Quique Setién: the tinkering innovator using chess to improve his football

Quique Setién: the tinkering innovator using chess to improve his football

“For a strategy to become reality, decisions must be made,” says Garry Kasparov in his book How Life Imitates Chess. “For evaluations to be turned into results, they must lead to decisions. After we have prepared, planned, analysed, calculated and evaluated, we have to choose a course of action. Results are the feedback we get on the quality of our decision making. Doing things the right way matters.”

As a world chess champion, Kasparov has thrived on meticulousness, an almost obsessive strategic mind. Chess, of course, is an inherently strategic game, one which is won and lost on the strength of the player’s mind. Football has often been compared to the most intellectual of board games, and there are some coaches for whom the preparation for a match is not dissimilar to that of a chess player; ensuring that their players are positioned with as much consideration as Kasparov might place a pawn.

Quique Setién is one of those. The Real Betis coach once confessed that his love for chess often outweighs his desire to watch football. “There is less and less to see in football,” he said. “I prefer to play chess a lot of the time.” Rumour has it that Setién, such was his eagerness, once played against Kasparov, and on another occasion, grandmaster Anatoly Karpov. He has clearly been influenced by their methods, and it’s evident in the approach to football he has taken as a coach.

In comparison to some coaches who preach the importance of possession and attacking football, Setién’s desire for such an approach can appear almost cynical. “I like order,” he once said. “It is fundamental. Chess and football are similar, the pieces are connected to attack and defence. It is vital to dominate the centre of the board.”

Still, he has professed his admiration for Johan Cruyff’s methods, and his Las Palmas side – who he left in 2017 – were undoubtedly one of Europe’s most aesthetic since his arrival in the Canary Islands. Idealism is mixed with functionality, attacking fluidity with an almost mechanically manufactured efficiency. But that is Quique Setién, a man whose almost contradictory principles make him one of football’s most unique and intriguing coaches.

Born in a working-class area of Santander in 1958, Setién grew up playing football on the street; a “small square” in his modest neighbourhood where he played almost constantly as a child with friends. His focus was on football, not education, often using his school’s courtyard as a place to hone his skills, not to study. His reluctance to learn in the conventional sense did not prove costly, however – instead, it was his inherent dedication to football that would see him break into his boyhood team, Racing Santander, as a teenager.

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Setién as a player was technically gifted, elegant and talented, and his own strengths clearly had an impact on his view of the game. He has bemoaned the increasing importance of physicality, particularly at youth level, expressing his belief that football is about dribbling, about skill and enjoyment first. “Now I see that players are starting to work on tactical aspects from an early age,” he says. “After half an hour there are guys who have not touched the ball. Every day they are allowed to dribble less, and the taller boys are privileged.”

At six foot tall, he was never particularly hindered physically, though he was a player whose abilities were solely technical; a striker turned midfielder by Racing coach Moruca. He admitted playing at El Sardinero at such a young age was “a dream”, having come from such humble beginnings. At the age of 14, Setién was an errand boy for a pharmaceutical college, where, given access to a typewriter, he wrote chronicles of his experiences in football, his meticulousness prevalent at an early age.

After eight years with Racing, Setién moved to Atlético Madrid in 1985, where he would play under Luis Aragonés, a coach he credited with his improvement both in terms of his performance and understanding of the game. “Aragonés put the work, the intensity, the pressure, the demand into my DNA,” Setién said. “I improved considerably as a footballer.”

It was while at Atlético that Setién went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with Spain, having broken into the international setup prior to the tournament. But he didn’t play a game, controversially left out by Miguel Muñoz. Setién was not the type to throw a tantrum; even now he shrugs it off as not much more than an inconvenience. “I was just a little annoyed.”

The Spaniard went about his playing career quietly. He was never a household name, it was more for the pleasure of football, a job which he enjoyed. A move to Logroñés – who he would later coach – came after his spell at Atlético, before a return to Racing, and his eventual retirement with Levante in 1996.

Looking at Setién now, most would think a coaching career was something he actively pursued following his retirement as a player, but that was not the case. Instead, he took up beach football. He had regularly played it as a youngster on the beaches of Santander, and he became a Spanish international, thriving in a variation of the game that suited his exceptional technique.

Not until 2001, five years after his playing career had ended, did Setién take his first steps into coaching, and even then he described it as “circumstantial”. He was given the job at Racing, a club with which he had a palpable connection, although he had no experience of coaching; it was a gamble on the part of his boyhood side, but it paid off.

