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Real Betis coach Quique Setien: 'I understand football through the ball'

Setien played for four clubs over a 20-year career, becoming a manager in 2001.
Setien played for four clubs over a 20-year career, becoming a manager in 2001.

Betis manager Quique Setien is a Bruce Springsteen fan but once described himself as a "rolling stone" who loves chess and insists that its lessons can be applied to football. A technical, creative player from Santander who was at Atletico Madrid under legendary president and crook Jesus Gil, and under more managers than he can remember, he sits at a desk trying to list them all but soon admits defeat.

Setien was on the Spain bench at the 1986 World Cup, always lamented not getting the chance to play under Johan Cruyff and was a beach football international. He was coach of Equatorial Guinea for one game -- "'yeah, we'll call you,' they said... and I'm still waiting," he laughs -- and he coached Racing, Logrono, Poli Ejido, Lugo, Las Palmas and now, Real Betis.

A puritan and a preacher man who insisted that he would never tell a player not to dribble, bemoaning wingers becoming an "endangered species," Setien wants his team to play and to express themselves. He takes out a pad and draws arrows on it, scribbling a picture of how every move makes another, the ball going from one man to the next. Explained with gentle ease and absolute conviction -- clarity, too -- he carries you with him. But if Setien loves to play, his critics say he loves to play too much, that his theory is one thing and reality another. Last season Las Palmas were a revelation, wonderful to watch, but with Setien undermined by the board of directors, they collapsed in the second half of the campaign.

"There was a point where I said either things are done this way or I'm going, because otherwise this will end and it will ruin it all," he says. "Get another manager, no problem, thanks. I'm going."

So he went, heading to the green half of Seville and taking his football with him. If you can watch a game this season, watch Betis. Be warned, though: it may not be good for your heart. Fourteen weeks in and there have already been 52 goals in their games, including two 2-2s, a 3-6, a 4-4, a 4-0 and a 0-5. They won at the Bernabéu but results and confidence have deserted them. The ball is the thing he treasures most of all but the ball, he admits, is starting to burn his players' feet, under pressure and fearful of mistakes. Betis have not won in five games and this weekend, Setien and his side face his polar opposite when Atlético Madrid visit the Benito Villamarín. Not that he is backing down: this is the football he believes in. He always has and always will.

Setien's philosophy of attacking play with the ball remains constant at every club he oversees.
Setien's philosophy of attacking play with the ball remains constant at every club he oversees.

ESPN FC: Not long ago you said "What kids see remains for their whole life." Is that applicable to you? Is what you're doing now somehow a product of what or who you were as a kid?

Quique Setien: Yes, yes. What moves me and what drives me has always been the same. What I feel for the ball, what I enjoy, as a player and now as a coach, the satisfaction I feel when I see great players, is the same as in the school playground: seeing moves build, seeing understanding, passes flow, seeing it all fit together. That's what I admire and ultimately, that's what you learn at school.

Even at that age, with the individualism of the playground, good players gravitate towards each other, they play together. The good players know. Deep inside me is this, the game itself. Although I'm partly a coach because you have to work to earn a living, because if not...

ESPN FC: You'd do something else?

Setien: For sure. There is a great part of the professional world that I don't like.

ESPN FC: Why?

Setien: Because it goes against all my principles. That's the way it is. That's the truth.

ESPN FC: You've seen the dark side of the profession, that's for sure. You've played under Jesus Gil and then saw Racing Santander, your club, destroyed by Dimitry Piterman and the infamous Mr. Ali...

Setien: There are lots of people who come into football and one thing is feeling, real feeling, another are these people you see and think 'why are they there?' So many things have been done badly in football that clubs need people with money, but it's too often people that only have money. When you see things like [Racing], I feel like leaving and never coming back. I don't want to see it, I don't want to hear it. It's happened so often, you can see it coming.

Now, at least, there's an economic control at the Spanish clubs that is protecting them and giving some order. But it's lamentable for a club with 100 years of history to fall into the hands of people with no understanding... and sometimes no scruples.

ESPN FC: So how do you stop that?

Setien: I don't know. As a friend of mine says 'whoever made the world like this, fix it.'

ESPN FC: Directors, presidents, owners: those at the top of football club condition everything, especially the manager's job, although you've also admitted that you're not always easy to work with.

Setien: The conclusion I've reached over time, and I've said this to lots of presidents, is that for me to really do what I want, I have to buy a club. Sometimes decisions are made that make no sense, like signing a coach that has a clear profile, signing players with a profile to fit that and then sacking him in week 10 and bringing in a coach who's diametrically opposed, with a totally different concept of football. What sense is there?

As a club, the first thing you need is an idea. What do I want? How do I want to play? Once you've established that, your philosophy, you have to find the adequate people to develop that idea, share it and commit to it. If you're Barcelona and you sign Jose Mourinho -- who is a great coach -- you know you have to change. You have to ask 'are we sure this is what we want?' The problem is that the majority of clubs don't know what they want to do; they're dictated to by circumstances.

His Betis side are comfortably mid-table this season but are winless in their last five league games.
His Betis side are comfortably mid-table this season but are winless in their last five league.

ESPN FC: They're under huge pressure...

Setien: But the pressure will always be there. What you can't do is today white, tomorrow black. Barcelona is an example: they established a criteria that has been a religion. You play like this, this, and this... 20 coaches have come who know they're going to do that. Yes, Lionel Messi is there -- and he's a case apart -- but the idea remains. And they're the team that has won the most titles in the last decade.

You need consistency and to do that, you need the directors. They have to be the defenders and the guarantors of an idea. And then you have a responsibility: choose the people who work for you and choose well. Simeone at Atletico is a good example too, even if we're different: they're clear, he's clear. He knows what he wants and he gets it and it's the hostia [the business]. He has done it his way.

