Champions League Football or not, this team is special: Jose Bordalas’ Getafe and the Defensive Masterclass!
Story So far
Getafe’s current era can easily be considered the best in the club’s history although it is true that history in this context doesn’t account for a vast period of time. Having been founded in 1983, the club based out of Madrid have been around only for 37 years and out of which only 14 years have been spent in the top most flight of Spain.
Yes as shocking as it is, they had made their La Liga debut not too long ago in 2004, when they finished 13th in the table. In the consequent years, Getafe pretty much spent most of their time in the first division in the bottom half of the table. The 2015–16 season is when it went from bad to worse as they had slipped into the relegation zone and couldn’t manage to get out of it and hence heading into the Segunda division for the 2016–17 season.
Enter José Bordalás
Getafe were promoted for the very next season finishing third in the 2016–17 Segunda division. The following season in 2017–18 was when the revolution had begun with Bordalas laying the first few bricks of the squad which is as competitive as it can get today. The growth shown by Getafe over the three years has simply been unreal, especially given that there has been no budget whatsoever. Under Bordalas, Getafe have signed up those who would go on to become key players like David Soria, Nemanja Maksimovic, Leandro Cabrera, Mauro Arambarri, Jaime Mata, Allan Nyom & Djene Dakonam with none of the players exceeding 5 million. There have also been intelligent loan moves with likes of Cucurella, Jason stepping in and becoming crucial players for Getafe this season.
In the current season, Getafe are competing with the likes of those teams who are regularly a part of the elite European competitions like Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and if things go as planned, Bordalas might even lead his team into next year’s UEFA Champions League. Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about a club which has a chance to be part of a competition which comprises of competitors with 10–15 times more budget, that’s massive!
It is simply Bordalas’ trust, confidence and clarity in his idea of football that has allowed him to create the kind of magic he has. While there are many examples of his words reflecting his idea of football, this is probably the simplest yet most effective of them:
“What’s the point of having 30 touches in your half of the pitch without moving forward? People have started to confuse lengthy possession with good football”
While there is a set of football purists who would absolutely disagree with these words, one of the biggest catalysts of the so-called beautiful football, Frenkie De Jong says this about him
“They don’t play to entertain the fans. Watching their matches annoy me.”
There are two aspects to talk about when we look at Getafe play. Does it look beautiful? May be not. Is it effective? Yes. However, we need to remember that, all those which may not look beautiful doesn’t necessarily mean is easily done. As a matter of fact, Getafe are actually one of the most adventurous sides in Europe in my opinion, given the high-risk system of defense they deploy, which can go either way if not executed to perfection.
Getafe maintain a traditional narrow 4–4–2 shape which is closely knit and move horizontally or vertically together as one unit. For every area of the pitch that the ball is moved into, Getafe’s entire set of 10 players make a movement to defend in that space without breaking their 4–4–2 shape. In other words, Bordalas believes in control of space and particularly in control of key areas instead of trying to defending the entirety of the pitch.
There is a popular quote from one of the disciples of Total Football whose principles many coaches across the World are trying to bring in, Johan Cruyff. He had said,
“What is defending? Defending is a matter of how much space I should defend. Everything is a matter of meters, that’s all.”
He had also explained the same further with an example of defending in a bedroom vs defending in a playground. If you are defending 1v1 against an attacker within a bedroom, you are likely to win the ball easily as the attacker doesn’t have much space within the room, to run away from you. While in a playground, he has a lot more space than a bedroom which makes it difficult for you to defend as he can run literally into any direction to get away from you. Intentionally or not, Getafe’s defending philosophy largely is derived from the same as Bordalas has also made his team one of the most solid defences in the World by limiting the space for the opponent. Getafe have the 3rd Highest number of cleansheets in Europe’s top five leagues and the 2nd highest number of cleansheets within La Liga, second only to Real Madrid. So, how exactly do Getafe get the job done?
Let us have a look at their defending in different phases of the pitch:
Getafe deploy a man-oriented approach in the attacking-third, ensuring there are no free passing options for the opponent to seamlessly play out from the back. Their front-two along with two wide midfielders allows them to mark all of the opponent’s back four. Their objective is to force their opponent goal-keepers to hoof it over the top with the hope of winning the aerial duels against the Getafe centre-backs. Yes, Getafe’s center-backs might not win every aerial duel in a game and there are chances that the opponent can succeed on several occasions as well but it is a highly uncertain scenario which most teams don’t prefer to be in, especially the ones who like to keep hold of possession.
