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Behind Enemy Lines: SD Huesca

Thanks to some exciting possession football, it only took a year for Huesca to bounce back up to La Liga . How do they match up against Real Madrid?


I completely forgot that 1-2 years ago Managing Madrid had a series of articles called “Behind Enemy Lines“ to analyze opponents. So from now on I will use this title to describe my opposition analysis articles.

Background, Transfers, and Season Expectations

On northeast edge of Spain, with some beautiful views to the Pyrenees mountain range, lies the small city of Huesca. In the 2018/19 season, their local team, SD Huesca, reached La Liga for the first time in their history. However, their stay in Primera División lasted just one season, with the team being one of the three worst defenses in the league in terms of both goals and expected goals. Huesca actually had a stronger collective structure than a couple of teams who did survive the relegation cutoff (Celta, I’m looking at you), but the constant mishaps at the back sentenced them to Segunda.

In the 2019/20 season, back in the purgatory of Segunda, Huesca crossed paths with Miguel Sánchez “Míchel“, who suffered a similar negative experience when coaching in La Liga. In the previous season, his Rayo Vallecano team tried to play more expansive possession football, but they became the worst defense in the league and were relegated alongside Huesca. Despite his poor results in La Liga, Huesca decided to bet on Michel to build a project that could return to Primera. And things worked beautifully for them, as Michel’s possess-and-press 4-3-3 game plan had them battling in the top 3-4 spots in the league. And on the very last matchday of the season, Huesca made it to the top of the Segunda table.

Reinforcements have been hard to come by for La Liga teams this summer due to the pandemic economy. Fortunately for Huesca, they managed to achieve their objectives: (a) keep their key players and (b) sign a few more players with prior experience in La Liga. Thus, this summer has seen the arrivals of center back Dimitris Siovas from Leganés and midfielder Borja García from Girona, as well as the loans of fullback Pablo Maffeo from Stuttgart and young winger Javi Ontiveros from Villarreal.

Despite the reinforcements, Huesca still lack goal scoring power compared to most other teams in the league, and they are still prime candidates for relegation this season. Their objective for this season is simply to survive. It will be interesting to see if Michel and Huesca have learned the lessons of their prior time in Primera and find a way to compete against the best teams in Spain.

Game Plan and Usual Lineup

In Segunda, Míchel loved to use a 4-3-3 setup. In this beginning of the Liga season, he seems to have deviated a bit from that shape. The left central midfielder (often Borja García) now operates in a more advanced role and turns Huesca’s shape into more of a 4-2-4, as shown in the passmap below.

Source: Between The Posts

In front of keeper Andrés Fernández lies the usual center back pair of Jorge Pulido and Dimitris Siovas. Pulido is a particularly important figure in this team, as he tries to set the height of the defensive line, provides a decent threat from set pieces (12 goals and assists in the last two seasons), and is also key in the team’s buildup phase.

The usual fullback pair is Javi Galán on the left and Pablo Maffeo on the right. Fullbacks have a key role in Michel’s offensive system, because the wingers usually stay more central to give room to the fullbacks to burst down the wings. Michel loves using his fullbacks high up the pitch, but that often turns into a defensive vulnerability as opponents can often counter by going behind the fullbacks.

Midfield has changed a bit with the arrival of Borja García. Pedro Mosquera is still the undisputed six, but last season the midfield trio had a more symmetric layout with the two interior midfielders beside Mosquera. This season, the midfield trio is more asymmetric, with García on the left being given a more advanced role while the right midfielder (usually Mikel Rico) stays back a bit more and almost forms a double pivot with Mosquera. This is another reason why Huesca’s lineup now looks more like a 4-2-4 than a 4-3-3.

That being said, Rico is a box-to-box player and he loves moving into the box to score and assist. Last season in Segunda, Rico produced a whopping 12 goals and assists this way. And judging by what we’ve seen in Huesca’s first games in La Liga, Rico will keep doing these kinds of runs into the box.

Real Zaragoza v SD Huesca - La Liga SmartBank
Rafa Mir and Shinji Okazaki may show up in lineups as wingers, but they both really play as strikers.
Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The forward trio is interesting because it is also asymmetric. David Ferreiro will stay closer to his wing (usually the right wing) and behave a bit more like a traditional winger. On the other side, however, Huesca often don’t have a winger. Shinji Okazaki or Rafa Mir might show up in lineups as the nominal wingers, but in practice, they play as strikers. For example, if Ferreiro plays on the right and Okazaki plays as the “left winger“, what really happens is that Okazaki plays as a striker and the left midfielder (usually Borja García) will move closer to the left wing, which leads to the 4-2-4 shape I mentioned before. The three forwards and the attacking midfielder have a lot freedom to move around and switch positions in order to make passing combinations.

Conventional wisdom in La Liga says that a team of Huesca’s budget and expectations should usually stick to a more compact 4-4-2 wand a more direct attacking style with long balls. The last five years have shown that the low-mid table teams who stick to this setup—either with a deep block or high pressing 4-4-2 version—tend to survive for longer in Primera.

