Perhaps Las Palmas’ unwavering commitment to their attacking philosophy was best illustrated in what they didn’t do in their 2-2 draw against Real Madrid last month: namely, defend. Nevermind their 55% possession against the 11 time European Champions - Las Palmas’ opening goal came off a sequence in which they recycled possession from the right side and baited Real Madrid to press their center backs and open up space for their attackers. Even the second goal they conceded uniquely represented the 2016 Las Palmas side, as Real Madrid won the ball inside their half with Roque Mesa refusing to succumb to his opponents’ press.
The most surprising aspect of the match was its lack of surprise. With 16 goals over seven matches, the Las Palmas are tied with Real Madrid with the second most La Liga goals this season. Their entertaining style and goals have won them newfound accolades and attention. The fact that they do so on a budget - their two summer transfer additions of Mauricio Lemos and Mateo Garcia cost just around $3 million total - reopens the age-old debate of buying players versus developing them.
The philosophy starts with the manager. It was almost a year ago when Quique Setien replaced Paco Herrera, who lead the side in promotion from the second league a year earlier. It was club’s first appearance in La Liga for thirteen seasons. At the time of Herrara’s dismal, Las Palmas had just five points in eight matches and were closer to relegation than they were being Spain’s It club of the moment. In his opening press conference as manager, Setien stated his goal was to keep the club in the first division by possessing the ball.
It would be one thing to refashion a side with new transfers, but another to do it with existing players. Yet the continuity of the Las Palmas core is the side’s biggest strength. Herrera never quite found a consistent approach at the top division, often experimenting with three center backs. Setien initially set up the side with a five man backline before moving to his now preferred back four. There was a learning curve; in a recap of their match against Villarreal last October, it was noted that Las Palmas’ “inability to offer anything substantial going forward will not send shivers down the spine” of Real Madrid, their next opponent. What a difference one year makes (and in the return match against Villarreal later last season, the commentator noted that Las Palmas beat the Yellow Submarine at their own counter attacking game).
Similar to his players, Setien’s managerial experience came in the Spain’s second division. He began his coaching career at Racing Santander in 2001 before moving on to Poli Ejido (which dissolved in 2012), Equatorial Guinea, and CD Logrones (disbanded in 2009) before finding six years of stability with CD Lugo. With no prior experience in La Liga, Setien remained confident that eventually, his possession based ideas would pay off. Las Palmas finished 11th last season, six points above relegation. He was mentioned as a candidate to manage the national team. And going into this current international break, Setien’s side currently sit one point out from a Europa League position.
Setien often sets up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is more known for its compactness than its strengths in possession without natural triangles. Yet the key lies in the staggered midfield three of Roque Mesa and Vicente Gomez at the base, with Jonathan Vieira linking defense in attack in transition. Mesa is essential in structuring Las Palmas’ attack and for finding calm under opposition press (which, as these screencaps against Real Madrid show, was heavy especially in the second half). Their front three, featuring some combination of Nabil El Zhar, Tana, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Araujo, and Marko Livaja offer pace to stretch defenses.
Mesa’s journey is particularly representative of his teammates. He made his professional debut in 2011 in the Spanish second division with the club, was loaned out to the fourth division, then returned to lead Las Palmas to promotion last season. Less than a year after playing in his first La Liga match at 26 years old, Sevilla, Leicester City, and Arsenal were rumored to make a move for the deep lying playmaker deemed worthy of a Zidane-esque 30 minute documentary following his movements during a match. The numbers are impressive, as his retweets from his Twitter account remind you: he’s won possession more times in the middle third than any La Liga midfielder this season, which displays his destructive qualities. Against Osasuna last weekend, he completed 122 passes and has an average of 91% passing completion over the season.
Boateng, the free summer transfer, is the outlier. Steve Jobs said you can’t connect the dots in your life by looking forward, and with a career spanning eight clubs in 12 seasons, something of that rings true for the former prodigy. But Boateng is the exception, as the core of their roster is made up of players who, like Mesa, rose with Las Palmas from the second division. Tana came through the club’s C side. Gomez signed with the club in 2010. Center back and captain David Garcia made his debut in 2003. Jonathan Vieira’s ability to receive the ball and turn between lines gives Setien’s attack a sense of urgency, was nicknamed “Romario” while with the youth academy. Left back Javi Castellano and his brother Daniel both also graduated from the Las Palmas youth side. They do round out the side with free transfers, as Boateng and former Liverpool academy player Nabil El Zhar illustrate. But the continuity from their youth academy and second division side gives the team, and Setien, its spine.
You could say that Las Palmas supporters deserve an entertaining side like this, with the Canary Islands having produced the likes of Mauro Icardi, David Silva, Pedro, Vitolo, Juan Carlos Valeron and Jese. But Las Palmas must also deal with the curse of rising expectations, especially on their current form. Yet if last season’s goal was to survive relegation, then the core of this side have already done the hard work. This season is playing with house money.