Paco Jémez’s Rayo Vallecano – La Liga’s unlikely trailblazers

The colourful Paco Jémez is approaching the end of his 4th season in charge of Rayo Vallecano. His ultra-attacking style has been branded foolish and naive in some quarters, particularly this season which has proved his toughest in charge of the Madrid club. However Jémez is the man responsible for guiding Rayo into their 5th consecutive campaign in La Liga, their longest ever unbroken run in the top flight and although few coaches are as radical, there have been signs that several clubs in the lower echelons of the league are starting to take inspiration from his successful methods.

In a country which is deeply fragmented and quite tribal, Rayo Vallecano are a unique club in that they are almost universally admired as one of the very few true community clubs left at the top end of the Spanish football ladder. They represent the working class barrio of Vallecas, a distant suburb of the Spanish capital which in football terms at least is overwhelmingly dominated by Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

Once a fortnight Rayo fans desert the nearby tower blocks and head for the steep terraces of Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas in the heart of the neighbourhood. However this is no ordinary working class, big city football team. Their fans are fiercely left-wing which is at odds with most of the Ultras groups in Spain and the link between the club and its supporters remains as tight as ever at a time when football fans across Europe’s major leagues are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with and distant from their club’s hierarchy.

The club is ahead of its time on issues such as racism and homophobia and this season the team don their rainbow-striped kit for away games in honour of what they describe as ‘society’s anonymous heroes’. The move has helped generate much debate about homophobia in Spanish football and further afield. In addition their third shirt features a pink stripe representing the fight against cancer and 5 Euros from every sale is donated to the cause, which is another tremendous gesture for a club that consistently struggles to make ends meet.

Barcelona proudly claim to be ‘more than a club’ but have become increasingly corporate over the past few years with rocketing ticket prices and mega sponsorship deals from abroad. There are other clubs in Spain that have admirable qualities and try to use their status for positive off-field means but none seem as genuine about it as Rayo Vallecano. They are the only club in La Liga and one of the few in Europe that doesn’t shy away from the big issues of the day and they are making a genuine attempt to provoke positive change rather than simply portraying themselves as ‘do-gooders’ while not really taking any sort of significant stand.

There are countless stories and tales of how Rayo have helped out closer to home to in their relatively impoverished local neighbourhood too and they are a fine example of how clubs can retain that link between club and community in an increasingly commercial age.

When you add to all that the attacking brand of football they have been playing under Jémez, which usually results in plenty of action and goals, you can clearly see how they have become a popular side with neutrals and developed a reputation as Spain’s footballing hipsters.

Those who remember Paco Jémez the player, could never have predicted the radical conversion into Head Coach that has taken place. During his playing days which included two brief spells with Rayo, he was an uncompromising central defensive tough nut with long scruffy golden locks. The pinnacle of his career came during a 6 year spell with Zaragoza when he helped the club to a 4th place finish in 1999-2000 and 2 Copa del Rey triumphs while earning 21 caps for Spain.

Nowadays the hair on the head is long gone and he roams the touchlines of Primera Division grounds in swanky suits sometimes sporting a precisely-trimmed goatee, barking orders that contrary to popular belief are a bit more wisely thought out than ‘attack, attack, attack!’. That said he has completely transformed from a more Northern-European styled central defender, who had little interest in passing the ball or getting forward and someone who scored just 2 goals during his entire career to a manager that rarely settles for a point and likes his teams to get forward and try to score goals at every opportunity.

Even his name has changed. During his playing days he was commonly referred to merely as Paco but his surname is now an essential part of his new coaching persona and he has won plenty of admirers, not least Pep Guardiola who has compared his philosophy to that of Barcelona and Bayern.

Of course trying to play like Barca or Bayern is easy enough when you have Barca or Bayern’s players at your disposal. Trying to play like Barcelona when you are Rayo Vallecano can at times have troublesome consequences as Rayo fans have found out at times but Jémez stubbornly refuses to budge to a more cautious approach and for the most part has been proved right to stick to his guns.

Jémez inherited a top-heavy side when he took over from José Ramón Sandoval in the summer of 2012. Rayo had just survived their first season in the top flight following an 8 year absence, which had seen them spend four years in the 3rd tier. They’d finished 15th, beating the drop by just 2 points with the best goalscoring record outside the top six but the worst defensive record in the league so to some extent Rayo’s cavalier approach was already firmly in place before his arrival.

Despite the departure of top scorer Michu, the former Cordoba boss managed to push Rayo onto the next level without tinkering too much with their entertaining style. In his first season in charge, Rayo achieved their best ever finish in Spain’s top flight by ending the season in 8th place. He managed to get the best of Piti, who netted 18 league goals despite having never previously reached double figures in any of his previous 6 seasons at the club, most of which were in the lower leagues. Rayo would have qualified for Europe were it not for financial problems and the departure of numerous key players at the end of the season including Piti has become a theme which Jémez has managed to adapt to on an annual basis with impressive ease.

12th and 11th placed finishes in the following two seasons followed as Rayo Vallecano defied the odds to finish well clear of any relegation drama while giving their fans excellent value for money with plenty of dramatic games. Those two seasons mirrored each other to some extent in that Rayo finished again with the worst defensive record in the league both times, conceding no less than 80 goals in the 2013-14 campaign. They were top scorers in the bottom half in both seasons though with Jémez’s philosophy being to target 3 points for the win rather than merely settle for draws even away from home.

