Who are Las Palmas and how did they get into La Liga’s elite? Part 1

by Abel Meszaros

After two games a certain team was leading La Liga ahead of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid…No, it’s not Atletico Madrid or Sevilla, and certainly not Villarreal (Valencia are too putrid to get anywhere near this question).

It’s Las Palmas. WHO? UD Las Palmas  first thrashed Valencia 4-2 to open their La Liga campaign; a result that raised some eyebrows, even if Los Che have been disappointing to say the least as of late.

When the club signed the mercurial midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, most thought that the former AC Milan was just going to enjoy an extended vacation on the Canary Islands.

 

The 5-1 beatdown of Granada, in which Boateng added another goal after scoring against Valencia, has catapulted Las Palmas to the top of La Liga, ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona on goal difference!

Yeah, but are you sure Las Palmas is not a mediocre beer?

No! Union Deportiva Las Palmas are a football team based in Gran Canaria, some 1300 kilometres away from the mainland.

Founded in 1949, Los Amarillos (the yellows) spent several decades comfortably in the Primera Division, finishing as high as second and third in the late 1960s.

In the late eighties the club was relegated to the Segunda Division and even spent a few seasons in the Segunda Division B, until they finally gained promotion on June 21st, 2015 against Real Zaragoza.

Their two most famous players in recent history are Vitolo, who moved to Sevilla for 3.2 million in the 2013/14 offseason and Juan Carlos Valeron.

The 41-year-old Las Palmas native, who became a La Liga legend through his 400 games with Deportivo La Coruna returned to his hometown club in the same season they lost Vitolo.

The silky midfielder, profiled for ESPNFC by the excellent Michael Cox, probably didn’t imagine having to play 13 times at age 40 in 2015/16, but that’s exactly what happened at Las Palmas.

laliga1516fullstats

In 2015/16 their first full La Liga campaign in fifteen years ended in eleventh, but Las Palmas were far from a park the bus style small team: they enjoyed the fourth most possession at nearly 54% and were third in pass accuracy behind Barca and Real.

For example, taking only 11 shots per match but getting 4.3 on target per game was notably better than Atletico who needed 12.5 to get 4.4 OT.

In short, the season was more like a rollercoaster ride than a gravy train. Let’s dive into it a bit deeper and look at Las Palmas’ 15/16 season in detail to see how this team has gone from the periphery of Spanish football smack into its center!

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Las Palmas under Paco Herrera

The campaign started with a respectable 1-0 loss at Atletico Madrid, as Paco Herrera lined up in a 5-4-1.

A goalless draw against Levante looked rather harsh on Los Amarillos after a 16 to 3 shots advantage and 65% possession, but only getting two shots on target was worrisome.

Things looked downright disastrous after goalkeeper Javi Varas got sent off for a last man tackle. in the 11th minute in their next game against Celta Vigo.

Vigo’s Daniel Wass quickly made it 2-0 after another defensive breakdown, and it looked like curtains for shorthanded Las Palmas on the road.

A 22nd minute mistake by Celta keeper Sergio Alvarez allowed Sergio Araujo to pull one back, but Antolin Alcaraz’s awful mistake in the back led to a three on one counter that Nolito finished off for 3-1 in the 49th minute.

Sergio Araujo got another back from a set piece, as he chested the ball and fired a low shot from a tight angle that was turned into his own net by Pablo Hernandez.

And in the 74th minute a Juan Emmanuel Culio through ball put David Simon in for 3-3 and complete madness ensued.

Backup goalkeeper Raul Lizoain would go on to make two of his eight saves on the night, as Celta outshot Las Palmas 25 to 9 and 12 to 4 in shots on target, but had to settle for an infuriating 3-3 draw against the ten man visitors.

The momentum of that epic comeback would go on to carry Las Palmas to a…0-1 home loss against Rayo Vallecano, losing the shots battle 8 to 17 as well.

 

After that debacle, close to 20,000 spectators came out to the Gran Canaria stadium to witness their UD take on the surprisingly bottom-place Sevilla in a midweek matchup on September 23rd, 2015.

Sergio Araujo continued his torrid form, as the Argentine beat five Sevilla players with his Xaviesque pass to find midfielder Roque Mesa, who fired home a laser to the bottom left corner.

Las Palmas were on a counter and after a Simon pass in the 56th minute to Jonathan Viera, the winger showed his lightning speed and great footwork as he bamboozled the ball past two Sevilla defenders, but Sergio Rico rushed out to deflect a surefire goal.

Sevilla’s dreadful defending was further exploited and the second goal arrived in the 76th minute as Sergio Araujo once again provided a masterful delivery to the head of Antolin Alcaraz.

The boys in yellow were in high spirits and it showed against FC Barcelona, where they suffered a close 2-1 loss in a match that is probably best remembered for Leo Messi’s third minute injury.

To be completely frank, the two goals that Luis Suarez scored were quite good as well, and Roque Mesa stripping Javier Mascherano to set up Jonathan Viera for the consolation deserves a mention as well.

Still 2-1 with shots 18-1o  Barca is again nothing to be ashamed of. The next two matches however would be the undoing of their manager, as on October 19th, Paco Herrera (now managing Valladolid) was let go .

The 2-0 home loss to minnows Eibar (despite winning the shots battle 18 to 9) was rather unlucky, but losing 4-0 to Getafe was the straw that broke the camel’s back. To be fair, the pink jerseys were not helping either.

