the tinkering innovator using chess to improve his football

“For a strategy to become reality, decisions must be made,” says Garry Kasparov in his book How Life Imitates Chess. “For evaluations to be turned into results, they must lead to decisions. After we have prepared, planned, analysed, calculated and evaluated, we have to choose a course of action. Results are the feedback we get on the quality of our decision making. Doing things the right way matters.”

As a world chess champion, Kasparov has thrived on meticulousness, an almost obsessive strategic mind. Chess, of course, is an inherently strategic game, one which is won and lost on the strength of the player’s mind. Football has often been compared to the most intellectual of board games, and there are some coaches for whom the preparation for a match is not dissimilar to that of a chess player; ensuring that their players are positioned with as much consideration as Kasparov might place a pawn.

Quique Setién is one of those. The Las Palmas coach once confessed that his love for chess often outweighs his desire to watch football. “There is less and less to see in football,” he said. “I prefer to play chess a lot of the time.” Rumour has it that Setién, such was his eagerness, once played against Kasparov, and on another occasion, grandmaster Anatoly Karpov. He has clearly been influenced by their methods, and it’s evident in the approach to football he has taken as a coach.

In comparison to some coaches who preach the importance of possession and attacking football, Setién’s desire for such an approach can appear almost cynical. “I like order,” he once said. “It is fundamental. Chess and football are similar, the pieces are connected to attack and defence. It is vital to dominate the centre of the board.”

Still, he has professed his admiration for Johan Cruyff’s methods, and his Las Palmas side have undoubtedly been one of Europe’s most aesthetic since his arrival in the Canary Islands. Idealism is mixed with functionality, attacking fluidity with an almost mechanically manufactured efficiency. But that is Quique Setién, a man whose almost contradictory principles make him one of football’s most unique and intriguing coaches.

Born in a working-class area of Santander in 1958, Setién grew up playing football on the street; a “small square” in his modest neighbourhood where he played almost constantly as a child with friends. His focus was on football, not education, often using his school’s courtyard as a place to hone his skills, not to study. His reluctance to learn in the conventional sense did not prove costly, however – instead, it was his inherent dedication to football that would see him break into his boyhood team, Racing Santander, as a teenager.

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Setién as a player was technically gifted, elegant and talented, and his own strengths clearly had an impact on his view of the game. He has bemoaned the…

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