Quique Setién, the far from traditional tactician who loves chess and Johan Cruyff

By Lewis Steele

“Before I signed for Betis, I asked them ‘Why do you want me?’ You’ve seen how my teams play, how I play. Are you clear this is what you want? Do you agree with this or not, because be clear that I am not going to score. If not, you better get another manager.’”

Real Betis manager Quique Setién has that tendency, which many modern day mastermind managers do, to question everything. Before he even briefs his team on an upcoming game, Setién will have watched footage of every aspect of the oppositions’ style of play. He will sit down – from his character, you could probably guess with a glass of expensive vino roja – and question everything. El Maestro is meticulous and true to his principles, to the point that when he was auditioning for the Betis job, he asked them why they want him. Football job interviews aren’t the classically mundane interviews that you have to work in an office job, but questions will still be along the line of ‘Why do you fit this role?’, not the other way around.

Setién is a disciple of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, with a hint of Maurizio Sarri in how he has worked his way up from the bottom of the managerial ranks to the top. Not the traditional route, but for Setién, he has now proved his worth in the coaching world. Johan Cruyff is probably the coach who has had the biggest lasting mark on the world of football, in terms of how teams function and play. For the great Barça manager, he believed that to play football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is. Setién’s style of play is far from simple, but he strongly believes that his style is reflective of that of the late Dutch legend. In fact, Setién maintained that Cruyff would’ve been “happy that his team had lost” to Setién’s Betis side recently, and has previously been heard saying he would cut off his finger to play under Oranje’s number 14.

It was this moment that has seemingly confirmed Setién’s name in La Liga folklore, but not as a manager of a mid table destined Real Betis, but as a future coach of Barcelona. Goals from Junior Firpo, Joaquín, Giovani Lo Celso and Sergio Canales were enough to record a historic win at the Nou Camp. Some managers have announced themselves on the big stage with wins over European giants, and many, if not most of them have proceeded with big jubilant celebrations (i.e. José Mourinho). Not for Setién. The 60-year-old Spaniard could be seen on the Nou Camp touchline sporting the most miniscule of smiles possible, but apart from this, he remained professional and held his opposite number, Ernesto Valverde, in high esteem. The fact Setién’s shirt was slightly untucked will probably annoy him looking back, as is the meticulously tidy nature of his life.

The far from ordinary route to the top of the coaching world

Born in a working class area of Santander in 1958, Enrique ‘Quique’ Setién Solar grew up playing football on the streets in a small square near his relatively small home. At school, El Maestro used to annoy his teachers with his reluctance to learn. Instead, Setién had one passion: football. It was this dedication that saw him break into local boyhood club, Racing Santander, as a fresh-faced teen. The Cantabrian club was where Setién spent most of his playing days, as a midfielder. He made over 300 appearances over the course of two spells, with stints at Atlético Madrid and Logroñés in between.

The journey of most top-level coaches starts shortly after their retirement from playing, but not Setién. After retirement, he spent six years playing beach football for Spain, and only got back into the professional game when an opportunity arose at his boyhood club Racing Santander.

From his very early years, Setién aimed for possession-based, attacking styles of play, with a desire for vertical passing and quick interchanges. He loves possession, but would insist he doesn’t keep the ball for the sake of it, and rubbishes the idea of tiki-taka.

Setién faced a tough start to life in coaching. After a positive spell at Racing Santander, where Setién was assistant manager in a promotion campaign, he moved to Poli Ejido, but was sacked after just four months. He said at the time: “The club did not understand my way of playing football.”

The next two jobs that followed were also failures: a 10-day spell at Equatorial Guinea, as well as a stint with Logroñés, where he went without pay for seven months. Setién had his ideas of how he wanted to play football, but they just weren’t working. He was brought back down to earth, and a career in coaching, he thought, may not work out.

However, then, out of seemingly nowhere, it all clicked for Setién and his ideas. He joined third-tier club Lugo, where he would stay for six years, and achieve a promotion into the second tier in his third season. Finally, Setién’s methods were earning some form of praise in Spain. The longevity was a new concept for Setién, who had never lasted longer than twelve months elsewhere. He said: “I’m starting to feel a bit like Alex Ferguson.”

