Entering the 2015-16 La Liga season, there were few if any expectations for Las Palmas. After all, as entertaining as the side was, UDLP had not played in the top flight since 2002 and only won promotion through the
Liga Adelante La Liga 2 playoffs. Confidence in survival was low after a dreadful start to the season, which culminated in Paco Herrera’s sacking.
However, the players - many of whom got Las Palmas back to the top flight - rallied around new manager Quique Setien, which resulted in the team’s highest finish since 1979. Spirits aren’t low anymore on Gran Canaria; Setien remains in charge and the club managed to hang on to its top players.
But the second season is often harder than the first. To find out whether Las Palmas can again secure safety, I talked to Jamie Kemp (@jamiemkemp), a Spanish football blogger, Las Palmas supporter and Football Editor at Opta Sports.
Q: How stunning was last season’s 11th-place finish?
A: It was pretty incredible. To eventually finish above nine teams in the table was a magnificent achievement for Quique Setien and co, while the fact that European places were in play at one point was beyond anything anyone could ever imagine.
But more so than the fact they finished 11th, it was how they achieved it which resonated the most. To see a team made up of largely local players, competing and playing the better quality football against top-flight sides, was the ultimate gift for Las Palmas fans (especially after so long away from La Liga).
I still remember watching the second half of the 2014/15 season, when they were pushing for promotion from Segunda, and thinking they had really hit a wall as a team. In truth, they were fortunate to emerge from the play-offs in the end. And yet many of the players who made up that team are the ones leading their charge today, which is a testament to Setien’s work.
Q: Quique Setien received a lot of praise after his appointment as coach in October. How big of a role would you say he had in improving the club’s fortunes?
A: In my opinion, he is the reason Las Palmas are where they are. Not just in the sense that they remain a top-flight club, but that they now have a philosophy that has permeated the entire club, and one that has re-aligned them with the natural Canario playing style. He has not been afraid to play smaller, less physical line-ups, in place of relying on the technical ability of the players within it.
The midfield trio of Roque Mesa, Tana and Jonathan Viera is extremely slight in stature, but if they have the ball for the majority of the game and play with the precision Setien wants, then the positives far outweigh the negatives. The reward comes from having the bravery to do it, as well as the ability to create the conditions for these types of players to not only get by, but thrive, playing against such competition.
Las Palmas won’t win every game this season - they might even lose more than they win - but the fans are infatuated with the football Setien has got them playing. And for many on the island, how they play is just as important as the results they achieve; especially at Estadio Gran Canaria.
Q: Just how good is Jonathan Viera?
A: He’s the unequivocal star of the team, in terms of talent as well as personality. The sense around the club this summer is that Viera is about to embark on the season of his life, and that if his form in 2016 continues then a call-up to the Spanish national team could even be on the cards.
Of course, there are plenty of factors that influence that, but it’s merely a measure of the performance we’ve been seeing since Quique Setien came in. Viera has dazzled all summer, showing signs – particularly with his final ball – that his play-making abilities might be about to find another welcome gear in 2016/17.
After trying his hand elsewhere unsuccessfully, I think Viera has now realised that the best football of his career will always come at home in Gran Canaria. He turned down offers from Bayer Leverkusen, Porto and plenty of money from the UAE this summer with that in mind; believing that his best days on the pitch are still ahead of him. And given Las Palmas’ recurring status as a top-flight club, it means he can achieve all of those things where he feels most comfortable.
Q: Other than Viera, who are Las Palmas’ key players?
A: At the base of midfield in their 4-1-4-1 system, Roque Mesa is the main facilitator of the possession philosophy that Setien has been working so hard to develop in 2016. Without him, the team’s build-up play – particularly from the goalkeeper – would be much less effective, and a severe blow to the collective approach. Essentially, Roque Mesa is to Las Palmas what Sergio Busquets is to Barcelona; thus the summer has been slightly nerve-wracking given Sevilla’s intent to take him elsewhere.
In defence, Mauricio Lemos was the subject of interest from Barcelona this summer, after an excellent cameo down the stretch of last season. Like Roque Mesa, Lemos is a key figure in the ball control that Setien seeks, and it was those ball-playing abilities that enforced the obvious links to Luis Enrique’s side. He’s far from the finished article and likely requires a certain system to maximise his abilities, but he should have a very good future ahead of him.
- Pedro Bigas (CB): For many followers of this team (including me), Pedro Bigas was indeed Las Palmas’ standout defender in 2015/16. Given the fact he’s five years older than Lemos (20), the plaudits from elsewhere do tend to be less frenzied however.
- Vicente Gomez (CM): A midfielder who has had to be very patient over the years, and has always had the backing of Las Palmas fans, might just get his time in 2016/17. He certainly deserves it.
- Momo (AM): This guy might be 34 years old, but he’s genuinely one of my favourite players to watch in Spain. He plays with incredible craft and intelligence, and after being somewhat of an afterthought before Quique Setien’s arrival, he’s now having quite a renaissance late in his career.
- Michel Macedo (RB): Signed from Almeria on a free transfer this summer, he’s been one of the standout performers in pre-season for Las Palmas. Many believe he will start over David Simon at right-back come the start of the season.
- Kevin-Prince Boateng (AM): Of course I had to mention him.
Q: Will the much-publicized signing of Kevin-Prince Boateng help or hurt?
A: For now, things are going swimmingly. There’s a genuine appreciation in Las Palmas that Boateng would even consider coming to play for them; so much so that his struggles in recent seasons have barely been a question. And with that fandom there – whether it’s ultimately misplaced or not – it’s creating a healthy environment for Boateng at this point on his career.
His showings in pre-season have been promising, particularly in the sense of his fit in this team and style of play. While starting on the left hand side of the 4-1-4-1, Boateng has been given a free role and a license to interchange with Jonathan Viera’s central position (which has worked nicely in these initial stages). In this system, the 29-year-old will be in line to get plenty of touches on the ball, and for that he’s quite content.
Only time will tell how this partnership goes, but for now, there’s a pleasant harmony between Boateng and his colleagues.
Q: What will this team do next? That is, what is the formula for repeating last season's success?
A: Given that Quique Setien only had just over half a season - and within that he had to modify and embed his principal ideas - the hope for 2016/17 is that with everything now established, Las Palmas are in a very good place to continue their form of 2016.
Despite strong interest from bigger clubs, the base of the team has been maintained, while the club have also worked hard to meet Setien’s demands for two players in each position. Competition is strong, the team is healthy, and they’ve just completed their first (positive) pre-season as a group.
Against the lasting financial disparity in La Liga, however, the blanket objective for Las Palmas remains merely to protect their top-flight status before anything else. With all things considered, I think they can feel confident in being able to achieve that again.
As far as a prediction goes, I think the Canarios will finish somewhere around 12th-14th in 2016/17.