Between 1954 and 1988 Las Palmas were near enough a firm fixture in the top flight of Spanish football, dropping to the 2nd tier for a total of just six seasons during this 34 year spell in the club’s very early history. Unfortunately tough times were to follow their relegation in ’88 as the club would only return to the Primera División for two brief seasons at the start of the new Millenium. Thanks to the work of Paco Herrera in the 2014/15 season, however, the club were back in the big time and determined to make a better fist of it this time around. Things didn’t start well for Los Amarillos in their return to La Liga, 2nd bottom in October and a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Getafe saw the club make, at the time, what seemed a harsh decision to sack Paco Herrera and replace him with top flight novice – Quique Setien. Nobody can say for sure if Herrera would have turned it around in that season but what we know for sure is that Setien has fully justified the club’s decision during his first eighteen months with the club.
Quique Setien, a true football man whose carefree loving attitude to the game is something that makes him extremely hard to dislike. A former beach football player, Atletico Madrid & Racing Santander midfielder and even a Spanish international in the mid 80s, Quique has been able to utilise his strong love of the strategic board game Chess with his love for flamboyant, almost ostentatious football to progress what looked to be a modest coaching career, at Poli Ejdo and CD Lugo amongst others, into a very good one. Under Setien, Las Palmas have scored some beautiful goals, been involved in spectacular matches and provided a load of memorable moments for their adoring yellow army in the stands. It’s easy to think that this sort of carefree, open approach to football can be seen as naive and will ultimately cost Las Palmas their top flight status but don’t count on it, since Setien’s first day on the job they have shown their capacity for tactical and strategically planned football whilst still playing with the inventiveness and emotion that Setien encourages.
Pressing is a huge key in modern day football, with the sport reaching new incredible speeds and so much of the game being played in the quick transitions between defence and attack, it’s become essential to create a distinct pressing style that both emphasises your team’s individual strengths and attacks the opposition’s weaknesses. While Las Palmas are essentially a possession-orientated team, Setien has been seen to use a staggered pressing system that allows his team some opportunities to be aggressive and to win the ball high up the pitch whilst keeping the main defensive approach intact. The 5-1 victory over Granada was probably the best example of this pressing style. The lone striker, Marko Livaja, acts as a type of scout on the front line, loosely following the ball and positioning his body in a way to test the opposition’s ability to play out from the back. If Livaja (or sometimes Vieira depending on the rotation in the previous move) saw an opportunity to attack the defender he chased, triggering quick support work from first Jonathan Vieira, then Boateng and the central midfielders, turning a cautious out-to-in press into a very aggressive in-to-out press designed to force Granada to play passes from deep wide positions to isolated wide players. This play was especially effective in the match against Granada as they were up against a team in the early stages of Paco Jemez’s reign, struggling to move the ball up the pitch in the manner that he imposed so successfully at Rayo.
You can see in the first example how Livaja approaches Uche Agbo cautiously from the right side, blocking the pass he wants to play and forcing a hesitant turn from the central defender, as soon as Agbo looks hesitant Las Palmas fly forward, flooding the central area and forcing the mistake.
If chances to press aggressively didn’t occur then Las Palmas settled into their middle third press, transitioning from a 4-2-3-1 system into either a 4-1-4-1 (with transitional central midfielder Vicente Gomez pushing forward) or a 4-4-1-1 (with both wide players dropping deeper and narrower to prevent channel passes and cover in front of the full backs). Both formations work to force the opposition wide so that Las Palmas can then apply a four man box blocking system in their defensive corners. With the 4-1-4-1 Las Palmas can still be slightly more aggressive, Roque Mesa is left spare in the central zone in front of the back four to recover any loose balls whilst Vicente Gomez is able to utilise his imposing physique and excellent positional sense to force passes to the left side. Once the ball is wide, the full backs drop alongside the central defenders and create a narrow back four while the wide midfielder, accompanying central midfielder and Roque Mesa look to go across and either force the opposition out of play or recover the ball into a central area. This was the system used against Granada and worked for the most part very effectively but when Granada were able to push the ball into a central area and the centre backs were forced to defend on the front foot, a couple of individual errors were made with Jeremie Boga in particular was able to profit.
The 4-4-1-1 pressing system works slightly differently, a deeper foundation is set with Vicente Gomez and the two wide midfielders now playing alongside Roque Mesa and the front two cautiously pressing as a team. The idea of the press is still to force the ball wide in order to set up the four man box blocking system but is done so by laying traps in central areas and allowing the opposition full backs forward. Once the ball is moved out to the advancing full back, the central attacking midfield will drop in and the wide midfielder on that side will drift even more narrow to try and stop any diagonal balls into the central pockets thus forcing the full back to attempt a long switch to outnumbered teammates or travel with the ball and look to work through the four man box blocking system on that side. The 4-4-1-1 pressing structure was used extremely well in Las Palmas’ defeat to Sevilla. Against a team with such an emphasis on a high attacking approach, utilising the channels and central areas working without pace in behind but instead looking for overloads in the wide areas, it was so important for Las Palmas to keep things tight centrally and force Sevilla to work in tight spaces out wide which they did brilliantly.
The match against Sevilla was also a prefect example of how Las Palmas look to work in defensive transitions. Quique Setien is a big fan of creative freedom whilst in possession but in order for this to be the case, his side have to work extremely hard to hurriedly organise their defensive structure to cover the mistakes that come with such an open offensive system. They haven’t always been so impressive in this aspect but against Sevilla, Las Palmas were brilliant at creating a transitional game that completely disrupted Sevilla’s approach. Las Palmas were often a threat on the counter attack against Sevilla but were so quick in re-organising and setting up their 4-4-1-1 shape that they were more often than not able to set up the zonal blocking system out wide, recover the ball in the central area and then look to use Livaja’s wide running and Tana’s neat touches to create another counter attack. When defending against a Sevilla counter attack, Las Palmas had to adapt their system slightly. Now they had to initially look to block the early ball out wide to prevent a Sevilla over load on the flanks, sprinting back into central areas looking to hold up the attack until the wide players and forwards can regain their positions and look to utilise the 4-4-1-1 deep press again. The system lead to Sevilla controlling 65% of possession but in truth until very late on, Las Palmas were very comfortable in the match. Although they lost the match to two very late goals (including one controversial penalty) Las Palmas made life extremely difficult for one of the best teams in La Liga today, by the hour mark Sevilla were a goal down and had only managed 6 shots, a real display of just how well Setien’s tactics worked. A very strategic approach in this game not often associated to Setien’s usually carefree, attacking Las Palmas but a major indication of the depth of his coaching arsenal.
Here we can see how Las Palmas defend against the Sevilla counter attack. They are so quick to get back into defensive positions in the central area and initially block the wide pass while Roque Mesa tracks the wide runner to force the Sevilla player in field. Once they feel comfortable they allow the pass wide and look to set up the low block.
The low block is a key part of any team’s system. How they look to defend when pushed deep towards their own goal can make or break teams, we’ve seen in previous seasons where teams built on a solid defensive foundation like Juventus, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea succeed while teams who often overlooked the necessity of an imposing defensive block fail. Extremely well equipped attacking sides like Liverpool, Napoli and Lyon all had very promising title challengers falter due to a lack of serious defensive structure. Las Palmas can sometimes maybe be seen belonging to the latter category, focussing more on their attacking freedom than creating a defensive block they can adapt and apply to each game. This has particularly been seen in the second half of the season where Las Palmas have been on the end of some seriously poor defeats due to a lack of real defensive organisation but the Sevilla game and several others in the first half of the season showed that Setien does know how to set up a strong defensive structure in order to frustrate opponents when he fees necessary. Building on the strong work done in the pressing and defensive transitions, once set in their shape Setien’s men were strong, compact and united when defending Javi Varas’ goal against Sevila, something that can’t often be said about Las Palmas.
