Last season, Rayo Vallecano came third in the Spanish league in terms of possession, fourth in passing accuracy and fifth in chances created, but eleventh in the league table. Surprising, isn’t it? Today, we find out more about the poorest side in La Liga as they embark on their fifth consecutive season in the top flight – a club record.
Take a train to the east of Madrid and you will find a slum, but get out and you can feel the working-class pride that inhabits the neighborhood of Vallekas. They have always considered themselves separate from Madrid; they were entirely left-wing when Franco was a right-wing monarchist and have not changed since.
Former José Ramón Sandoval once called Rayo “the last of the neighborhood teams”, and for good reason. Some teams might defend deep in their own territory against a bigger opponent to secure a draw or a win, but Rayo face their opponents as equals.
They represent the working-class ideals of their neighborhood by being brave from the first minute to the last, and to see them attack incessantly without any care for defending, though suicidal, produces some of the most entertaining football in the league.
And that’s why they are the last of the neighborhood teams – they don’t just play in their neighbourhood, they play for the neighbourhood. As the current Rayo manager, Paco Jémez explained –
At times of crisis, people spend money to see us play: we’ve got a responsibility to play nice football, otherwise what the hell are they spending their money for?
Maybe the biggest irony is not that Rayo Vallecano lose more than half their games each season – it’s that the coach, Paco Jémez, was a tough-tackling, all-action center-back. Capped for the national team 21 times, the former-defender’s tactical outlook confuses even Barcelona’s coach, Luis Enrique –
I never imagined that behind that tough center half there was a coach with such an attacking mentality
“Attacking mentality” is an understatement. With the full backs stationed almost as wingers,the midfielders passing and moving to devastating effect, sending in cross after cross, shot after shot, Rayo play almost the purest form of attacking football. Which is why they rely on interceptions and unfathomably high pressing to win the ball back.
Obviously, such a style of play means that conceding in bulk is inevitable, especially against the big teams. In the last few seasons, Rayo have been hit for six – twice at the Camp Nou, at the Balaidos, even at Valladolid. But the fans don’t care. As Paco quite rightly says –
If you’re going to lose by two, what difference does it make if you lose by five?
Málaga vs Rayo Vallecano – It’s 2012, Paco Jémez’s first season in charge and it’s a mess. Three wins and a draw from nine games leave them in 15th place.
Meanwhile, Málaga had lost just once in that same period, were 12 places above in the league table, were playing in the Champions League and hadn’t dropped a single point.
A team that contained Demichelis, Joaquín, Isco, Saviola, Camacho and Jesús Gámez, were beaten at home by a team that had cost a total of €0 to assemble.
The win was symbolic of a huge change in fortunes – Málaga were winless in their next four fixtures and Rayo were on the ascendancy, finishing in a record 8th place with a record 53 points – only to be cruelly denied a Europa League place due to financial difficulties.
Rayo Vallecano vs Almería – In the 2013-14 season Rayo had lost their entire defence and their top three goal scorers to bigger clubs, and were in the relegation zone for half the season.
With just 20 points from 25 games, everyone thought they were done for. But Paco stuck to his attacking ideas, and reaped the rewards.
They first won 1–0 against Valencia, followed by a 3–2 win at La Anoeta. And then, they produced some of the most breathtaking football in a 3–1 destruction of Almería, with passes so incisive and attacks so beautifully constructed that all that was left was walking the ball into the net.
They never looked back and finished in 12th place that season.
Rayo Vallecano vs Real Madrid – This game was one of those 25. Rayo Vallecano were a permanent resident of the relegation zone, it seemed, and Paco knew that a loss would mean being bottom of the league.
Defend for a point, or more? Not on your life. Real Madrid took a 3–0 lead to half-time, and already the critics had something to say – Rayo were crazy and foolish.
But a second half performance, including hitting the post twice – not including the two goals they actually did score – shook Real Madrid to their very core. Rayo had peppered 23 shots on Real Madrid’s goal, had 59% possession and drew 25 tackles from Real Madrid. Rayo camped in Madrid’s half and stayed there till the final whistle, to the sound of their fans cheering them on as they showed what they are made up of.
This season’s predictions
In recent years Rayo have always had an excellent second striker, such as Michu, Piti, or Alberto Bueno; this year they have Bebé and Luis Fariña – the former being the more likely candidate to succeed alongside compatriot Manucho, given his style of play, even if he isn’t really an efficient goal scorer.
That said, if there is one manager who can revive his ailing career, it’s Paco, who has done the same with Iago Falqué, Alejandro Domínguez, Jordi Amat, Jonathan Viera, Gaël Kakuta, Manucho…you name it.
Rayo Vallecano is an attractive place to play attractive football, but this season especially has seen La Liga teams strengthen really well.
However, Rayo’s starting XI has lost just one player from last season – an achievement in itself – and the bench has been upgraded in quality with the surprise transfers of Javi Guerra and Patrick Ebert. That kind of stability can only help the club.
Can Rayo improve on last season, where they were two points off 8th place at the end? Maybe not, but they will surely avoid the drop.