COLUMN: The anatomy of a Las Palmas fall – the crests and crevices in one of La Liga’s most perplexing teams

Among the most perplexing storylines in La Liga in 2023-24, quite exactly how a Las Palmas team who were so reliable up until a few months ago have conspired to record the season’s longest losing streak has to be right up there.

Following their trip to Mallorca over the weekend, that’s now eight – yes, eight – defeats in a row for a team who had shown very few signs of an impending collapse. “It hurts a lot because it’s not that we were so good before or that we’re so bad now,” Garcia Pimienta said after Saturday’s defeat.

The temptation is there to put this all down to Las Palmas ‘being on the beach’ – the islanders are the most apt candidate for that phrase anyway – but it’s still far too simplistic an explanation.
Plenty of their players will be on the beach soon enough, but in the meantime, here’s a few reasons to explain their form…

 

Opponents have taken a step (or five) forward

Las Palmas set up their probable survival this season by managing the tempo of games with the ball – that’s to say, they liked a nice, slow rhythm in which they linked short passes and almost always had an extra man in their build-up. After finding their feet at the end of September, their credentials on the ball were really starting to take effect and opponents were wary of how to approach facing them. Once Las Palmas were established in the game outside of the defensive third, taking the ball from them was very difficult, and it’s much better to not press at all than it is to do so without the proper co-ordination or commitment.

Here in May, that hesitation to go after them has all but evaporated. At the risk of using the lazy cliche of ‘being found out’, it seems evident that the go-to approach against Las Palmas has morphed across the season, and the growing body of evidence for squeezing them high up the pitch continues with each game, almost regardless of the opponent. “Teams study us better now and they can hurt us easier,” said Kirian Rodriguez on Saturday.

Press Girona man-for-man and they play over the top to Artem Dovbyk — if that pass sticks and he can play to a teammate in a 3v3 or 4v4, the opposition are in a world of trouble and likely scrambling back toward goal. Press Las Palmas man-for-man, meanwhile, and any surrender of a long ball is considered a win for the opposition. No team has completed fewer long passes in La Liga this season, and playing longer of late has only meant the ball will come back and not allow the team to escape anyway.

In their defeat at Atletico Madrid, for example, we saw Diego Simeone change his approach radically to go hunting against Las Palmas’ build-up. Over the last few months, we’ve seen team after team repeat that similar strategy. Leaving as few as 2v2 at the back and committing to breaking Las Palmas’ rhythm entirely, while trying to push them back to the goalkeeper and keep them stranded in their own half in that way.

The problem for Las Palmas isn’t that they aren’t good enough to build the game from deep, or that Garcia Pimienta is falling short in his preparation. The problem is the squad lacks the variety of solutions for them to make the opposition think twice about their approach, and now that teams are being bolder than ever, Las Palmas have found themselves on a carousel they can’t get off. The deficit of speed on the wings, threat running beyond, and a centre forward to sustain the team, have all been crippling factors in their inability to escape.

With respect to the latter, one of their main solutions to all of this was supposed to be Sory Kaba. The Guinean striker has only played 720 minutes this season, and in the nine starts he’s made, he’s averaged just 68 minutes per game (subbed again in the 63rd minute at Mallorca last weekend). As their second-biggest summer investment, Kaba was intended to be the no.9 reference and release valve for a team who needed alternatives in their build-up play. And yet even when it was apparent they’ve needed a striker of his profile during their struggles, that Garcia Pimienta has barely considered him to play tells you the conundrum they’re in.

 

Las Palmas’ goal deficit

“It’s not that we’re not scoring goals, it’s that we’re creating very few goalscoring chances. It’s penalising us a lot,” Garcia Pimienta said at the weekend.

For most of the season, it has been Las Palmas’ defence protecting the attack rather than the conventional way. Prior to their losing streak, their game management with the ball meant long portions of games defending themselves against transitions and sapping the legs of the opponent, instead of orthodox defending of their box.

