From Estadio de Vallecas
“Football belongs to the footballers, we are not that important. The players make us look better and I am lucky to have players who are showing their level. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t be achieving anything. I could also use that when we’re not getting the results (laughs), but I am clear about my role, they are the ones who are achieving this.”
Those were the words of Rayo Vallecano manager Andoni Iraola when he was asked whether he was aware of interest in him from the likes of Leeds United. He, or rather his players, have just raised the team with the sixth-lowest salary limit in La Liga to fifth in the table. Los Franjirrojos lie a mere three points off neighbours Atletico Madrid in fourth too. The salary limit of Los Colchoneros’ salary limit is just the 6.83 times of the side they share colours but little else with, in case you were wondering.
And it’s kind of true. It is not far-fetched to say now that some of La Liga’s best players ply their trade in Vallecas, at least in this Rayo team. Only six players assisted more often than Oscar Trejo last season. Fran Garcia has been deemed good enough to bring back to Real Madrid this summer, and Alvaro Garcia was receiving Spain shouts last season. It has barely been noticed that record signing and serious World Cup candidate (as of August) Raul de Tomas has played just 32 minutes of the six games since he was registered.
Cutting, chopping, darting, the unmistakably bald presence of Isi Palazon is amongst the finest sights in La Liga. Operating on his left from the right, coming inside and providing incision, comparisons to Lionel Messi are rolled out with a chuckle in toe, but the number of touches he takes in quick succession lend a little credence to them too. Isi is also one of the most creative players anywhere too.
Winning promotion via the playoffs two years ago after a sixth-place finish in Segunda, Rayo earned (more of) a cult following last season, their ballsy football keeping them at similar heights before an eventual ending up in 12th – a resounding success. Plucky underdogs in almost every match, it is a troublesome task for the mind to move the likes of Isi from niche pleasure into the territory of quality footballer without caveats. He is the latest to be tipped for La Roja though.
On Monday night, Vallecas was rocking. The Bukaneros ultras marched into the ground in a train formation and kept on chugging all night. The only quiet periods were at half-time and the deliberate pauses for the conductor to call out the audibles, right up until belting rendition of ‘Next year, Rayo-Liverpool’ after the final whistle. Rayo had dispatched Almeria 2-0 at home. There were less than 3,000 seats available. On a chilly Monday night kick-off at 9pm, between two of the division’s theoretically less glamorous sides, that hints that it was so much more than a mundane fixture though.
Tension has been commandeered almost without exception for the negative, but when Rayo are on song, it’s beautifully tense. It’s a tension full of anticipation and excitement, because nobody knows what is going to happen next.
Iraola has forged a side that is aggressive, plays well on the counter and makes ample use of the wings. When they go, they press well and high, when they play, they do so with ambition. But if there is perhaps one thing that perhaps differentiates Rayo from many sides, that lends Iraola credit beyond the results, it is the approach of his footballers.
Central defenders Florian Lejeune and Alejandro Catena are content whip a ball out to the opposite wing under pressure. Waiting on the touchline, Ivan Balliu and Garcia bound forward without questioning themselves, while the attacking minds work out where best they might hurt the opposing defence. Rayo play with confidence in their own ability.
The players are trusted to make decisions, to find solutions, and within a guidelines, play the situation rather than a rigid plan. Often managers prize moves becoming automatic, or in Spain, automatismos [automatisms], and Iraola has certain mechanisms drilled like clockwork. But you can can also players thinking, solving, and finding the best place for the ball to go in real-time. There is an electricity in their play, and you can sort of picture the cartoon lightbulb above Isi’s head.
Only chants demanding that President Raul Martin Presa leaves immediately betray that this is a club in anything other than rude health, in of itself a minor miracle. Part of that credit belongs to those within the club and the fans, yet Iraola has managed to isolate the football team from a club civil war that should, and has previously, had Rayo in turmoil.
Leeds United Sporting Director Victor Orta is in Madrid as of Tuesday night, with Iraola apparently on his mind for the vacant job in Yorkshire. If he lands back in England with the Basque manager next to him, Iraola has left Rayo and Vallecas rocking. Right now in La Liga, there is nowhere more fun to be and no side more fun to see than Rayo Vallecano.
Beautiful. Excellent write-up. Watching Rayo play this season is just breathtaking. They don’t give their opponents any time to breathe for 90+ minutes
Beautiful. Excellent write-up.
Watching Rayo play this season is just breathtaking. They don’t give their opponents any time to breathe for 90+ minutes