William Carvalho was arguably the most important player in Portugal’s 2016 Euro-winning side. Despite the attention from big clubs throughout the years, he only left his beloved Sporting Lisbon last season. He quickly became an integral part of Quique Setién’s Real Betis. However, another manager – former Espanyol coach Rubi – is now in charge, bringing with him a less conservative possession style. In this scout report, we will use tactical analysis to demonstrate Carvalho’s main strengths, and how he will adapt to Rubi’s system.

Style of play

Carvalho mainly plays as a defensive midfielder. He can also play as a centre back or as a central mid – the latter is his main position at the Portugal national team. According to Whoscored, William is a great passer. He is good with through balls and dribbling. In addition, he commits few errors. Like his former teammate Giovani Lo Celso, he is a good team player and loves to do layoffs. 

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Carvalho’s Whoscored characteristics

The heatmap below indicates Carvalho’s high work rate. His actions mainly spread around the middle third. His most intense action areas (coloured in red) are the centre circle and the part of the middle third in the opposition half. Setién’s Real Betis were a high pressing team – he liked to win the ball back early. Carvalho’s smart positioning was key to that – he registered 6.54 recoveries/90 mins, with 40% of them in the opposition half. Moreover, Setién’s side dominated possession with 59.4% per match last season (2nd in La Liga). That allowed a defensive midfielder to take up a high position. From there, Carvalho can show off his on-ball skills: dribbling, short combinations, through balls, etc.

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Carvalho’s 2018/19 heatmap

How will Carvalho be used in Rubi’s system?

There are notable similarities and differences between Setién and Rubi’s style of play. They both take a possession-based approach and lets the team play from the back. However, one big difference is that Rubi prefers the popular four-man defence, while Setién persisted in using a back three. In Betis’ first three La Liga matches this season, Rubi has deployed 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 flat and 4-3-1-2 formations. Carvalho is mainly expected to be part of a double pivot, but he can definitely play as a single pivot. He was at the base of Betis’ midfield diamond in the last match against Leganes.

The pivot is a key position in a possession-based system. He provides the link between the defence and the midfield. His role is of even greater importance when the team tries to build from the back. This was evident in Rubi’s Espanyol. That side played from the back, using a simple 2-1 structure (pictured below) to form a triangle that can easily bypass the opponent’s first line of pressing. The opposition faced a dilemma: either let Espanyol build up comfortably, or commit more men forward and run the risk of leaving large space behind. Last season, Espanyol had a very talented pivot in Marc Roca – the youngster has been heavily linked to Bayern Munich over the last summer transfer. 

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The Espanyol pivot forming a triangle with the centre-backs to create a 2-1 structure

Rubi is now trying to accommodate his style to the players at Los Verdiblancos. For a side with quality ball-playing centre backs and a composed distributor in Carvalho, building from the back doesn’t require a lot of effort and people – the full-backs and other midfielders thus, can take up higher positions and pin the opponent back, effectively isolating their front players and nullifying their pressing system. 

We will now examine some key qualities of Carvalho and what he can bring to Rubi’s system. 

Build-up

Passing accuracy and composure

The pivot must be a safe passer. In the first phase of build-up, he has to position himself right outside his own box. Any loose pass or bad touch will be costly. In order to distribute quickly, he must have a good first touch to keep the ball safe under control and have enough time to scan the field. Moreover, he needs to consistently find his front teammates to help the team progress smoothly. Last season, Carvalho attempted 64.71 passes per 90 with a phenomenal 92.4% completion rate. He is quite a reliable ball receiver.

In a strong possession side like Setién’s Betis, it’s easy to understand that the pivot doesn’t make too many forward passes. His basic role is to get the ball and then distribute it safely. His pass to a player can attract some opponents’ player and open up space for another. That other player can then get the ball and drives forward.

For Carvalho, only 16% of his passes were backwards. This indicates his willingness to develop the play. Moreover, he doesn’t easily panic and resorts to the safe option, which most pivots do more often than him. His forward passing rate was around 25% (16.63/64.71), which was not too high, but the accuracy of these attempts was an impressive 85.4%. In addition, 10.07 out of his 16.63 forward passes per 90 were passes into the box. Carvalho’s forward passes, thus, are often penetrative ones. It’s clear that the Portuguese could consistently supply the front players.