Over the first three seasons of his time as Head Coach in Vallecas, Rayo drew just 13 of their 114 league matches. Roughly 8 in every 9 Rayo games ended with a winner, which is an almost unprecedentedly high percentage over such a long period in a top league, particularly coming from a mid-table side that one might assume would be involved in plenty of draws. Mid-table Deportivo La Coruna for example have already drawn 15 of their 29 league games this season.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Jémez’s line of thinking though and his approach of trying to win an extra 2 points even if it means risking losing one was exactly what football’s law-makers hoped to achieve when they introduced ‘3 points for a win’ throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

It has taken a while but it seems Jémez’s way is finally starting to rub off on other managers at the bottom end of La Liga too. Last season saw all 3 promoted clubs come up with cautious mentalities that did little to add to the excitement of the league. Cordoba were relegated with a pitiful 22 goals while Eibar were also fairly toothless in attack and would also have gone down were it not for Elche’s financial problems. Deportivo La Coruna, the other newly promoted club avoided the bottom three by virtue of a better ‘head to head record’, as did Granada who also failed to hit the 30 goal mark and finished along with Depor as the division’s draw specialists.

Depor, Eibar and Granada all stayed up with just 35 points but perhaps realised they might not be so fortunate this time around. There is a hint of irony in the season when Jémez’s Rayo are struggling more than they have in the past 3 years, other teams are finding success with methods that come closer to the more offensive tactics employed by Jémez.

Eibar have undergone a radical transformation into an attacking side that until only a few weeks ago had the 3rd best goalscoring record in La Liga behind Barca and Los Blancos. They remain just 1 place off the Europa League places having been all but written off before a ball was kicked.

Granada are also giving it a real good go and have already bettered their goals tally from last year with 9 games to play. Newly promoted Las Palmas and Sporting Gijon have displayed far more positivity than newly promoted clubs of the last few years and both average more than a goal per game this season, a feat that not one side in the bottom eight managed last term.

Few managers have become as bold or even radical as Jémez who pushes his wide men into roles as advanced as his principal centre forward, which has been the impressive Javi Guerra for most of this campaign. However La Liga’s oddball manager has become an unlikely trail-blazer and were it not for his own team’s struggles this term, might finally be getting the credit he deserves for developing what has arguably become the new blueprint for small clubs hoping to compete in La Liga and most importantly stay in it.

That willingness to break from the norm is the one thing that hasn’t changed between Jémez’s playing days and his managerial career and he is clearly someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the often fairly rigid Spanish mould of how football should be played or coached. That perhaps helps explain why Jémez has gained admirers abroad but retains some bizarrely fierce critics in the Spanish media and this season they have had fresh ammunition for their criticism with Rayo languishing in 16th place and for the 3rd season running having the worst defensive record in La Liga.

One reason for those critics is their results against the ‘big two’. Rayo are a small club that rarely makes headlines even in their own city and the only time they are really thrust into the spotlight is when they play either Real or Barca. The almost universal theory outside the top six to eight teams in La Liga is that when you play either club you simply park the bus, try to keep eleven on the pitch and hope for the best. That notion almost seems to be pushed by the media, most of which leans strongly towards one of the two giants but it is not one that Paco Jémez subscribes too.

His approach is certainly refreshing and in many countries would be widely revered but not so in the highly tactical Spanish league and there are those who view his tactics against sides clearly superior to his as bordering on footballing suicide. His team have played Real Madrid away and Barca home and away this term already and have netted 5 goals in those 3 games, which is pretty impressive for a struggling team. The problem though is that they finished two of those games with 9 men and conceded 20 goals in the process including a 10-2 mauling at the Bernabeu. Contrast that to neighbours Atletico Madrid who have conceded just 12 times all season and whose approach under Diego Simeone is the footballing polar opposite of that of Jémez yet both men have led their clubs to unprecedented periods of success.

Critics would argue correctly that 10 goal wins reflect badly on the strength of a competition that is vying for global television audiences and the right to be viewed as the best football league in the world. Jémez has lost all 15 league games against Real and Barca during his time as Rayo Vallecano boss and perhaps his approach to such games is naive but it’s hard not to admire his determination to stick to his principles. His doubters might be wise to pay a bit more attention to the other 34 games each season when Rayo’s unapologetically offensive approach regularly pays dividends.

Jémez has had to field questions this year about why the club is struggling so much when in reality the line of questioning should be more along the lines of why they have been over-achieving for so long with a budget that is the 2nd lowest in La Liga. They should be perennial relegation candidates but this is the first season of his rule they are truly battling to beat the drop.

They’d most likely have a few more points this season were it not for an injury crisis that is severely hampering their battle for survival. They have been without as many as 10 members of their first-team squad in recent weeks but despite the absentees which for over a month included top scorer Javi Guerra, they have scored at least once in all of their last 11 league matches and had gone 7 matches unbeaten prior to their defeat to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago.

Although the threat of relegation with 9 games to go is very clear, there is no danger of Rayo altering their style in a last gasp bid to beat the drop. If Rayo, who are currently 16th, are going to survive they will do it the Jémez way and to that objective their next two games are going to be crucial with a tough run of matches following that.

Their next two outings see themselves host a woefully out-of-form Getafe, who are 17th following this weekend’s crunch trip to the side directly below them Granada. If Rayo can find a couple of wins they will stand a great chance of extending their stay in the Primera Division into a 6th season. If they don’t then Rayo’s top flight adventure will be in serious danger of reaching a painful conclusion and La Liga would certainly be a less colourful place without Rayo and Paco Jémez next season.

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