COLUMN: The USMNT midfielder revitalising Manuel Pellegrini’s midfield at Real Betis

“I understand perfectly that the supporters might be surprised by my exit,” Ramon Planes said.

After just eight months in his role as Sporting Director of Real Betis, Planes’ midseason departure absolutely was a surprise. He had been considered a coup for the club, and a clear sign that their structure was being reinforced, surely to pay off on the pitch somewhere down the line. That he lasted less than a year in the role wasn’t part of anyone’s plan, but nor was lucrative offer arriving from Saudi Arabia.

Of course, eight months isn’t much for a Sporting Director in terms of implementing wide-scale changes or heavily influencing the trajectory of the club – particularly in one like Real Betis who’ve had to be careful with their finances of late. While their competitors have got stronger, with the likes of Girona, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club all smashing through a new ceiling in recent seasons, Betis haven’t been able to follow. They finished 5th in 2021-22, 6th in 2022-23, and now look primed for no higher than 7th this term. Indeed, when it arrived in January, the early departure of Planes looked to be a metaphor for a project straining to initiate an upward trajectory.

As the man credited with taking both Pedri and Ronald Araujo to Barcelona in a similarly brief spell, the work of a man in Planes’ position does, however, live on. Only in hindsight, and sometimes many years down the line, will the credit for certain decisions arrive. And if the name of Ramon Planes is to sound anywhere in Seville across the next few years, there’s a good chance it’ll come in the same breath as ‘Johnny Cardoso’.

Since signing from Brazilian side Internacional in January – a move Betis had originally planned to see through in the summer, but brought forward after an injury to Guido Rodriguez – the 22-year-old has swiftly risen to prominence at the Benito Villamarin. In fact, beyond the astonishingly good Pau Cubarsi, there are very few candidates that can rival Cardoso’s performances in terms of mid-season arrivals in La Liga this season.

To be clear, we’re not talking here about a midfielder with a goal-scoring knack, a gift for crafting piercing through balls, or someone who’s going to tick up your numbers in the goal column in any meaningful way directly. Nor are we talking about one who’s going to run a game through endless means of distribution. What we are seeing with Cardoso, however, is a midfielder replete with certainties in the absence of exaggerations.

In Manuel Pellegrini’s time at the club, Betis’ midfield has essentially always been in the hands of experienced operators. Guido Rodriguez, William Carvalho and Andres Guardado are the three central midfielders that have played most often in La Liga during his time in charge, plus Serigo Canales’ occasional spells playing deeper were also a case of a senior footballer carrying out those organisational tasks. Even Marc Roca – the youngest to crack the XI with any regularity under Pellegrini – was closer to 30 than 20 by the time he arrived, while the likes of Paul Akouokou and Sergi Altimira in recent times have failed to convince the Chilean.

In the form of Johnny Cardoso, we’re now seeing for the first time in the Pellegrini era a young midfielder entrusted (and excel) in an area of the pitch that has otherwise been reserved for steadier and wiser footballers. That fact alone tells you much about the 22-year-old and his initial months at the club.

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As one of the two pivotes in Manuel Pellegrini’s habitual 4-2-3-1 system, the Brazilian-American has added another layer of equilibrio to Betis; a presence which is about helping those around him to play as much as himself. One only need look at their opening goal against Celta Vigo on Friday to see the way they attack, as Hector Bellerin set up Juan Miranda to finish first time in the penalty area from a cut back – the rare full-back to full-back goal/assist combination.

With four offensive players ahead of Cardoso – including a classic no. 10 in Isco – along with attacking full backs on both sides, his work in possession is largely efficient instead of expansive by design. 94% of his passes in La Liga have been short, while only 19% of them have been in the final third – one of the lowest marks for a midfielder this term. For Cardoso, servicing his teammates ahead of the ball and initiating the embers of attacks, while always thinking about where to be in the case of a turnover, is the pursuit he excels in.

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Real Betis’ average positions/pass connections versus Celta Vigo (H)

While the 22-year-old’s midfield game is ultimately about doing many things well in place of dominating in specific areas, Cardoso’s reading of play has had a particular impact in what he can contribute without the ball so far. With Betis being a team who look to mix up spurts of high pressing with dropping off into a 4-4-2 block, the youngster has shown himself to be an effective player in managing those differing intentions, between actively looking to win the ball and latching onto loose balls outside of obvious pressing situations.

Among midfielders with at least 500 minutes played this season, Cardoso is the player who has recovered possession most often outside of his defensive third per 90 in LaLiga (5.3). Indeed, he’s also averaging 2.7 interceptions per 90, which is the most by a midfielder in a single season in La Liga since Geoffrey Kondogbia in 2019-20 (2.8).

Without being an obviously gifted player on the defensive side in a physical sense, Cardoso’s impact comes through his powers of anticipation and being in position on time. Reading how the play is developing and balancing aggression with positional sensibility is a key task for Betis’ central midfielders, and his performance within that has gone a long way towards Pellegrini giving him prominence in the side.

A key ally for Cardoso in that sense is, of course, midfield partner Guido Rodriguez. Betis’ win over Celta Vigo on Friday night was, incidentally, the first time they had started a game together for the club, although something that would have arrived much sooner had it been physically possible. The question now is how many more times Pellegrini will be able to field the two of them together.

With the uncertainty surrounding whether the 30-year-old will continue at the club beyond the summer, the emergence of Cardoso this season might well be timely in more ways than one. But whether the Argentine is around to help the young midfielder keep growing or not, you get the sense the youngster from New Jersey will be just fine on his own.


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Tags Johnny Cardoso Ramon Planes Real Betis USMNT

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