Racing were promoted to LaLiga as runners-up to Atlético – still managed by Aragonés – playing the type of expansive, possession-based football that Setién would later make his trademark. There was optimism and excitement about the future of this inexperienced coach – he was heading for the top it seemed. But a disagreement with the Racing board led to his departure, and he would not get the opportunity to coach in the top flight until at the age of 58, 13 years later.

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Setién joined Poli Ejido after leaving Racing, but was sacked after just four months, seven defeats to his name and claiming that “the club did not understand my way of playing football”. A brief, fleeting 10-day spell in charge of Equatorial Guinea followed, a period of his career Setién claimed was unimportant, before a return to club football with Logroñés.

Things didn’t get much better. He went without pay for seven months, struggled to get results and left, bringing to an end a difficult six years after his impressive first season with Racing. He had been swiftly brought down to earth. Coaching, it seemed, would not be easy for a man with ideals, who might appear dogmatic and could easily be misunderstood. “I aspire to be at ease,” Setién said. “I need to feel very friendly with my players and my club. I am very emotional and have convictions, and people criticise me because I do not say what is expected of a coach.”

Evidently, his environment needed to be right, and at his next club, it was. He joined Lugo, a modest third division side, embarking on a six-year spell during which his style of football was embraced. In his third season, he led Lugo to promotion into the second tier, and for the first time saw his methods earn some recognition in Spain.

Setién’s Lugo played with identity, they earned compliments from opposition managers, and they became an established second division side. Such longevity was alien to Setién, a coach who had lasted no longer than a year anywhere else. “I’m starting to feel a bit like Alex Ferguson,” he joked.

He wouldn’t replicate the legendary Manchester United manager, though; his best spell as a coach had caught the eye of LaLiga’s newly promoted Las Palmas, after Paco Herrera was dismissed with the side languishing in the relegation zone.

Herrera had led the Gran Canaria side to the top flight after a 13-year absence, but the board’s lack of sentiment proved the correct decision. Finally, Setién had reached the top of the Spanish game, having been overlooked – in part down to his temperamental career to date – for years, and he wasted little time in asserting his philosophy at a club that, as it quickly became apparent, were the perfect match for a coach so committed to “showy football”.

As Sid Lowe wrote in an article for ESPN: “The Canary Islands have often been seen as Spain’s Brazil: a three-hour flight from the peninsula, west of Africa, hot and sandy, a place where football is played with technique and flair, a sense of adventure and fun. Setién’s Las Palmas do that; few teams are as enjoyable to watch.”

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With Las Palmas considered one of the favourites for the drop, Setién quickly turned things around. He guided them to an 11th-place finish, reinvigorating a side that had looked somewhat toothless in their first season back in LaLiga prior to his arrival. Setién changed what had been a back three to a back four, predominantly utilising a 4-2-3-1 system which, although not normally considered a formation associated with possession based football, was characterised by the staggered midfield trio of Roque Mesa, Vicente Gomez and Jonathan Viera.

That continued last season, aided by the somewhat surprising additions of Jese and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Such high-profile signings only served to prove the appeal of playing for Las Palmas; they are now a club associated with attacking, stylish football, in a desirable destination.

Setién claims he is not a “radical possessionist” – pointing to the use of direct long balls which allow the side to push forward as a unit – though Las Palmas averaged the second highest possession statistics in LaLiga last season, bettered only by Barcelona. And goals were a feature too: only five sides, four of which are in the league’s top four,  scored more.

“I will always play good football,” Setién says. “I do not agree that the coach has to adapt to the players. There was a time when I thought about it, but that was because I did not understand football.”

His footballing ideals might appear unbendable, but there is an underlying element of reluctant pragmatism. He once said Juan Carlos Valerón’s talent could bring tears to his eyes, but admitted he was unable to play him in every game, claiming “football has become very hard; you have to run a lot”.

Setién is refreshingly unconventional. He attempts to combine the logic and structure of a calculated game of chess with the often seemingly unbridled ideal of total football, and it doesn’t always work, as evidenced by their patchy form at times and tendency to concede in large amounts.

There was understandable disappointment when Setién announced he would be leaving the club at the end of the season, eventually ending up at Real Betis, where he has continued his fine work. He is as much a fan favourite now at Betis as he is after his time at Las Palmas, where fans still chant his name.

Few coaches of mid-table clubs have created sides with such an identity or caught the eye to the extent of Setién, a coach of rare principle amongst the sea of modern football’s opportunists. Not that Setién views his role with any romanticism. “Training allows me to continue in football,” he said. “My aspiration was to be in football and my ego has been satisfied. I have no great aspirations.”

By Callum Rice-Coates @callumrc96

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