Throughout the years there have been some wonderful comparisons made between football’s tactics and chess’s strategic intricacies, but in my opinion, no one defines it better than Las Palmas’ manager, Quique Setién; “My concept as a manager, as with the concept of chess, is to attack with order and control the rearguard. You can be an offensive player, but always control what happens in the back, never leave any loose pieces, have synchronization. Football is the same: to have a coordinated team, all players must be connected.”
As Setién has stated that just like in chess, in order to be successful, a team must be organised both defensively and offensively. This is a concept which he learned through chess and is the backbone to his tactics and why his teams have always been able to play competitively against the best teams. As you delve deeper into the specifics of his game model, you see that it is all based on the premise of order and organisation.
Setién, the former Racing Santander and Atlético Madrid midfielder, isn’t one to be stuck to any certain formation. For example, during his longest stint of his managerial career, 2009-2015, when he successfully promoted the Galician club C.D. Lugo to Spain’s second division, he used a classic 4-4-1-1. When asked about this formation during that time he explained that it was a formation which suited the characteristics of his players and allowed him to play the style of football which he most believed in. It was clear that this formation gave the team clear organisation defensively as well as going forward.
Currently, he utilises a 4-2-3-1 at Las Palmas. In attack it allows his wing players to utilise wide areas further up the pitch allowing the full backs to push up and become midfielders (video below). The two pivot players in the centre of the park provide balance to the team in attack and defense. One of the pivots, Roque Mesa, who has recently been making waves and just barely missed the cut on the most recent Spanish call-up, has been hugely successful in this position and is definitely a player to keep an eye on in the future. In defense, and especially against big clubs like Real Madrid or F.C. Barcelona, this formation becomes a solid 4-5-1 defensive block.
Setién’s entire tactical game model is based on the idea of possession. Over the years, in countless interviews, he has praised Cruyff’s F.C. Barcelona team stating, “My game model came from when I played against Cruyff during his time at Barcelona and you see how they played and I suffered the consequences of it as a player. You see that team, which I had played against in previous years, and now we couldn’t take the ball off them, and it’s the 80th minute and we’re still chasing the ball.”
From then on, he had a fixed mindset on how football should be played which he took with him into every one of his managerial pursuits. It’s evident when watching his matches that his teams are constantly looking to maintain possession, playing out from of the back with centre backs, progressing through the midfield with commanding ‘pivotes’ directing the traffic of play, and expanding the field of play with outside backs and wingers.
However, what sets Setién apart from other possession based managers, and frankly makes his style of play unique, is the use of long balls within this style of play. Some may argue that a team which utilises 40-50 yard balls to progress up the pitch is not a possession based team, however, Setién has said on several occasions that he isn’t a ‘radical possessionist’. By this, he means he doesn’t believe in trying to keep the ball at all costs, especially in dangerous situations, and whenever necessary he expects his deep-lying players (CB’s, pivots, GK’s etc.) to release pressure and send the ball into areas where they can contest the second ball.
In order to execute this tactic successfully, Setién’s chess knowledge pays off. When attacking the opposition in chess, it’s crucial to move pieces up together in order to protect each other. Setién uses this same strategy on the pitch. As the ball progresses up the pitch so does the entire team which allows for more chances to win second balls after which the team can quickly begin their organized attack.
As you can see, transitions for Setién are massively important to the success of his play. He relies heavily on the effortless switching between game cycle phases (ATT-DEF, DEF-ATT), although doing this requires a constant awareness to cover all necessary spaces defensively and offensively.
The following video shows how, when they are defending, they are in positions which facilitate the transition into attack within one or two touches. Providing defensive support on staggered levels of the pitch is fundamental to carrying out an effective DEF-ATT transition.
Likewise, when attacking they are constantly preparing themselves for a loss of possession through good coverage of space. Setién understands that a balanced attack is vital to protecting your team from counterattacks. Setién, as with Guardiola, keeps his back line prepared to close spaces when they lose possession.
Defensively, Setién’s teams are highly organized. They create staggered defensive lines, usually in a 4-5-1 formation, where they try to force play to the wings and once near the wings they collapse on the ball cutting down passing lanes, suffocating rivals. They clog the middle of the pitch with players creating a wedge that pushes possession outwards.
What changes from match to match depending on the quality of the opponent is how high their initial defensive line is. For example, when they know they could have success counterattacking, like in their match against Real Madrid, they sat back allowing not applying pressure until the halfway line. However, when they feel they will be more successful creating an organized attack, they pressure higher up the pitch typically between the penalty area and the halfway line, and at times even higher.
This past Saturday, Setién announced that he would not renew his contract with UD Las Palmas. He gave no specific reason as to why he made this decision other than he and the club were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. This news sat heavy in the hearts of the fans of the Canary club as he was well respected for bringing new and attractive ideas with him.
Fortunately for us, this opens the possibility of him being at the helm of a bigger club in Spain. He has been linked with Barça for the replacement of Luis Enrique and although I don’t believe he fits the profile necessary for that club, it does show he is regarded as one of the brightest minds in football in this day and age.