The Great Huescape?
Written by Ruairidh Barlow
“If anyone is assuming that Huesca are relegated, let them wait, let them prepare.”
And with that verbal projectile, Juan José Rojo Martín, better known as ‘Pacheta’, ignited the war furnace in upper Aragón. LaLiga’s bottom side, hopeless Huesca, had hope again. It seemed their tunnel was too deep and too dark to get out of, now at least they could see which way was up.
You could be forgiven for thinking they were down – 24 straight matchdays they spent in the drop zone. 14 of those were spent glued to the bottom of the table.
A large reason for that was their inability to finish. “Dominating the areas in reality [was their biggest problem]. The play was eye-catching but not effective,” signals Cristian Serrano of MARCA and Aragón Deporte. “It’s true that at points they were lacking luck, but in the end, it was a style with which the team never managed to adapt to the rhythm of the league.”
That inability to kill off games looked like it might be fatal. It took until their 13th outing to record a victory and regardless of the ‘sensations’ as is the popular refrain in Spain, sensations are only helpful if some sort of reward follows before they too decay.
“After dazzling all of Spain, I think the team began to fall into a sort of despair due to the lack of results. To play so well and not gain three points provokes frustration and, in the end, a certain melancholy,” as Huesca correspondent for Diario del Alto Aragón, Javier García Antón, sees it. He also noticed the moment that the melancholy seized control. “The Granada comeback, going from 3-1 up to 3-3, was a turning point and desperation took hold of the atmosphere. From believing, to not believing.”
Most people agreed that they weren’t the worst team in Spain. ‘Eye-catching’, ‘dazzling’, there was no inferiority complex. Antón described them as the team of ‘uyyy’ and ‘almost’. Three of their first four matches were draws against Villarreal, Valencia and Atlético Madrid. They had shown more than enough to mix it with the big boys – and probably kick a few of the smaller ones around too.
“It’s something the press in Huesca said often. I don’t think we were the worst team in LaLiga,” concurs Marcos García Díaz, host of the RincónAlcoraz podcast. “Cádiz and Elche have worse squads, but knew how to use their weapons better.” The grim spectre of the Granada match appeared for him too.
Having taken the lead twice, the tie was finely poised at 2-1 arriving into the final 10 minutes. The ball fell to veteran Shinji Okazaki after a mistake in the Granada defence and he chipped the goalkeeper from 40 yards out. As the ball sailed through the air, the tension was visibly released – deflating like a balloon. Relief was welcomed in a warm embrace.
Only then for it to be snatched away in stoppage time. At the 11th hour of the 11th attempt, Huesca were thwarted. It was the kind of defeat that kills belief. The media winced collectively – to have hope of survival, those games must be won.
Confidence is like a forest fire. What at first is one defeat, a small kindling, may not be serious. If allowed to burn unchecked however, it will spread through the mind fast. As the fire grows, plotting a way out of the woods becomes impossible. Regardless of previous experience, training or even knowing the route that must be taken, nothing can serve as preparation for that heat. The smoke obscures your vision and more so, your reason.
Constantly we are warned against basing analysis on results, yet they are the oxygen that everything else needs to continue. “It’s unfair but necessary” remarked CEO Manolo Torres as he thanked Míchel for his work in January.
“Inside the club there was a manifest satisfaction with Míchel’s way of doing things, his commitment to the club and his way of perceiving football. That philosophy, enjoying the ball, created a culture at Huesca,” Antón laments. “However, results are definitive and a reaction against the general sense of melancholy was necessary in order to have a chance of staying up. Míchel himself understood it.”
Enter Pacheta, stage left. He’s intense. He’s excited. Whatever he believes, he believes it so much that it’s hard to imagine he could be wrong. “If we win against Elche, we will become insujetable.” What? Journalists whipped out Google – no, that word doesn’t exist. The best translation would be unstoppable. After they won, he said it should be added to the dictionary.
“[When you’re on the ropes] it’s important that they see you have no doubts,” Pacheta told El Larguero. “The best coaches manage conflicts. It’s important that the squad see the positive things they are doing and after that, the weaknesses – we'll find a solution. With conviction, with facts, with energy, you have to convince them.”