One key aspect that makes him such an accurate passer is his pressing resistance. He is extremely composed. He can also make quick combinations in tight spaces to escape heavy pressing. Below is the analysis of a short sequence to prove the point. 

Barcelona lost the ball and counterpressed intensely. Here, ball-carrier Carvalho was pressed by two Barca players. Instead of finding Guardado, he found the better option in Nabil Fekir, who was positioned to efficiently supply Loren Morón. This action exploited the space behind Semedo. 

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Carvalho finding Fekir, who could then quickly get the ball to Loren

However, Pique’s timely closing down forced Loren to pass back to Carvalho. Carvalho was in a tight position again. He quickly nutmegged Roberto with his first touch…

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Carvalho’s first-time nutmeg

…and then nullified Griezmann’s challenge with a pass back to the centre-back. The pivot navigated through the press on his own. Betis could then restart the play comfortably.

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Carvalho escaped Griezmann’s tackle and help Betis restart the play

Last season, Carvalho only made 4.15 long passes per 90, but with a great 73.2% accuracy. These long balls are often aimed at the wide players who are in space.

Dribbling

Dribbling isn’t a must for a pivot. However, dribbles can open up spaces for teammates, create more promising passing lanes for the dribbler, and help penetrate the opponent’s defensive system faster. Carvalho is a skilful dribbler, which provides another alternative to progress the ball besides passes. In the 2018/19 campaign, he dribbled 2.18 times per 90, at a high success rate of 65.2%. 

While dribbling, Carvalho is still aware of his teammates’ positioning and movements. In the below example, he escaped the pressing of two Sevilla players with a simple turn.

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Carvalho easily getting past two Sevilla players

He then instantly threaded a through ball into the surging run of the striker, which created a scoring opportunity. 

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Carvalho’s instant through ball

Normally, this isn’t a requirement for a pivot. However, Carvalho excels at this with his occupying high positions and surging runs into the box. He had 0.37 touch in the box last season. He is an extra man in attack for Betis.

The 2016 Euro winner is a good chance creator, despite being the deepest midfielder. He registered 0.51 shot assists per 90, and 5 goal assists throughout the last campaign.

Carvalho has shown great teamwork and understanding of his teammates. In this example, Joaquin found Carvalho, then surged into space. Carvalho’s body orientation here indicated a simple past to the left. He surprised the whole Villarreal defence with a quick turn and lobbed through ball to send Joaquin one on one with the keeper. He knew Joaquin would make that run despite not seeing it at all. 

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Carvalho’s awareness of Joaquin’s run

Below is another example of his awareness and intelligence. Being in the box, he was about to receive the pass from the right-back. He recognised that Loren is in a better position to shoot, so he made a dummy run right before getting the ball. His run attracted the attention of Valladolid’s nearby defenders. Loren then had just enough time and space to score. The ability to get a small time and space advantage is crucial in today’s intense football. 

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Carvalho’s smart dummy run

Carvalho can also play quick one-twos to find great passing lanes. In this example, he got past one man and played a one-two with a nearby teammate.

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Carvalho’s one-two

He could then laid a through ball onto the path of the striker.

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Carvalho’s through ball

Transition

In offensive transitions, Rubi wants his team to set up quickly. Runs into space must be instantly exploited with through balls. Carvalho is a great player in these situations, with his vision to spot those runs and find them with quality first-time passes. 

Here, receiving Tello’s layoff, Carvalho spotted the run of Guardado and instantly played a first-time through ball into his path.

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Carvalho’s first-time through ball to Guardado

Here, receiving Loren’s first-time pass, he instantly found Junior Firpo with a through ball. Firpo then only needed to beat Roberto to score, which he did.

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Carvalho’s first-time pass to Firpo

Conclusion

This analysis has shown Carvalho’s contribution to his side’s build-up, attacking, and transition phases. Even with the new manager’s tactics, he will continue to be one of Betis’ most valuable players. The team has a lot of potential and will fight hard for a Champions League spot this season.


Artwork by @chapulana

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