LaLiga has been exciting for many reasons this season with many teams shining. But one team especially has captured the limelight and illuminated the league above all: Step forward Rayo Vallecano.
The men from the passionate Madrid neigbourhood of Vallecas have lit up LaLiga with impressive performances to the point that Rayo sit in 6th place, a European berth, and amazingly are just a stone’s throw away from a Champions League position.
But how did they get to this lofty position, aiming to dine on the European table? Let’s put some context to the recent story of Rayo Vallecano.
In August 2020, a crucial cog in the Rayo wheel was installed: the appointment of Andoni Iraola. The former Athletic Club stalwart knows LaLiga inside out – playing 406 times in the competition across 12 successful seasons in Bilbao. And he has made the transition from right-back to right in the thick of it as a coach like that famous duck to water. But not before a hiccup.
He firstly cut his managerial teeth in Cyprus with AEK Larnaca. It was a baptism of fire as the fledgling boss suffered a run of nine matches without a win midway through his first season, culminating in the sack.
But setbacks pave the way for comebacks and he parachuted himself back into Spanish football with Mirandés. And what a comeback it was, with the second tier side reaching the semi-finals of the 2019/20 Copa del Rey, beating Celta de Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal along the way.
It was a club which rejuvenated Iraola and that summer he made the move to Madrid with Los Franjirrojos. It was here he grew as a coach and imposed his identity on the team: with the focus on high intensity allied to attractive football. A difficult juggling act in the rough-and-ready Segunda División.
However his philosophy and tactics shone as brightly as the lightning bolt on the club crest by achieving promotion to LaLiga in his first season. Rayo were back in the top flight and determined to make their mark and that they have certainly done.
With a progressive, forward-thinking young coach at the helm, Rayo reached a highly creditable Copa semi-final, narrowly losing to Real Betis on away goals, and a 12th place finish in their first season back in LaLiga. The impressive job he and the club have done given the limited resources in comparison to the rest of LaLiga is truly remarkable. They have outdone themselves again this season, proving unlikely challengers for a European position.
To date, Iraola has won 50 of his 119 matches in charge of Rayo with his team scoring 149 goals and boasting a goal difference of +19. His win ratio of 42% is admirable considering the budget of the club – their salary cap this season of 49.9 million euros ranks 15th. For context, 6th place in that table is Real Sociedad (the position Rayo currently occupies in LaLiga) with a cap of 134.2 million euros.
So how are the club well and truly punching above several weights? The solidity of the squad both on and off the pitch has galvanised Rayo. Iraola’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation has suited the team and allowed key players to flourish such as winger Isi Palazon (joint club top scorer with five goals and four assists), defensive wall Florian Lejeune (also chipping in with three goals), lynchpin Santi Comesaña (one goal but his conducting performances have been key to the Rayo axis) and striker Sergio Camello (five goals and three assists).
Iraola has knitted a team united with hunger and humility – adopting an intense press off the ball while producing some lovely football with it. Steel very much interwoven with silk. Even their high profile strikers Falcao and Raúl de Tomás have to acknowledge the system and the work hard ethos to earn game time. A tale of ‘hombres, no nombres’ (Men, not big names).
The team has one other big advantage pushing them on: Their passionate supporters, who are aiding the club’s European quest. Cheered on by their boisterous fans, especially at the rowdy Estadio de Vallecas, it is a tough proposition for visiting teams.
Just ask Real Madrid, who were vanquished 3-2 in a thriller in November. The fans sense a milestone season in the offing and how the team and fans are working in harmony to achieve that feat. A run of eight matches unbeaten either side of the World Cup coupled with notable wins at Villarreal, Sevilla and a draw at Atlético Madrid have sent a thunderbolt through LaLiga.
And the football world is taking note, especially when it comes to the coach with fevered speculation of Iraola potentially taking over as Leeds United manager only last week. It was a move which would have made sense from The Whites’ point of view with Iraola very much shaping his managerial traits on one Marcelo Bielsa – making him a prime candidate to take over a team that was built on the Argentine’s principles.
However Rayo will keep their man, for now at least, as Iraola has decided to remain loyal to the project until at least the end of the season (he is a man who usually signs one-year deals to assess his mini missions). His reported €10m buy out clause adds a further deterrent to interested parties. ‘Hands off’ is the watchword coming out of Vallecas. And why would they give up the chance to culminate a wonderful season?
On securing Rayo’s return to the top flight, Iraola enthused: “This promotion is for all the fans of Rayo that have suffered this (2020/21) season. We have the privilege to make the fans happy and today we have done that.”
Yesterday, today and the Rayo fans hope for the future is that their managerial magician Andoni Iraola, leading his band of brothers, can continue to enthuse the dreams at Vallecas delivering a Rayo of Light gleaming furthermore.