When the goalkeeper is in possession scanning the field for passing options, Getafe are more than happy to wait for him to make the decision. There is no urgency and would focus only on keeping the opponents, especially those who are responsible to build-up from the back, tightly marked. The patterns are pretty much the same across all games irrespective of the opponents. Not only the opponent’s back-four is marked by Getafe’s strikers and wide midfielders, but their two central midfielders (usually Arambarri and Maksimovic) would also press the opponent’s central midfielders directly. However the only question here would be if there’s a single-pivot or a double-pivot. In case of a single-pivot, Getafe would send Maksimovic high up to mark the defensive midfielder while Arrambari stays back along with the other central midfielder. While all of these are happening in the opponent’s defensive-third, Getafe’s back line pushes as high as possible to keep the opponent’s attackers within their own half.
This makes it extremely tempting for the opponents to try and beat the offside trap simply because of the fact that a perfectly-weighted pass coupled with blistering pace from the attackers can catch Getafe off-guard. But given the kind of intensity in Getafe’s pressing, there is hardly any time for the opponent to look up, scan and deliver a pass with perfect-weight. To make it furthermore difficult, there are quality center-backs like Djene Dakonam organizing the defensive line to maintain the offside trap and goalkeeper David Soria playing the sweeper-keeper role. Getafe boast the 2nd highest number of offsides across Europe’s top-five leagues having caught the opponents offside 90 times over 30 games in La Liga (3 per game). Only Atletico Madrid have had a more successful offside trap with 3.2 per game over 30 games in La Liga.
Major share of Getafe’s pressing happens in the middle-third of the pitch. We had seen how Bordalas’ men try to win the ball as high up the field as possible. However, if opponents manage to use the goalkeeper as the extra man and play out from the back, here is where Getafe are going to increase the intensity of pressing even more and try to win back possession. As mentioned before, Getafe’s high-line forces the opponent to play within a limited area and this in-turn makes it difficult for the opponents to hold the ball in this area of the pitch. When the opponents hold the ball in the middle-third of the pitch, the idea is to give the opponent two options to choose from:
a) Go for the killer pass over the top or in behind the Getafe defence and create a threatening chance at the risk of losing possession
b) Go back to your defenders/goalkeeper to try and pull Getafe out of position at the risk of being pressed by Getafe and losing the ball in dangerous areas in the final-third
There are different ways by which you can approach your opponent when they are in possession. In modern football, most of you should be aware of how teams like Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich approach, high and intense pressure in the attacking-third, completely pushing the opponent’s back to the wall. Another approach is the direct opposite wherein teams invite pressure, absorb and wait for opponents to commit men forward to hit them on the counter. In Getafe’s case, the maximum pressing and intensity happens in the middle-third. With the defensive line being high and tight man-marking being deployed in the attacking third, you can imagine this approach of pressing to have some sort of a sandwich effect on the opponent to squeeze them in the middle-third and win the ball back.
Here is a graph comprising of the top 30 players in La Liga with the most pressures in the middle-third. As you can see, three of the top four in the entire league belong to Getafe and to be more precise, belong to Getafe’s midfield line.
Getafe also have the 2nd lowest PPDA (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action) in Europe’s top-five leagues with 6.99. In other words, not more than an average of 7 passes will be allowed to made by the opponent without Getafe applying pressure.
Defensive Third and Penalty Area:
Unlike the usual way in which teams maintain their defensive diligence, Getafe refuse to sit back even after the opponent has entered the final-third after having overcome all of the challenges that they had thrown. But in case, a team does do it a handful number of times in a game, Getafe still stick to maintaining a high and narrow defensive line to catch the opponent offside. It is not often you see teams, especially those without the big paychecks, to be bold enough to maintain their back-four at the edge of the penalty area with attackers of world-class ability in possession of the ball right in front of them. It actually depends on whom you watch, if Getafe are one of the teams you watch regularly, then you may find this pretty normal because this is exactly how Bordalas’ men deal with their opponents in possession of the ball in the final-third.
Getafe have conceded 2nd least shots in Europe’s top-five leagues with 7.4 shots per game over 30 games, which adds up to 222 shots. Only Pep Guardiola’s Man City have conceded lesser shots than Getafe with 7.2 shots per game over 30 games, adding up to 216 shots. The simplest way to measure your defensive system’s success is to look at how much you let your opponent shoot and Getafe along with Man City have been Europe’s best in this aspect. Ironically, one is a master of possession while the Getafe cannot care less about possession. This is the beauty of football, 1 objective and many ways to do it, nobody is right, nobody is wrong!
Getafe have also allowed the 2nd lowest number of passes within 20 yards from goal (crosses excluded). The main reason why Getafe have been able to achieve this is pretty much down to their high-risk approach towards defense in every situation as we have seen thus far. Having used the words high-risk and defense together once again, let me tell explain what it means.