His tenure at Lugo earned him plaudits from all over Spain, and for this, he was awarded the job at Union Deportivo Las Palmas, in place of Paco Herrera who was dismissed just three months into the season after achieving their first promotion to La Liga in 13 years.

Here, Setién would gain not just national, but global recognition. Sacking Herrera seemed unfair at the time, and a lot of the fans directed anger at the board, asking questions of why they sacked the man that brought them back to the top after a long absence. But soon, the question changed. It became: ‘Quique, where have you been all of our lives?’

Los Canarios were one of the more exciting teams in Europe at that time, with an expansive attacking game that saw them also ship a lot of goals. As one local paper put it: “You want to kill them, but you can’t help but love them too.”

As journalist Sid Lowe put it:

“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.”

Setién had announced himself on the big stage, and the progression to a mid-table side in Real Betis seemed natural: a club often in the shadow of city rivals Seville, but with the potential to be much bigger.

Setién’s tactics, his love affair with chess, and why he is Barça made

“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.”

Garry Kasparov, one of the most notorious chess players of all time, wrote in his book How Life Imitates Chess about how decisions must be made for a strategy to become reality. Quique Setién strongly follows Kasparov’s ideologies, with his meticulous, obsessively strategic mind.

For the beginner football fans out there, the game of football may seem like a game with little thought involved. After all, it is just ninety minutes of twenty-two men kicking a bag of air about and trying to get it in between the sticks. Football is simple, but as Cruyff and Setién believe, to play that way is far from simple. Setién prepares for every match like a chess match, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if his tactics board is made up of chess pieces rather than traditional whiteboard figures.

El Maestro’s ideas are held sacred to him. His teams carry a high risk, but are super-entertaining to watch. This is telling when you look at his high-flying Las Palmas, who conceded an astonishing 74 goals in 38 games in the 2016/17 campaign. His teams often take the mantra of: we will score more goals than you. Some notable results that season included: Atlético Madrid 2-3 Las Palmas, Real Madrid 3-3 Las Palmas, Las Palmas 5-2 Osasuna. Fans may have entered Estadio Gran Canaria not knowing what to expect, but they certainly knew whatever it was, it would be a treat.

Setién generally sets his teams up in 3-4-1-2 structure, strongly insisting on the principle of playing out from the back. Pau López, the goalkeeper, should have three options at all times: either wide full-back, or the clipped ball into the advanced midfielder, usually Giovani Lo Celso. The soaring runs of the Argentinian international are key to Betis’ play, but the hold-up play of the evergreen Joaquin is also used in handy. The wing-backs, Junior Firpo and Christian Tello, like to bomb up and down the pitch and stretch the pitch as wide as they can, creating space in the central areas for the deeper lying midfielders to pick vertical, through-the-lines passes.

In the attacking phase, Betis are almost robotic, which is an outward-facing result of Setién’s love of chess. He has a number of mechanized movements that help Betis in the build-up. The third centre-back is a new thing – Betis used to adopt a 4-1-4-1, so the deeper midfielder would drop in to create a back three. This player is the focal point of the build-up. This allows Betis to circulate the ball as quickly as possible and efficiently to change the angle of the attack.

The full-back will progress up the flank, which allows the attacker to move inside to create at least three passing lanes through the lines, similar to what we see with Sarri’s Chelsea, where Alonso plays extremely high, with Hazard coming inside.

Setién, as mentioned, loves chess, and this is shown in his play. “There are many aspects in which chess has helped me a lot to coach,” he told Andalusia Television.

“Above all, to curb my impulses. Chess taught me to put my arms under the table before making a decision that would later seem to be correct. It is convenient to take a second more to see if it really is the most opportune decision at that moment.

“There are more similarities: if you take control of the centre of the board or the middle of the field, you have a higher chance of winning.

“If you coordinate the pieces well, you achieve a connection between them. You have to do analysis with perspective, not see how the pieces are right now.”

The meticulous nature of Setién’s ways make him the perfect suitor for the Barça job, when Ernesto Valverde leaves, which could be sooner rather than later, as the Blaugrana fan base seem to be unhappy with Valverde despite his successes in La Liga.

As Pep Guardiola said: “Johan Cruyff built the chapel, Barcelona managers simply restore it.” Quique Setién is a disciple of Cruyff and his total football style of play, making him a shoe-in for the job when it is next available.

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