In the grand scheme of things in La Liga, there have only been three teams that have mattered this season; Barcelona and the two Madrid’s. Barcelona have become the Harlem Globetrotters, Real Madrid are their usual soap opera and Atletico are Atletico. You would certainly be forgiven if you took a glance at the rest of Spanish football and went elsewhere.
But hidden under the jumbled mess below the top three is the continuation of a four year project that is one of the more fascinating you’ll see in Europe. Just by looking at GD and league positioning and you would be surprised why anyone would dedicate hundreds of words about Rayo Vallecano. 15th place and the 4th worst goal difference in the league. What’s so special about that?
Thinking in that sense would be simplifying what Rayo Vallecano have achieved over the last few years. Spanish teams not named Barcelona, Real Madrid or to a lesser extent Atletico Madrid are already at a huge disadvantage but Rayo Vallecano take it to the extreme. Their annual budget is reportedly around €7-8M. Most Ligue 1 teams don’t even have that low a budget. The way that Rayo acquire their talent is mostly through loans or free transfers and with such a low budget, it leaves them privy to losing their best player on a yearly basis. The likes of Coke, Michu, Alberto Bueno and Leo Baptistao have left the club over the last 4-5 years.
In a broad sense, there are two different ways to survive as a low budget team. You can go about it in the way like Angers in Ligue 1. You put all your eggs into a defensive system that suppresses shots at a crazy rate and hope that you can construct solid set pieces regularly to counteract deficiencies in open play. Or you can be like Wigan when Roberto Martinez was their manager, slant more towards a utopian style of football and hope that you’re not horrific enough defensively to survive.
Rayo certainly slant towards the latter. Throughout his time with Rayo Vallecano, Jémez has installed a concept known as Juego de Posicion. We don’t need to go through the gory details about it, so I’ll just leave this trusty link here if you want to examine it further. The best thing about Rayo Vallecano is no matter the opponent, their style of play doesn’t change. As a result of playing to win every time, very little Rayo Vallecano matches end in a draw. Over the last three completed season, Rayo have either had the least or second least draws in La Liga. This has led to a number of drubbings, including a 10-2 loss against Real Madrid and a 5-2 loss to Barcelona but both of those games involved Rayo taking an early lead through their proactive nature.
Despite the mad scientist way of thinking, Paco Jémez has managed to construct teams that are average to slightly above average in shot ratio. For a club that has such little in the way of money or assets this is a really impressive feat, especially when you consider a team like Valencia that have much more talented players are posting horrendous shot numbers.
Of course not everything is peaches and cream. This season Rayo Vallecano are conceding more shots per game from inside the box than in previous seasons which is concerning. I’m not privy to expected goal data from previous seasons with Rayo but on this season alone, the defense has been pretty damn bad though not as bad as what the goal tally suggests. The decline in defense could be managerial issues or perhaps not having enough talent this season compared to previous ones to work the pressing style effectively.
Something that’s pretty interesting to note with Paco Jémez has been his clubs not having save percentages that have approached league average. One could make the argument that the proactive nature of Rayo’s tactics can leave them exposed and concede high quality chances over and over again. Some of it might be valid. Only Levante have conceded more shots coming from counter attacks this season and Rayo rank in the bottom five in shots allowed coming from a danger zone pass. , two of the most advantageous ways to create high quality chances. Then again Marcelo Bielsa might be the most all or nothing manager you’ll find and in his two years at Athletic Bilbao, he had save percentages of 74.4% and 71.7% so maybe it could just be that Paco Jémez has been dealing with the bottom 10% of goalkeeping talent this entire time.
An interesting comparison that could be made with Paco Jémez is Mauricio Pochettino. At least in a simple way they have both constructed sides that press the opponent and if we look at a basic statistical comparison, we can see that there is some similarities between Poch’s time at Espanyol and what Paco is currently doing with Rayo Vallecano.
We know by now what’s happened to Mauricio Pochettino since leaving Espanyol: Southampton took a gamble on Poch, which was a really unpopular move at the time, and he could be managing a Premier League title winner in three months. Obviously this isn’t close to an exact science in terms of a comparison and I’m not privy to the exact details of how Espanyol played under Pochettino to make this comparison more apt, but I’d assume clubs could find ample footage of Espanyol matches under Pochettino and examine the differences/similarities much further than just shot numbers.
This is probably sticking my neck out there but I think Paco Jémez is a really good managerial prospect. He’s produced very impressive shot numbers considering the context involved while in a style that’s almost mini Barcelona, enough of an impressive feat that it got rave reviews from Pep Guardiola. In comparison to someone like Mark Hughes who doesn’t seem to elevate underlying numbers when given quality talent, I’m much more confident that Paco is the opposite. Of course there’s risks with hiring such a proactive manager and you would like to think that with considerably better talent around, he’ll be a bit more pragmatic in terms of knowing when to risk the balance of creating high quality chances through pressing versus conceding them.
There are a host of interesting medium-big clubs that could be on the hunt for a new manager this summer. Say Ronald Koeman decided he’s taken Southampton as far as he could and he’s sick and tired of his best players being poached up every summer window, Southampton could look at the success they had with Pochettino and think that Paco could achieve very similar things with a higher budget and a style that could be prone to greater positive variance. Other clubs likes Marseille, Roma, Lyon, Swansea would in their own ways fit the type of profile that Paco would want for his next gig. If the success of someone like Mauricio Pochettino is anything to go by, teams should be knocking on Paco Jémez’s door hoping that they could have one of the best up and coming managers be part of their future.