How could you not be convinced by a man who doesn’t miss a beat when he invents words? “The SD Huesca of Pacheta competes first and plays after,” wrote Borja Palomar for Sphera Sports. It’s brought results. Just 12 games it took for Huesca to collect more points than they had done so in 18 with Míchel. They made it back out of the drop zone for the first time since matchday six with eight games to go.
What impressed Marcos García Díaz most about Pacheta was “his capacity to lift the team emotionally. Huesca had good players with Míchel, but they were missing someone like Pacheta to get the best out of them. He has also had a better understanding of where to position them on the pitch. Before, Rafa Mir played out wide and he barely had any opportunities to score goals.”
Nobody has felt the Pacheta effect more than Rafa Mir. A run of nine goals in 10 games made him Huesca’s record goal-scorer in LaLiga with 12. Gerard Moreno and Iago Aspas are the only Spaniards who have scored more. Mir grew up playing futsal and has plenty of technical ability. That adds to the intimidation factor.
“He’s the Haaland of the poor,” joked García on RincónAlcoraz. “It was just after the Dortmund-Sevilla match and [watching Mir] gave me the same feeling. Rafa Mir is very tall but also very fast. In that sense they are similar. Both use their physique as an advantage against their opponents and it works for them.”
It’s rare to see something that big come at you that fast. Undoubtedly there’s something in the comparison, particularly his effect on defenders. Both are accompanied by a fear that if he can get into stride, little can be done. In most cases, God grants an abundance of pace or power. Mir celebrates by imitating satanic horns in honour of his friend who suffered an accident. The menace Mir provides does seem unjust, demonic almost.
If being in possession of the pauper’s Haaland wasn’t enough, Huesca’s left-back was nicknamed ‘Rooney’ as he came through the ranks at Badajoz. More so for his stature than his style, Javi Galán does have a similar scuttle as he flies up and down the pitch. One of those invaluable full-backs who can cover an entire flank alone, he essentially provides a numerical advantage for his team.
According to fbref.com, Galán ranks top in tackles won, second for crosses into the penalty area and second for players dribbled past. The only player in LaLiga who has dribbled past more people is Lionel Messi. As football has realised in recent years, it’s hard to negate a full-back arriving at pace. So far Galán himself has proved just that; unstoppable.
Part of the motivation behind Pacheta’s tactical changes has been to give these stars maximum protagonism. “Pacheta has changed to a five-man defence and with the return of Pedro Mosquera, a central midfield which is the axis of the team, with quality in attack but also capable of containment. Before it was ‘uyyy’ and ‘almost’, now Huesca have more chances than their rivals. Effectively, Pacheta has gone for protection without forgoing the attacking side. Less eye-catching, more effective,” concludes Antón.
“The style is much better suited,” agrees Serrano. “The team is much more comfortable and defends a lot better. They still have their limitations in terms of quality but now the errors can be hidden.”
Huesca have changed under Pacheta, becoming stingy, punitory, a dark alley team. It might not be quite as nice to look at superficially, but confidence is attractive too. Something which is visibly coursing through their veins now. One passage of play saw Huesca scythe through Elche: one-touch then a back-heel by Mosquera followed by a rabona pass from Ferreiro.
Whether it will be enough, is hard to say. Games are running out and a heart-breaking defeat to fellow battlers Alavés, in a coin-flip game, was undoubtedly a shock to the system. Followed up a week later with a loss to Getafe, the impossible looks a lot more difficult now.
“It is tricky to make a prediction because everything is so equal,” deliberates Serrano. “It’s crucial they don’t concede many goals because goal-difference could be crucial. If Huesca’s rivals in the final few games aren’t playing for much, that could make survival more feasible.”
“I think Huesca will survive if they win three or four games [of the last seven],” according to García. “The problem is, the game against Alavés was one of them. I believe Huesca will survive if they continue to be solid in defence and in attack. It might sound a little obvious, but it’s what has worked for Pacheta.”
Antón remains optimistic. “Yes [they will stay up]. Although I know it is fe [belief], but belief moves mountains and Pacheta has become a prophet, full of courage and magnetism.”
In a way, his miracle is returning any of that fe to the fans. Because most people did think they were down. Pacheta has never said for certain that Huesca will avoid relegation, but has been firm in his message that “we are going to suffer right until the end.” His enthusiasm is intoxicating: it has resuscitated a team that had very little life left. Will they stay up? If Pacheta tells you Huesca are insujetable, then they’re insujetable.
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