Michel’s Huesca does not follow this recipe though. They are a team who want to have possession, build up more slowly with shorter passes and create passing combinations to progress through the field. In Segunda, they liked to press in a 4-3-3 with aggressive behavior from the interior midfielders. This season in Primera, they seem to press with more of a 4-2-4 shape.

A good example of what Huesca try to do with the ball is their goal against Villarreal on matchday 1. Okazaki—who played as the center forward in this game— dropped deep to receive the ball from his left back and laid off the ball to left midfielder Juan Carlos. The midfielder combined with Ferreiro—who this time played as a left winger—and drove forward with the ball, diagonally from left to center. Huesca’s combination play on the left attracted many Villarreal players and opened up a space on the right that right back Pablo Maffeo could run into. So all Juan Carlos needed to do is pass into space for Maffeo to get into a shooting position and score.

Current Form

Things are not exactly going great for Huesca, who are currently in relegation spots. They have only lost twice up to now but they haven’t won a game either. Underlying expected goal numbers are decidedly low-mid table. Huesca have been a bit unlucky and inefficient with their finishing, so perhaps their results improve in the next few months a bit. I’ll talk about what has happened in their five last games.

In their visit to Valencia, Huesca found themselves at a disadvantage in the scoreline around the 35th minute, but afterwards they controlled the game and ultimately managed to draw it. Valencia generated very little throughout the game, with only 5 shots. The next game against Atlético would also be hard fought, with Huesca actually generating more chances throughout the first half. However, an outstanding second half from João Felix allowed Atlético to dominate in the second half and create better chances. Neither team could capitalize on their chances and the game ended 0-0.

The next two games saw Huesca tie against direct relegation opponents, Elche and Valladolid. Huesca outshot Elche by 18 shots to 2, with their pressing and possession controlling the game and generating chances. However, they missed some big chances and keeper Badía stopped anything else that made it on target.

Against Valladolid, Huesca were down 0-2 in the scoreline by the 51st minute. Valladolid struggled to create shots from open play due to Huesca’s pressing, but they scored via a set piece and a penalty kick. Huesca reacted well and within ten minutes of Valladolid’s second goal, drew the game. The second goal in particular came thanks to the substitution of striker Sandro Ramírez. Huesca could have won the game had it not been for some miracle interventions of Valladolid’s keeper, Roberto.

Finally, we have their 1-4 defeat against a Real Sociedad who have started the season on fire. After a rather even first half, la Real out-pressed and out-possessed Huesca throughout the second half. With each passing goal, la Real’s attackers found themselves with more space against an increasingly desperate and disorganized Huesca.

How do they match up against Real Madrid?

Real are clear favorites for this one, of course. Not just because they have more talent, but the tactical context should be favorable too. Zidane’s men tend to struggle against deeper blocks, as shown by their games against Cádiz or Mönchengladbach, while doing better against higher pressing setups and defensive lines. The passing circuit of Marcelo/Mendy - Ramos - Kroos on the left tends to be good at inviting the opposition press—which leaves more spaces on the right—and then moving the ball quickly to the right side. That’s how Valverde’s goal in the latest Clásico happened, for example. These kinds of plays will be vital to defeat Huesca.

Zidane’s men are going through a tough calendar with mid-week Champions League action, so some rotation is guaranteed. I would bet on Marcelo starting instead of Mendy and Lucas Vázquez continuing to play the right back role. We might get one of Ramos or Varane substituted by Militão, too. In midfield, one of Kroos or Valverde will be rested and Modrić will surely start. Up front, the main question mark is whether Zidane will bench Vinicius, who hasn’t been playing well lately. In that case, there’s a good chance Rodrygo could start instead.


On Huesca’s side, Okazaki and Mikel Rico are out due to injury. Rico has been substituted in by Jaime Seoane, but the more interesting story is how Michel will deal with Okazaki’s absence. The most like-for-like replacement is Sandro Ramírez, and that’s precisely what we saw against Real Sociedad last week. The team basically played as a 4-4-2 with both Rafa Mir and Ramírez as out-and-out strikers. However, Michel could also choose to play with just one striker (Rafa Mir) and two actual wingers, which would be Javi Ontiveros and David Ferreiro. The latter option would look more like the 4-3-3 Michel used in Segunda.

Key matchups in this game will be fullbacks vs. wingers. Both teams use aggressive fullbacks and there will be plenty of opportunities for wingers to run in behind during counterattack situations. On the side of Huesca, watch out for Rafa Mir, who has started the season well and can do some dangerous runs in that channel between Real’s left center back and left back.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Real’s right midfielder (Modrić or Valverde). If Real beat Huesca’s pressing, this midfielder will have a lot of room to operate and drive the ball forward. And if Benzema and Asensio combine with the right midfielder in these areas, they can overload the zone of defensive midfielder Mosquera and generate some dangerous chances right through the center of Huesca’s defense.

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