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Know Thine Enemy: Atlético - Las Palmas Q&A with Jamie Kemp

We talked to the Opta Sports football editor and Las Palmas supporter before the Canary Islands club traveled to the capital.

FBL-ESP-LIGA-LASPALMAS-ATLETICO Photo credit should read DESIREE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Into the Calderón: It’s been a, shall we say, rough year at Estadio Gran Canaria. Can you sum up why things have gone so south with a team that was playing gorgeous football a year ago?

Jamie Kemp: The simple answer would be: the gorgeous football was before Quique Setién announced he would be leaving, while the horrific football came after. Although Setién’s departure is the nucleus of all that’s since fallen, the laundry list of failings on the part of the club is extensive. These hard times didn’t arrive without an invite.

After botching negotiations with Setién, they spent months in pursuit of Roberto De Zerbi only to pull the plug on him with the season on their doorstep, then having to convince B team boss Manolo Marquez to fill the void. The fact he resigned out of mercy just a few months later said much about the situation. In the midst of this, Las Palmas had gone about assembling the “best squad in club history”, according to their President. He also preached about the “proyecto de cantera” — an intention to blood their finest young talents — yet it has been precisely neither of those. Instead, the majority of recruits haven’t been good enough and merely acted as a blockage to opportunity of said youngsters. Couple that with the loss of Setién’s all-important framework, and the product on the pitch has been nothing short of ghastly.

With further mistakes taking place down the line — namely the uninspiring hire of Pako Ayestarán and sales of key players — friction between the fanbase and club hierarchy has continued to grow too. Between ticket pricing, a lack of investment and overall “dodgy politics” at the top of the tree, the deteriorated relationship has no doubt been a factor in on-field struggles for the team, and shows no signs of slowing.

ItC: Why do you think Vitolo’s return didn’t go according to plan?

JK: Vitolo didn’t show what he’s capable of, but the spell did little to change my opinion of him. Injury struggles didn’t afford him the opportunity to catch a rhythm, and the team’s collective failings made it a tough place for any individual to really thrive. Perhaps for Vitolo especially — who was immediately viewed as the star individual in the team, and expected to contribute significantly in his temporary stay — that weight of having to lift the team out of the mire affected his game in a negative way. He’s much more suited to being the second or third best attacker on a team, rather than the guy you look to to take over (think Otto Porter, if you follow the NBA).

ItC: Will Paco Jémez be the savior that Las Palmas’ brain trust (and most neutrals) hope he will be?

JK: I expected a quicker impact to be honest — just in terms of intensity, if not collective play. After competing so lethargically all season, I thought they’d immediately start to resemble something closer to Jemez’s famous Rayo Vallecano teams in terms of energy, even if it was just for the contrast between the two. Perhaps he doesn’t see the same capacity in this team to play at that tempo; instead preferring a greater degree of control with Jonathan Viera doing as much of the conducting as possible, taking the game at whatever pace suits the captain. That’s generally what we’ve seen so far at least.

Valencia v Las Palmas - Copa Del Rey Photo by fotopress/Getty Images

I don’t know about “savior”, but the win against Valencia last time out was much needed. After suffering such a humiliating defeat at Girona, that type of reaction was extremely important in keeping the general motivation alive. It at least showed that Las Palmas can hope to pick up points at Estadio Gran Canaria in the coming months, while there’s also a sense that Jémez finally found the the right formula in that game — the 4-3-3 with Jonathan Viera and Tana reunited as a central midfield pair (which was first implemented by Setién in the fight against relegation around a similar time in 2016/17). There are no definites yet, but things are feeling slightly better than they did a few weeks ago.

ItC: It’s said that every player has his price. Is Viera an exception to this?

JK: Having watched pretty much every minute he’s played in a Las Palmas shirt since he returned to the club in 2015, the quality of the guy never fails to surprise me. I made peace with the fact that Viera will never get 100% of his dues a while ago. There’s just no way you can process the sum of his ability without watching Las Palmas for 90 minutes every weekend — which I appreciate very few people will have the want or ability to do. Hopefully some people at least caught the Real Betis game in full a few months ago: as accomplished a midfield performance as you’ll see anywhere in Europe.

In truth, most games have been a complete chore to watch over the last year or so — and I have no good reason to be hyping anyone up from this team — but Viera truly deserves it. If they do suffer relegation this term, I’ll be tuning in for every game of whoever’s lucky enough to get him. He shouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom of La Liga, never mind the second tier.

ItC: How can Las Palmas snag a win at the Wanda Metropolitano?

JK: They’ll have to take charge of possession. For games like this, I refer to the 3-3 draw at the Bernabéu last season: one of few positive results and performances on the road last year. Las Palmas had to take major risks in their approach, but it’s better for them to speculate and get caught than to retreat and be caught anyway, because they will. Against the European champions, they spaced the pitch as much as they could in a 4-3-3 and had just enough quality in possession to be able to punish Real Madrid for any late or half-hearted attempts at pressure. It allowed Viera and Tana to find space to be able to advance up the pitch when that initial pressure was evaded.

I’m expecting the same system to be rolled out at the Wanda, and hopefully it’ll be the same philosophy too. Las Palmas will likely live and die by how much they can get those two players into the holes between Atlético Madrid’s two banks of four.

ItC: Scoreline prediction?

JK: 3-1 to Atlético. I think they’ll see some nice spells of possession, but Atlético will be extra aggressive following the Copa del Rey exit earlier in the week. For as much as the performance against Valencia was promising, this team still has a way to go before any faith can be placed in an away trip.