The general low block Setien looks to utilise starts with a wide squeeze: three or four players (usually the full back, wide midfielder, backtracking forward and central midfielder on that side, also it may be the central defender on that side) look to box the opponents right up to the touchline pressing the ball zonally rather than man to man, forcing the opposing forwards into passing or dribbling mistakes in tight areas rather than aggressive tackling. If the opposition are able to work their way through the box press and find a cross then Las Palmas are often set-up with one central defender positioned in advance of the near post to tighten the crossing angle, the other full back man marking along with the other central midfielder and the remaining central defender spare to try and intercept the cross in the most dangerous area. Whether it be via the clearance of a cross, a tackle out in the wide area or a forced passing/dribbling error from the opposition, the aim of the Las Palmas low block at Sevilla was to recover possession in a central area just outside the penalty box, here Roque Mesa, Vicente Gomez and Tana can begin the counter attacks that trouble Sevilla so much in the first half. It does show Setien’s mentality that even when in a low block he’s still looking at how his team can use their dribbling and quick countering ability to attack the opposition. It’s that mentality, however, that has made Setien successful and his Las Palmas side so much fun to watch.
Tana’s goal against Sevilla was the perfect example of how Las Palmas can turn their low block into a counter attack. Four men squeeze Sevilla right over to the far touchline whilst in the box the two man-marking, one blocking the near post and one more spare system is in full effect for any crosses coming into the box. Once the loose pass is forced, Roque Mesa is quick to recover possession in the recovery zone and start the counter attack.
Las Palmas’ low block isn’t always as effective as it was here against Sevilla however. They’ve been often caught out looking to be too aggressive in pushing their block and being caught in behind, Iago Aspas was a particular beneficiary of this as he scored twice when Celta Vigo stormed to a 3-0 half time lead at the Estadio de Gran Canaria. There’s also an inexperience factor, with very limited Primera Division experience to speak of between the all the defenders in the Las Palmas squad, it’s natural that sometimes they get caught out by the abilities of their opponents. The variation in crossing and some of the channel interplay they’ve been on the receiving end of this season has caused serious issues with the lack of a real organisational defender, particular in matches against Celta, Villarreal and Real Madrid in the first half of the season.
The 4-1 defeat away at Real Sociedad was a masterclass in how to play against Setien’s Las Palmas team with Willian Jose putting in a really complete forward’s performance. La Real pressed high but not particularly aggressively, allowing Las Palmas to play from the back but with little margin for error. Once possession was regained it was a clear plan from Sociedad to quickly get the ball into Willian Jose’s feet, pushing the Las Palmas team back and wide sooner than they’d like before quickly passing the ball back into midfield where they can switch possession to the opposite flank. The benefit to this quick forward, backwards then out wide passing combination is that it disrupts Las Palmas’ ability to transition into a central defensive shape. The quick pass forward pushes the defence back creating the space in front of them, the quick pass backwards exploits that space and as they scramble to recover the quick pass wide creates an overlap on the far side. It’s a tactic that Real Madrid also utilised against Setien’s men in their 2-2 draw at the Estadio de Gran Canaria in September.
The first minute against Real Sociedad is enough to illustrate what i’ve just said. The high press from Sociedad forces the mistake in possession by Las Palmas, then twice Yuri immediately looks into Willian Jose’s feet. The second time he does leads to a Sociedad throw and before Las Palmas effectively position themselves, Zurutuza switches possession to the far side and the goal is created.
Las Palmas’ open, romantic style of football might have seen them concede their fair share of goals but there’s no doubt that for the most part going forward they’ve been a force. Cohesive, creative and incisive, Setien’s team displayed throughout the first half of the season a strategic method of transitioning from defence to attack to be followed with innovative penetration through the freedom that Setien encourages. The matches against Sevilla and Granada provided two different attacking styles from Las Palmas, with the Sevilla game seeing a low block countered into a quick central attack and the Granada game providing a more aggressive press and patient, incisive work in the inside left channel.