This basically means is that Getafe are okay to take a risk of conceding a dangerous scoring opportunity if there is an equal chance of winning back possession or the attack becoming a damp squib. This has been the idea at a macro level, behind all of their actions at every area of the pitch. So if conceding a scoring opportunity and killing off the attack is of a 50–50 probability and yet Getafe have been able to be at the favourable side of things, it simply means that the plans that were drawn up were, in most cases, executed perfectly. In case they are able to succeed in forcing the opponent go backwards, Getafe immediately push up to get back to square one and limit the space.
It is also true that Getafe have committed the highest number of fouls amongst Europe’s top-five leagues with 18.8 fouls per game over 30 games. In accordance with the same, they are also the team who have been booked the most amongst Europe’s top-five leagues with 103 yellow cards and 3 red cards over 30 games. This is an average of 3 yellows per game. To understand how this has been instrumental to them, let us have a look at their average possession which is at 46%, this means that Getafe’s opponents average 54% possession. In other words, opponent has the ball for roughly 49 of the 90 minutes in a game. With 18.8 fouls committed per game, it means that Getafe commit a foul every 2.6 minutes of their opponents in possession. Imagine being the opponent and having to restart the play 18 times every 2–3 minutes, it is that many times Getafe get a chance to reorganize their defense and be set to face the attack. Talk about Dark Arts! We may not be able to call set-pieces exactly as Dark Arts but it is yet another area where teams could score if they aren’t able to penetrate Getafe in open play but even in that aspect, Getafe have conceded the least amount of goals from set-pieces in La Liga (5). It is also among Europe’s least!
Jaime Mata has the second most fouls amongst Europe’s top-five leagues with 2.7 fouls per game or 69 fouls over 26 games. To give you a perspective of how big this number is, let us take a player who’s known for his mastery in breaking-up play, say Casemiro. Casemiro is the only player in Europe’s top-five leagues with more fouls than Jaime Mata with 77 fouls over 28 games. However, let us remember that we are talking about a striker in Jaime Mata, not a defensive midfielder who gets into duels regularly or a full back who faces tricky wingers every now and then. Although there aren’t exact numbers available, it is true from a naked-eye level observation that most of the fouls committed by Getafe are in the attacking-half than their own half.
Goalkeeper David Soria, an unsung hero!
For Bordalas’ system to succeed, the goalkeeper is also an important piece in the jigsaw and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that David Soria has more than lived up to the expectations. The Spaniard has executed his role to perfection in making Getafe one of the best defenses in Europe. So, what is his role actually? One can imagine that Soria wouldn’t be on the receiving end of complex instructions as his job has been pretty simple; A nonsense, risk-free methodology. If the ball isn’t front of Getafe’s organized two banks of four, it should either be in the goalkeeper’s hands or as far away as possible from their penalty area, there is absolutely no middle-way to this. Given that Getafe hold a surprisingly high-line, Soria needs to be on his toes and absolutely in sync with the Getafe defense while being the sweeper at the back. This is the one area where there is no room for error as if Soria stays put in position and the offside trap is beaten, its pretty much 1v1 for the attacker in acres of space and ample amount of time. So, the system demands that Soria steps out often to sweep out those attacks which beat the offside trap and the Getafe goalkeeper has been one of the best sweeper-keepers across Europe this season.
Soria also has the highest % of long passes (passes more than 40 yards) amongst all goalkeepers across Europe’s top-five leagues at 85.5% with Ben Foster being at a distant second with 79%. These passes exclude goal-kicks, so that should give you an idea about what is asked of Soria on the ball. He also has the highest average length of passes amongst all goalkeepers across Europe’s top-five leagues, at 58 yards. The idea here is to push the ball as high up the pitch as possible so that Getafe’s back four can also push as high up the pitch as possible and they are once again there where they like to be, squeezing the opponent for space.
Jose Bordalas: A crazy man who loves football!
I had come across this wonderful quote from one of the former players who played under Jose Bordalas about his behaviour in the dressing room:
“He calls in the defenders first: breaks a TV. He calls in the midfielders, breaks a light. He calls in the strikers, breaks a sofa.”
While Javier Hernandez, a journalist from Diario AS said,
“Bordalas never tolerates bad behaviour. If one of his players were to kick a water bottle in anger or complained to the referee or looked bitterly at a teammate, he’d be out. It happened with Alvaro Jimenez, a young guy from Andalucia, who he shipped out on loan [to Sporting Gijon]. He can’t handle lack of respect. He demands order."
It is probably not just Bordalas’ passion for the game but a necessity to ensure his team stays focused, consider themselves as warriors and the football pitch as a battlefield. It would indeed be an honour to have them in the UEFA Champions League next season. Even if they don’t qualify, it is safe to say it is indeed a matter of time before it happens!