By this final part of the campaign, opponents simply no longer fear leaving space at the back of their defence. Between lacking the individual talent and variety of profiles in the final third, Las Palmas haven’t been able to find a way to establish a direct threat and give the opponent pause for creeping up the pitch. If Garcia Pimienta’s side don’t arrive in the final third as a collective, they generally don’t arrive at all.

That the team’s top scorer this season is Kirian Rodriguez (6), their organising midfielder and the player with the most passes completed in the league, says a lot about the nature of their attacking threat. Along with the failed signing of Sory Kaba, the team have had very little production from Sandro Ramirez and Munir on sizeable minutes, and with both having to occupy the no. 9 spot throughout the campaign.

Image via Marca

Las Palmas managed to survive their lack of goals for most of the season, but falling behind in games has now become a death sentence for their pursuit of results. As for whether the lack of goals is a Garcia Pimienta problem or not, it’s worth asking in how many other La Liga sides the likes of Sandro and Munir would start these days…

At the other end, Las Palmas’ wavering control of games has inevitably resulted in the team giving up bigger chances in recent months. Errors in the build-up, more time spent having to defend their box and the fatigue of just being hit by wave after wave of opposition pressure have all taken their toll. In between the sticks, however, Alvaro Valles has gone from superhuman in the first half of the season to decidedly mortal in the second.

Up until the turn of the year, Valles was the top-ranked goalkeeper in La Liga for goals prevented based on the quality of shots on target faced (+10.3), just over double that of Unai Simon then in second (+5). In 2024, Valles has conceded roughly three more than expected based on xG (-2.9), which is the third-worst mark only behind Augusto Batalla (-5.1) and Conan Ledesma (-3).

 

Job all but done and player futures coming into focus

Las Palmas have been in the top nine of La Liga for 113 days this season, while they’ve only spent 25 days in the relegation zone. Indeed, the last time they were in the bottom three was on 1st October and the threat of the drop has barely registered ever since.

There’s still a mathematical chance of Las Palmas going down this season, but having done their homework so early in assuring their likely survival, that loss of tension has certainly been a factor in their struggles over recent months.

Left back Sergi Cardona was on track to be one of the performers of the season for Los Amarillos, but his plummeting form and subsequent benching seems heavily tied to the fact he wants a summer move and won’t renew. Goalkeeper Alvaro Valles looked a lock for a spot in the team of the season in La Liga, yet he’s suffered a drop in form and seems likely to be in his final few games for the club.

Add to that the young talents like Mika Marmol and Alberto Moleiro who are in the shop window, and have already made their cases performance-wise prior to the last few months, and it seems logical there are a core of first teamers who are already thinking about their next challenge with the team’s objective (more than likely) achieved earlier than expected.

 

Style of play; why change?

Garcia Pimienta has said it himself; if there was another way of playing in which he thought Las Palmas would be a better team, he’d happily change.

Although the temptation is to scream change when a team is losing in similar fashion week-on-week, the profile of Las Palmas’ squad is one that needs to spend more time on the ball without it – there’s no escaping it. They don’t have the defensive characteristics across the squad to merely decide they’re going to become a defensive team, or one that merely defends better if they could just have fewer responsibilities in possession.

Besides, why, when Las Palmas are 99% assured of a place in LaLiga next season, would they now change a way of playing they’ve committed to since Garcia Pimienta arrived in January 2022?

The strength of the club’s project lies in how well they can refine their distinct way of playing, and there are few sides in the division whose longer-term prospects will be as tied to how well they can execute a specific model of play.

Even if Garcia Pimienta doesn’t stay on past the summer, Las Palmas will come back in 2024-25 with a similar idea of dominating the ball. Although they’re experiencing the painful part now, it’s not to say this is merely wasted time and the sign their manager has lost the plot. The Las Palmas of 2023-24 are what they are now, and it’s not a competent manager or viable idea of playing they’re missing.

 

Jamie Kemp can be found on social media here, and if you’re hungry for more, find their excellent work here.

Tags Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta Garcia Pimienta Las Palmas

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