Las Palmas usually look to control most of the ball possession in their matches but against Sampaoli’s Sevilla, Setien was happy to set up the low block and use their excellent transitional play to attack Sevilla quickly on the counter. We’ve already seen the Tana goal as an example of how the low block can be used to set-up the counter attack but it’s important to look at how the counter attack itself is performed as it wasn’t the only time in the match Las Palmas went close on the break. If phase 1 of the counter attack is the low block then phase 2 is the breakaway, how Las Palmas recover the ball and move it up the pitch quickly and intelligently in order to go create a chance to penetrate the Sevilla defence.
Here we can see a textbook Las Palmas counter attack as El Zhar has a goal disallowed against Sevilla. A big part of how Las Palmas were attacking in the first half of the season, especially on the counter, is the unusual way they keep their width. Looking to stretch the game not with two wingers or two offensive full backs but with one winger on the right (in this case El Zhar) and their only striker (often Livaja) very high and wide on the left. Once the ball is recovered just in front of the Las Palmas defence we see the shape of the four most offensive players form: El Zhar (AMR) pushes on the right, Livaja (ST) moves straight out high on the left, Tana (CAM) drifts into the inside right position to be the link man with Mateo (AML) staying slightly deep on the inside left, waiting for a potential overlap on Livaja. Victor Gomez is a the key transitional player, he picks up the ball in a deep position before quickly laying off to Roque Mesa, once he has done he moves forward vertically breaking the Sevilla midfield line and receiving the ball from the link man Tana around 50 yards further forward from where he originally passed to Roque Mesa. Phase 3 of the counter attack is the most important – penetration. Once in a position to penetrate the idea is to move the ball quickly to the inside left channel, looking to either cut inside and score from around 20-25 yards (as Tana does for his goal and Livaja tries with El Zhar’s disallowed goal), look for a late run either through the middle or from the right side or look to use the overlap of Mateo as you can see Livaja fakes to do here before shooting.
Las Palmas, however, aren’t a counter attacking team, it’s a tactic they’re very adept at employing in certain matches but Setien has built a team that wants to be on the ball as much as possible, using their variety and creativity to be as exciting and unpredictable as possible going forward. A second highest average possession ranking in La Liga at 57.9% shows their ball playing intention and a closer look at how they turn that possession into penetration shows the attacking freedom indicative of Setien’s philosophy.
They are a team that operate heavily in the channels, particularly the left side. In their 5-1 win over Granada early in the season they hit 13 key passes with a staggering 11 of them coming from within the inside left channel. During the match they opted to play their way out of their own defensive zone utilising the ball retention abilities of Kevin Prince-Boateng on the left side to set up their attacking phases. Forward Livaja looked to run beyond him wide into the left side (similar to his role in counter attacks) and either the central attacking midfielder Jonathan Vieira or Roque Mesa would look to pick up the ball from Boateng and move it into a central area (Mesa with a pass, Vieira often dribbling) to create the next phase of the attack. The off the ball running of: Livaja in the left channel, transitional midfielder Vicente Gomez breaking between the lines from a deep central area and El Zhar holding the width combined well with the ability of the other midfield players in this match (Vieira, Roque Mesa and Boateng) to work in tight areas with clever touches and smooth rotations were the keys to Las Palmas being so effective against Granada.
Quique Setien’s rotation policy along with giving his attacking players the freedom to play in the final third with as much flair and ambition as they could muster is a huge key to making Las Palmas so much fun to watch. He allows his attacking players to take risks, to be inventive in the final third but to do so within a strategy that works for them. Before January unpredictable talents such as Vieira, Tana and Boateng were thriving with such freedom, scoring and assisting spectacular goals while more orthodox forward players like Livaja, Momo and El Zhar were contributing with effective off the ball running and more routine attacking plays that could be constructed from the training ground.
The signings of Jese Rodriguez and Alan Halilovic in the Winter coupled with the emergence of the offensive thinking Uruguayan centre back, Mauricio Lemos, have pushed Las Palmas into an even more unpredictable and attacking outfit, looking to work even more within the channels. Looking to be even more dynamic between the opposing defensive and midfield lines with the new additions has proved tougher than Setien would’ve liked however. Unlike the majority of possession-based teams in Europe’s elite leagues, Las Palmas are a team that rarely push their full backs beyond the attacking midfielders and don’t look to create overlaps on the flanks to open up space for crosses or cutbacks. Instead they look to build their attacks playing the ball from deep central positions (through either the afore mentioned Lemos or midfield general Roque Mesa) into deep lying attacking midfielders before looking for diagonal runs from their inside forwards. This system is something that can work to superb effect when Las Palmas have space to play in and their more inconsistent attacking players come together at once proven in superbly controlled wins against Valencia (3-1), Osasuna (5-2) amd Real Betis (4-1) with an especially impressive performance coming at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid where Setien’s team lead 3-1 until the last 5 minutes where Madrid were able to come back and draw 3-3.
The positives, however, have been few and far between in the second half of the season for Setien. The adjustment period from a possession-orientated team with an inventive but distinct attacking strategy to an aggressively control hungry team with a more on-the-fly penetrative system has been a struggle for Las Palmas. In the first half of the season they were a team that understood the importance of choosing the balance between their favoured ball-playing approach and counter attacking approach for each match and even switching within matches. The added attacking quality of Jese, Halilovic and Lemos, however, has lead to Quique Setien trying to tip the balance towards a more aggressive system a bit sooner than his team were ready for, often leaving them unable to break down well organised teams and having their defensive deficiencies well exposed. A serious issue is that the high width is now being provided by the starting position of the inside forwards and not a late arriving winger, wide forward or an aggressive wing back, making it easier for the opposition to defend tight and narrow without the threat of an overlap and cross. Narrowing the attack to exclusively just working within the channels and deep runs from midfield may suit the personnel in the current squad but has made the margin for error in attack even smaller and opposing teams have responded simply by closing off the channels and looking to bully them physically in central areas.
The low average number of crosses they attempt per match in comparison to other possession-orientated teams in Europe’s top five leagues is evidence of not necessarily a one-dimensional attack but one lacking structure and therefore versatility. If there are three or four similar forwards trying the same method of neat interplay in the channels every attack, they’re going to be easy to defend at the highest level. The lack of crosses is similar to two very much overachieving teams in Europe -Hoffenheim and Nice. The reason why these two teams are able to play this way however is the strong structural approach they’re managers have set up all over the pitch but starting with a strong foundation: Hoffenheim have conceded just 32 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches, while Nice have conceded just 29 in 35 Ligue 1 matches. Compare this to Las Palmas’ 66 goals conceded in 35 matches and it’s obvious that Las Palmas have to be versatile and thoughtful in their attacking whilst looking to improve things at the opposite end of the pitch.
The volatility of Las Palmas’ form in the more aggressive system can be shown in their 4 La Liga matches during the first 2 weeks of April. Setien’s side lost 3-1 away at both Celta Vigo and Eibar before hammering Real Betis 4-1 at the Estadio de Gran Canaria only to follow that win with a crushing 5-1 defeat to Athletic Club. Dominating the ball in all 4 matches but only managing 1 win with 3 defeats is a problem in itself but the manner in which the matches played out showed the issue with switching to such an aggressive system so early. While there are still strong questions over the Las Palmas defence, Setien needs to create a system that still incorporates all the attacking freedom and invention his team has been built on but also focuses on protecting their own goal. It’s definitely a system that can work with the quality in the Las Palmas attack but it needs to be built on a stronger foundation if they are ever going to become a team capable of forcing opponents so far back they can send wave after wave of attack looking to pick through the tight areas in the channels.
Las Palmas’ top flight status is definitely secure heading into the 2017/18 season but it could prove to be a big Summer for Quique Setien and his staff. Making the changes to take an inventive, exciting but often frustrating and inconsistent side to the next level is possibly his biggest challenge since taking control of the island club.