limit. Even though Betis currently report about 30% higher revenues than Real Sociedad or Athletic Club, the losses mean their salary limit is lower than these competing clubs. As of February 2024, Betis has a salary limit of €93m, while Athletic Club has €100m and Real Sociedad are at €145m.  

Thus, Betis find themselves in a challenging position. If they want to recoup these losses more quickly and increase their salary limit in the short term, they must make significant player sales. Such was the driving force behind the sales of winger Luiz Henrique to Botafogo, centre-back Luiz Felipe to Al-Ittihad, and midfielder Sergio Canales to Monterrey. However, making too many player sales would compromise Betis’ ability to fight for European spots, and if they can’t qualify for European competitions, their revenue would dwindle again, and further losses would ensue.

Finding that balance between financial stability and performance is tricky and has pushed Pellegrini into a crossroads where he had to continue getting good results with a weakened squad. For example, Pellegrini has been warning since last summer about the issue of not properly replacing Luiz Felipe with another center back.  

The number of injuries this season made these squad weaknesses even worse, including to critical players like Guido Rodriguez and Isco. In the past month, Pellegrini has called in players from the youth side to have enough players for his matchday squads, and just as I am writing this article, three new injuries, including to Nabil Fekir, were reported. 

These issues reached a boiling point last week when Betis was knocked out of the Conference League by Dinamo Zagreb, with a starting eleven that featured the team’s only available centre-back, Chadi Riad, alongside Marc Roca.  

Pellegrini and Betis took out their frustrations over this elimination on their weekend La Liga opponents, Athletic Club. The 3-1 victory was perhaps Betis’ best performance this season, with the team out-pressing and outscoring one of the best sides in the league. This victory moved Betis up to the sixth in the Liga table with 42 points in 26 games. Despite the squad problems we have discussed, the reality is that Pellegrini’s Betis has been racking up points at a similar rate to last season. Despite the defensive personnel issues, the defence is conceding goals at a similar rate to previous years. 

Another reason for hope lately has been the performance of new recruit Johnny Cardoso, an American-Brazilian midfielder signed from Internacional this winter. Defensive midfielder Guido Rodriguez is a fundamental player in Betis’ squad, yet his contract ends this summer. With Cardoso, Betis’ sporting department finally found a young player who looks like he can take on that role after Rodriguez’s potential departure.  

Cardoso is an example of the transfer business Betis must do more of in the future. Perhaps older, more established players like Hector Bellerin, Pablo Fornals, Isco, or Fekir are ready to perform and add value to the team right away, but they come with high wage bills that Betis can barely handle right now and little resale value due to their age. Betis’ recruitment will have to take more bets on young players like Cardoso, who can come in for lower wages and have higher resale value to adapt to their current financial reality, even if these bets come with higher risks of not performing. 

Performance in European competitions continues to be an understandable point of frustration for Betis fans. Pellegrini was pointed and clear last week that, to him, La Liga takes priority over Europe, and that has been duly reflected in Betis’ European results under him. Greater success in Europe is crucial not just for the fans but also for the club’s finances. 

However, despite this trade-off, it’s hard to say that Pellegrini’s pros do not outweigh the cons. This is reflected in his numbers as Betis manager: with this weekend’s victory against Athletic, Pellegrini has become the Betis manager with the second most wins in club history, only after Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. He achieved this milestone in less time than Serra Ferrer because Pellegrini also holds the record for the highest managerial win rate (48%) in club history, with 88 wins in 185 games. 

There is a reason why the club’s motto is Viva er Betis manque pierda! – Long live Betis, even if they lose. The story of Betis has never been one of stability. This context of constant turmoil gives even more merit to Pellegrini guiding Betis to one of their most consistent and successful periods in history. Despite the wobbles of the last 12 months, this ship from the borough of Heliopolis has rarely been as stable as it is today, and there is arguably no better person to continue guiding it through this storm than Pellegrini.

Tags Johnny Cardoso Manuel Pellegrini Real Betis
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