The 4-2-3-1 lineup deployed for the first time failed miserably, as the defense was completely exposed for the first two goals by Sarabia and Pedro Leon.

Culio committed a dumb foul on the left wing and was given his marching orders in the 80th minute, and two more late goals by Stefan Scepovic added insult to injury.

herrerafiredA cursory glance at the Herrera era sees UD getting 1 win 2 draws and 5 in eight matches with six goals scored and 13 conceded.

That looks bleak, but there’s an argument that Herrera got a raw deal: two respectable losses against Atletico and Barca, two great results versus Celta and Sevilla, and an unlucky draw against Levante looked much better before the shocking losses to Getafe, Eibar and Rayo.

The numbers, however, don’t seem to support that raw deal argument:

laspalmasherrstats

On offense, managing twelve shots a game for Las Palmas isn’t bad, but failing to score in five out of eight games is 3.25 shots on target per match is dismal, it would’ve ranked them last in the league for the season had that trend continued.

Clearly there needed to be some improvement, as aside from Sergio Araujo and flashes from Jonathan Viera this team lacked firepower.

On the defensive side, a negative 20 shots difference is troublesome, but a  minus 17 shots on target difference in just eight games is gruesome.

The defence was very hit or miss, occasionally and oddly looking solid against the big teams in Sevilla, Barca and Atletico, but allowing 25 shots (albeit with ten men for much of the match) to Celta and letting Eibar and Getafe get as many shots on target as Barcelona.

It’s even more of an indictment on Herrera, as he started the majority of matches with five in the back!

A couple other formation mistakes that were notable:

Roque Mesa was frequently deployed wide on the right where his slight build and pass accuracy were underutilized and he performed poorly.

We will see how the new coach has changed that later on.

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Mesa was not the only one who performed poorly. Most of the best rated performers are in there due to a limited sample size.

A few like Pedro Bigas or Jonathan Viera would be heard from later.

laspalmasplayersherr

Under the new manager, things picked up quite a bit with Willian Jose, Vicente Gomez and a couple of defenders performing better:

laspalmasplayerssetien

A coaching change makes all the difference – but not at first

Speaking of that new manager, let’s meet Quique Setien, best known for managing Racing Santander, who was brought in to take Las Palmas out of the relegation spots.

We know that he succeeded, since the Canary Island club ultimately finished eleventh, but let’s analyse how he pulled it off:

Setien’s first game in charge was a cracking 0-0 affair versus Villarreal (who did have one of the best defenses in the league that year) with  six shots versus five!

Yet, two notable points:

1. Las Palmas enjoyed 61% possession and lined up in a 4-4-1-1 with Araujo as the highest player up the pitch. Little-used forward Tana was brought in as a secondary striker and the 26-year-old would finish the season with five goals and four assists, all under Setien.

2. Instead of his forward position under Herrera, Setien had Jonathan Viera deployed on the left wing. That would have a positive effect on the rest of the team, as former LW Roque Mesa took over as CDM from Culio, who would only play 134 minutes in the season and is now in the Segunda Division

Mesa had once also played in the number ten role in the 4-0 defeat at Getafe, but Herrera inexplicably had him as a right/eft winger. Hernan Santana and Wakaso (a loan player from Rubin Kazan, now at Panathinaikos), who often played the defensive midfielder roles were not in the starting eleven afterwards.

The back four, which with the inclusion of Aythami as an extra center back often was a back five, was left unchanged – Dani Castellano on the left, with Pedro Bigas – Alcaraz pairing with Simon on the right.

 

Hernan would score the team’s lone goal against Real Madrid in a 3-1 loss, where Setien opted for a 4-1-4-1, which quickly got exposed as Roque Mesa lost the ball to Real’s press and Isco fired Los Blancos ahead in the fourth minute.

Pedro Bigas lost Cristiano Ronaldo (how do you do that?) in the 14th minute, as the Portuguese latched onto a Marcelo cross with a great diving header for the second.

Hernan was left unmarked by Raphael Varane in the six-yard-box from a corner to make it 2-1 before Jese finished Las Palmas off with a solo effort.

A couple of nice results started off the month of November – a 2-0 win over Sociedad thanks to Javi Varas’ six saves and a 1-1 draw versus Valencia that really should have been a victory as “the Yellows” outshot their opponents 18 to 9.

This was the first time that Setien lined UD up in what has since become his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation with Vicente Gomez pairing with Roque Mesa in the double pivot.

The loss to Deportivo was single-handedly due to their inability to contain now Arsenal striker Lucas Perez whose assist to Cani (which later turned out to be a Simon own goal) and goal were the difference.

Against Sporting Gijon it was the duo of hat-trick hero Antonio Sanabria and Jony that undid them in a 3-1 loss, where Aythami’s second yellow at 1-1 in the 71st minute proved vital.

Los Amarillos were at rock-bottom, in 20th after 14 matches, and it looked like Setien wasn’t much of an improvement over Herrera.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this detailed look at Las Palmas, online tomorrow.

Author Info

Abel Meszaros

Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid – 90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1’s Ran). Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany. His first English love was the Liverpool teams of Macca and Robbie Fowler, but these days he just roots for the underdogs. His Spanish allegiance is to FC Barcelona, which is more aesthetic in nature than anything, but that doesn't prevent him from enjoying the greatness of Luka Modric or Toni Kroos. He loves to talk/read/write/think about soccer! Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer – not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and at @BundesPL

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