I'd like to achieve as much, my way. Simeone might not like what I do: he might think 'bloody hell, this bring-the-ball-out thing, sod that.' He's got the decency to not say it but I'm sure he thinks it. There's no maliciousness or criticism in it, I accept that football, I value, it: it's just that I choose a different way. And if people are happy, what am I going to say?

ESPN FC: Yet your idea is very clear, and it's the opposite. And you do say so.

Setien: It's the football that fulfils me. When Luka Modric comes last year and he shakes my hand and he gives me his shirt signed and he says 'how well your team plays...' or when a colleague says 'bloody hell, how well your team plays!' -- when that happens, I go home happy. That's where my real satisfaction comes from, more than defeat or victory.

There are lots of stereotypes: I want to win too, I'm as much of a "winner" as others, but I want to win through a series of mechanisms and an interpretation of football that is different. I understand football through the ball. There are others who interpret the game without the ball.

ESPN FC: Is that pragmatic or ethical, in your view?

Setien: I defend this because this is the way I feel football. I want to win but deep down, I [also] defend this way of playing as an ethical question. But I also respect those who are not like me. Why? Because I know what football is like. I know there are people who think the way we do things is risky; it's simpler to defend.

There are coaches who put more or less players in front of the ball; when you put lots of players ahead of the ball, the risk is magnified. There are coaches that won't contemplate that. I respect that. That's the way they understand the game or the way they're able to communicate it. Now, you can like that more or less...

ESPN FC: And you don't like it. Have you told Simeone that?

Setien: I've told everyone. I've told him. I value what he does; I appreciate him. I would love to have things that he has. What he has done at Atletico, I don't think anyone will ever do. I don't think I will ever have the merit he has, anywhere. I would never dream of reaching that level and he has done it six years in a row, which is incredible. But I don't go to the cinema to see a horror film; I just don't like them.

I don't want people thinking I'm having a go at coaches like that; no, bloody hell, no I'm not. It's just not the football that fulfils me. I'd like to make that very clear because I know people want to make something of that but I rate Simeone enormously.

Setien admires Simeone, whose Atletico side visit Betis on Sunday, despite not liking his style of play.
Setien admires Simeone, whose Atletico side visit Betis on Sunday, despite not liking his style of play.

ESPN FC: Do you consider yourself counter-cultural?

Setien: No. There was a time as a player with lots of coaches when I did feel like that. On the pitch, I'd think 'bloody hell, what am I doing here?' Coaches come who convince you to do things you don't like, but you have to do them or you're not going to play. I always rebelled against that. I always wanted the ball to feet, I never booted it. I had a few confrontations with coaches but it's also true that I solved their problems for them: I would take the ball and score or provide a pass for a goal.

ESPN FC: As a coach have you had players like you?

Setien: Yes, and I understand them. Besides, they tend to be the players you get the best performances from. But it's not the same. Back then, [running] eight kilometres per game was enough; now you have to run 12 or be so, so good that the team is prepared to make up for that lack of work. The teams I've been at haven't had a player so good as to have that luxury. I tell them: 'the two, three moves you do every game is one thing, fine, but you stop there when you could do more'.

I've just had a tutorial with a player today and I said: 'look, you want to play for the national team but you can't walk through the game because the guy that's in the national team does what you do -- better -- and on top of that, he does what you don't do. He runs. He does it every day. And you think that because you do one thing well -- and it's true that you're every good at it -- you're going to play for the national team? If I was the national team manager and I watched you I'd say: "this guy can't come".'

ESPN FC: Does he understand it?

Setien: Of course. You show him the footage... and I tell him: 'I was the same.'

ESPN FC: Your style makes demands on players; it is risky. That must be hard. You're asking your goalkeeper to play, for example, when he never has before. At times he must be scared?

Setien: A player always tends towards what's comfortable. When you arrive, you talk to players. Here, in some cases, I didn't even need to as the predisposition was so good: some changed just by knowing who was coming because I'm identified with a certain way of playing. The player who's on summer holiday and reads that his team has signed this coach already knows. Some will love that; others will think 'shit, I'm the goalkeeper, I'm trembling.'

I said what I always say: give us a chance and keep in mind that all the errors you make will not be yours, they will be mine. If Adan saw there was any doubt that I would defend him if and when he makes a mistake, would he still play it? Would he hell! He'd hit it long. I'm responsible.

I told the players I'd judge willingness, not success. We do a lot of work reinforcing the idea because it's what the team needs. But I also tell them the amount of risk they're prepared to take on is for them to decide. There will be moments where you are more confident, other times when the ball comes and you'll thump it. No problem. We don't have to play every ball. What I do ask is for them to get this idea in our heads because it will help us and will be our way of playing.

ESPN FC: What if a player doesn't want to play that way or can't?

Setien: All players want this.

ESPN FC: You think?

Setien: Yes. It's easy to smash it long but if you can convince a centre-back to play, he'll end up being a better player than he is.

ESPN FC: But do they see it like that?

Setien: I'll explain.'You stay in your comfort zone? You're never going to sign for Barcelona. If what you do is the easy thing and boot the ball long, where are you going?' Lots of players don't know what they're really capable of doing until you show them.

I watched John Stones for Manchester City the other day and I thought: 'bloody hell, even he didn't know he could do that.' Or you watch Napoli and it's spectacular: the way they press, bring the ball out and take risks is wonderful. In the end, you see players who have been running all their lives and now they say: 'bloody hell, now I'm enjoying it.'

Sometimes you see players who can suddenly perform and you think: 'holy s---, where did that come from?' You wonder how they're suddenly so good. And it's because you give them something they like: the ball.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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