That Las Palmas coach Quique Setién is something of a chess expert should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched his Las Palmas side play this season. Indeed Setién once gave Gary Kasparov a game and stretched the former world champion. Nowadays, the intricacies of Setién’s mind are stretching his fellow coaches in La Liga.
The side from the Canary Islands play in bright yellow shirts and their style of play this season evokes comparisons to the great Brazilian sides of 1974 and 1982. Juego de Posición – positional play – is a tactical term that we see used to describe any team at the moment that plays progressive, attacking football and looks to advance the ball through the thirds of the field.
In truth, very few sides actually utilise positional play in its truest form and most only adopt some of the principles of the style without giving themselves fully to the method of play. Under Setién, Las Palmas are a side that come close to fully matching the principles of positional play and their opponents on the weekend, Athletic Bilbao, were also proponents of this style of play when they were coached by the legendary Marcelo Bielsa.
Now under Spaniard Ernesto Valverde, the side from the Basque region are less tactically sound but perhaps as entertaining to watch. The match between the two promised to be a fascinating tactical battle.
For Las Palmas, their key creative players were included in the starting line-up with Ghanaian midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jonathan Viera providing the attacking impetus to join up with the lone striker.
The key to the Las Palmas performances from this season is that their relative success is not built on a team of individual talents but rather on the quality of the collective system.
Athletic Bilbao were missing one of their attacking keys with their wide man Iker Muniain absent from this match. His place in the starting line-up was taken by Iñigo Lekue. An interesting aspect of the Bilbao setup so far this season has been the partnership between young centre-backs Aymeric Laporte and Yeray who have been impressive so far this season.
Interesting shape in the build-up
One of the most interesting aspects of Las Palmas’ model of play this season under Setién is their bravery and positioning in the build-up phase, even when under pressure in their own half. They spread out across the width and the depth of the field to offer the player on the ball options to play the ball through the thirds of the pitch. This creates angles for passing options but it is also dangerous given that should the other side force a turnover, they will immediately find themselves in an advantageous position.
Here you can see the shape that Las Palmas take up from their own goal kick. They have two banks of three players sitting on different lines of the pitch, both of which have depth in their lines given to them by the central player who is sitting slightly offset from the two flanking players.
At the tip of the shape I have highlighted two central players but there are also two players on the far side of the structure just inside the opposition half. This has given Las Palmas something approaching a 3-3-4 shape in their build up phase.
With Athletic Bilbao not pressing high up the field, the favoured form of build-up from Las Palmas in this match is to play the ball out to one of the two centre-backs who have split wide. From there, the way that they construct the play is largely fluid and dependent on where the opposition choose to press. The positioning of the Las Palmas side gives them options in every zone on the field.
Above is another example, in the second half, of the positional play of Las Palmas in the build-up phase of the match.
With Bilbao pressing slightly higher, the man in possession still has options on the ball with the pass back centrally, the pass wide and the pass centrally that splits the two Bilbao players all open. Setién prefers that they favour the pass which breaks the initial defensive line and allows them to play from a central position, and as such the pass is played to the central player.
A third example and the second taken in the second half of the match. In this image the ball is with the Las Palmas goalkeeper; when Athletic Bilbao move up into a more organised press, the man on the ball still has options to play out. Once again, the two centre-backs have split out wide, and as well as having the option to pass to either of these players, the keeper can also choose to split the press centrally or play it out wide and into the wide player who has dropped deep to offer the pass out.
Connections in the middle third
span class=”dropcap”>We have already looked at the way that Las Palmas chose to build up in the initial phase within this game but they were equally impressive as the ball progressed further up the field. They displayed bravery and conviction in their game model against a tactically disciplined Athletic Bilbao side.
The central defender has the ball at his feet and chooses to play it into a pocket of space for the attacking player, who is dropping deep to receive the ball. Accepting the ball in this zone is difficult at the best of times given his position relative to the opposition and the fact that he is facing his own goal. Instead of panicking, the man taking possession instead pauses on the ball and allows three Bilbao players to close the net thinking that they would press and win possession.
He draws the opposition in and allows them to get close before turning the ball back into a player who now has a free vertical corridor to advance into.
Las Palmas have possession in the first half of the game in a central position. Note the three Las Palmas players in a narrow and advanced central position pressing back against the Bilbao defensive line. This pressure stops the opposition from dropping into a settled and organised defensive line. This confusion allows a Las Palmas player to advance unchecked down the far side vertical corridor and the man in possession is able to find him relatively easily.
For all of their attacking intent in this match and despite winning 3-1, it was easy to be impressed with the defensive phase of the game plan put in place by Setién. Bilbao are fluid moving forward and play with power and pace in the final third, but at no point during this match did Las Palmas seem that they were outmatched in the defensive phase.
Here you can see that the central strength of the Las Palmas defensive structure has forced Athletic Bilbao to access the wide areas in order to play through Las Palmas. The midfield players have dropped back into play, closely connected to the defensive line, and effectively render the Basque outfit unable to play into spaces between the defensive and midfield lines to outplay the Las Palmas defence in central areas.
Time and time again we saw Las Palmas drop back out of possession to defend the central areas before springing out and making the pitch as wide and long as possible when in possession to allow them to play through the opposition.
Despite the fact that Las Palmas are below Athletic Bilbao in the league standings, there can be no doubt that they fully deserved their 3-1 victory in this match. They played with bravery, attacking intent and remained committed to their plan throughout the match.
The options and lines available to Las Palmas in possession left their opponents unable to effectively defend their own goal and, when Bilbao were able to take possession, they found a stubborn and compact opponent in front of them ready to turn their attacks out into the wide areas.
The league position may not reflect the quality of play from Las Palmas but if Setién can keep up this standard of work then the small side from the Canary Islands may draw even more comparisons to those historically great Brazilian sides. Catch Las Palmas while you can and while they remain relatively unknown; the secret will not last forever.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis