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Behind Enemy Lines: SD Huesca

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To save themselves from relegation, Huesca fired Michel and hired a Bielsa alumni, Pacheta. How has Pacheta changed the team and how do they match up against Real Madrid?

Real Valladolid CF v SD Huesca - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Why was Míchel fired?

Many changes have occurred at Huesca since their last game against Real Madrid, but the biggest one was firing coach Michel in mid-January. Even though Michel got his players to execute the game plan well, Huesca simply lacked the player talent (especially when it comes to goalscorers) to really impose their possession play on the opponent and turn it into good shots.

Michel is a good coach, and he implemented a possession-heavy 4-3-3 at Huesca with positional play concepts. Going for possession-heavy game plans when you’re a newly-promoted team is pretty ballsy, but this style usually requires more squad talent than a defensive game plan to get results. To boot, pandemic finances made it even harder for Huesca to recruit players who would fit and improve Michel’s team.

These issues are what led Huesca to the very last place in the league table. Their offense is in the bottom three in La Liga in terms of goals and expected goals (xG). Their wingers and forwards struggled to get into good shooting positions, and the only one who did shoot—Rafa Mir—had a bit of a bad streak in front of goal. Meanwhile, the defense was in the bottom five in terms of goals and xG. Michel’s game plan made his men take more offensive risks—pressing, fullbacks high up the pitch—which exposed the backline a lot.

Given these bad results and the threat of relegation, Huesca’s administrators needed to shake things up, and thus they resorted to “football’s version of the Aztecan human sacrifice”: firing the coach.

Who is the new manager, Pacheta?

As a player, Juan José Rojo Martín “Pacheta“ worked under Marcelo Bielsa for just three months at Espanyol, but this short encounter had a dramatic effect on Pacheta’s later coaching career. Pacheta holds a deep admiration for Bielsa’s coaching methods and playing style, and this is reflected in how intense and physical his teams are.

Pacheta’s biggest coaching miracle happened when managing Elche between 2018 and 2020. Elche ranked among the six lowest budgets in Segunda División, yet they achieved promotion to La Liga at the end of the 2019/20 season. Pacheta had earned the right to coach in La Liga for the first time in his career, but he would see that opportunity taken away from him immediately. Just two days after achieving promotion, Elche and Pacheta parted ways because of tensions with Christian Bragarnik, Elche’s new owner (and Maradona’s agent!). After such a painful moment, it’s nice to see Pacheta finally coach in La Liga and try to save Huesca from relegation.

Pacheta’s Defense and the Switch to a Back Three

Bielsa’s influence is clear when you look at the defensive system Pacheta uses at Huesca: it’s an intense, man-to-man press. When the opponent beats the press, Huesca players energetically move back to form a compact and deep block. This clip from Bielsa’s Leeds tracking back gives a good idea of how much running and commitment Pacheta expects from his men in defense.

Switching quickly between a deep block and a high press demands a lot from the players. You don’t just need great physical preparation but also complete belief and confidence in the coach’s game plan.

When it comes to shape and formation, Pacheta has chosen to line up Huesca with three at the back, and this solution seems to be a good fit for his center backs and wing backs. Captain Jorge Pulido has a major role in Huesca’s buildup phase, and now that he plays on the right side of the back three (the right halfspace zone), he enjoys better passing angles and vision of the pitch.

SD Huesca v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Pacheta’s changes will also allow Greek defender Dimitrios Siovas to shine. Under Michel, Huesca kept a more aggressive defensive block that forced the slower Siovas to hold a high line more frequently. Under Pacheta, Siovas will get to defend in a deeper block more frequently and do what he does best: win duels in the box and clear out all the incoming danger.

Another one who benefits a lot from this switch to a back three is right wingback Pablo Maffeo. He struggled a bit with defensive duties as a right back in Michel’s 4-3-3, so a wing-back role gives him more freedom to go forward without exposing him in defense. It’s good to remember that Maffeo’s best year happened in the 2017/18 season, when he played wingback in Pablo Machin’s 3-4-3 Girona side. This change is already yielding good results for Huesca, with Maffeo producing two assists in the last game against Valladolid.

Midfield and Forward Structure: Huesca Moves to the 3-5-2

Villarreal and Getafe were the first opponents of Pacheta’s new Huesca. In these games, he chose a team that attacked and pressed with 3-4-3 shape and defended deep with a 5-4-1 shape. This system worked well in defense, but Huesca still struggled to score because the lone striker, Rafa Mir, needed more support from his teammates in the opposition box.

Against Valladolid, Pacheta tried a 3-5-2 system with two strikers: Shinji Okazaki played alongside Rafa Mir this time around. Huesca won this game 3-1, the first victory under Pacheta and a massive win against a relegation rival. Given this positive result, this 3-5-2 will likely be the system used against Real Madrid.

The midfield trio of this 3-5-2 featured:

  • Idrissa Doumbia as the holding midfielder in the absence of the injured Pedro Mosquera, who normally plays this role.
  • Mikel Rico and Jaime Seoane as the box-to-box midfielders. As seen in the passmap below from Between The Posts, the midfield pair are given very offensive roles. They press aggressively and move frequently into the box to find shooting opportunities.
Huesca’s 3-5-2 shape in possession against Real Valladolid.
Source: Between The Posts https://betweentheposts.net/match-plots/

The biggest benefactor of this 3-5-2 system, however, has been striker Rafa Mir. He has the qualities you would expect of a successful goal scorer in La Liga: big and strong enough to fight opposition defenders, yet deceptively fast and smart at attacking spaces. However, his goal-scoring record under Michel was poor, with only three goals in 13 starts.

This poor goal production has occurred partly because of him being inefficient but also because he often played from the wing—and further away from the box—under Michel. Pacheta, on the other hand, now plays Mir as an out-and-out striker, hoping this more central role will allow him to get closer to the box and good shooting positions. This change to a 3-5-2 and a more central striker role for Mir worked wonderfully against Valladolid, with the striker scoring a hat trick in this game.

Real Valladolid CF v SD Huesca - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Tactical Matchup against Real Madrid

This will be a tricky game for Los Blancos. If you look at Huesca’s league table position, you would assume this will be an easy game, but Huesca are seeing a bounce in performances and results under Pacheta.

The home side is dealing with the key injuries of holding midfielder Pedro Mosquera and striker Sandro Ramírez. As we explained previously, expect a team that attacks in a 3-5-2 shape and defends with a 5-3-2 deep block:

  • Goalkeeper: Alvaro Fernández
  • Center backs: Jorge Pulido on the right, Dimitrios Siovas in the middle, Gastón Silva on the left
  • Wing backs: Pablo Maffeo on the right, Javi Galán on the left
  • Central midfielders: Idrissa Doumbia as defensive midfield sweeper, Mikel Rico and Jaime Seoane as the box-to-box mids
  • Strikers: Rafa Mir and Shinji Okazaki / Javi Ontiveros

Expect Pacheta and Huesca to press Real Madrid’s buildup aggressively, and then retreat quickly into a deep block if Real beat the press. In a deep block they will be hard to break down thanks to the back three and the leadership of Siovas in the box. In the forward line, Pacheta could pair Mir up with a more traditional striker option in Okazaki, or he could choose the more creative Ontiveros.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 buildup shape being pressed by Huesca’s 3-5-2 formation.
Source: Share my Tactics http://sharemytactics.com/157982/

Real Madrid, on the other hand, still suffers from a widespread injury crisis: Carvajal, Valverde, Rodrygo, Hazard, Isco, Vázquez are all KO, and this morning we just got the news that captain Sergio Ramos will have to undergo surgery to repair his left meniscus. Militão is also suspended due to his red card against Levante. Given this situation, expect most of the usual names in the 4-3-3 lineup but with Nacho at left center back instead of Ramos, Odriozola at right-back, and Vinicius on the left wing.

As far as key duels, watch out for Rafa Mir. He is a smart attacker who excels at finding weak spots in the opposition defense and running into them, and there is a good chance he will try to take advantage of the channel between Varane and Odrioziola.

Huesca’s wingbacks will try to help Mir in these duties. On the left, Javi Galán will try to attract Odriozola to him and create more space for Mir and Huesca midfielders to run into. On the right, Maffeo assisted Mir twice against Valladolid, so Mendy will have to be on the lookout for his crosses.

In the midfield battle, Huesca’s midfielders—Rico and Seoane—will be aggressive at attacking Real Madrid’s box. Modrić and Kroos need to help Casemiro and make sure he’s not overloaded in these situations.

With Huesca pressing aggressively and tracking back quickly, the key tactical concept for Real Madrid’s offense is moving the ball forward more quickly than Huesca can track back. If Real can do this consistently, they will have a good chance of creating danger. This might be a good game to avoid short passing in buildup and just boot it long for Vinicius and Asensio to run against the Huesca back three.

Additional reading/viewing material

  • “Pacheta y el Nuevo Sistema del Huesca“ from El Taconazo Youtube channel: