European Football

2021/22 LaLiga Stories Part 5: The Mighty Rayo

How a small team from a barrio in southern Madrid are taking on the giants this season…

In Part 4, we looked at one of the best stories of the season for one of the teams outside of the top four. Now, we will look at the team that might be the surprise of the season.

Many new fans may have looked at the LaLiga table this season expecting the same teams at the top. They might have looked further down the table when they realized those same teams were not at the top. And then they stumble across one position in particular, and they all ask themselves the same question:

Who in the world are Rayo Vallecano?

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Possibly the surprise team of the first half of the season, Rayo Vallecano, newly promoted from the Segunda División last season, have dramatically punched above their weight this season. A small team, possibly the last true “neighborhood team” in Spain, Rayo hail from the southern Madrid barrio of Vallecas, a strongly working class and politically left-leaning area of the city that prides itself in how different it is from the capital city that it has been incorporated into. They might be the football hipster’s new favorite team, one that is making the most of their talent while pairing it with a notably passionate and community-serving fanbase and a raucous home atmosphere at the quite-literally-falling-apart Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. The stories about this football team are endless, from the lone man who runs their ticket office to the team and supporters funding the livelihood of an 85-year-old woman who was evicted from her home in Vallecas, there is plenty to love about this club.

Now, I do not wish for this to be an endorsement of the current administration running Rayo. I am going to address this from the start. Club owner Raúl Martín Presa has had his fair share of controversy surrounding him, and I most certainly do not endorse his choice to hire current Rayo Femenino (women’s team) coach Carlos Santiso. I will attempt here to praise the players, team, cultural institution, and community around the club without praising the institution itself or those who run it.

On the pitch, Rayo are fun. They are so much fun. They might not always be effective, but you have fun watching them. You would never know they were a small, poorly-resourced club based on how they play, being a team that actively plays on the front foot, presses high, and plays with unending energy and pace. This all starts with their manager, one whom might be a rising star in the football world.

The second-youngest manager in the league, 39 year old Andoni Iraola is the architect of this magnificently-fiery team. A club legend at Athletic Club during his playing days, the Basque manager has certainly taken inspiration from the two managers he worked with during the tail end of his Athletic tenure, specifically one Marcelo Bielsa. While he has not gone fully down the “Bielsa disciple” route, he still employs similar philosophies regarding intensity in the press and very direct attacking. These philosophies helped Rayo win promotion last season and have certainly paid off this season, especially when playing at home, and he is the mastermind behind the team’s shock potential run at a European place and strong run to the Copa del Rey semifinal.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Rayo’s success seems to revolve around three people, and no, none of them necessarily are Radamel Falcao. The central figure within the team is club captain Óscar Trejo, the number 10 in the team (even though he actually wears the number eight on his back) that pulls the strings and makes things happen. While much of Rayo’s attacks come down the wings, Trejo is the midfielder who is able to get on the ball and play those searching, line-breaking passes to dangerous players and create chances or assist goals. His passing range and sense of where to be is so effective that Trejo actually leads LaLiga in assists with nine in 20 games, as of time of writing, and is among the league leaders in Shot-Creating Actions and Goal-Creating Actions. The 33-year-old Argentine might be in the twilight of his career, but he is certainly showing that there is plenty of game left in him, and it is probably not an exaggeration to call Trejo one of the best attacking players in the league this season.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

While I did say that Rayo’s main outlet for attacking is down the wing, much of that does come specifically down the left wing (ironically), with a duo of a winger and left back that I have dubbed “the Garcías”. Veteran winger Álvaro García and young left back Fran García, whom are to my knowledge not related but I could be wrong on that, have lit up the league so far this season with their strong chemistry and shared dynamic, lightning-quick pace. Álvaro is Rayo’s leading goalscorer in all competitions this season, and he is also interestingly first in the league in crosses, while Fran García is also in the top 10 in the same category.

While Álvaro is not quite the creator, definitely not so when compared to Trejo, he is someone who is dangerous when going forward, especially when attacking with the pace and intensity that Iraola demands from his team. While much of Rayo’s attack can be rotated, especially at striker, Álvaro has been, alongside Trejo, the thread of consistency and continuity that runs through the attack. He has been key for Rayo this season.

The youngster among the veterans is 22 year old left back Fran García. A product of Real Madrid’s La Fábrica academy, Fran was loaned out to Rayo last season and aided in their promotion to the top flight, which earned him a permanent move (with a buyback clause inserted by Real Madrid) last summer. He has been immovable within the Rayo team, being central to their deadly attack down the left and forming a great partnership with similarly-surnamed Álvaro García. Fran has actually, as of time of writing, played the most minutes this season in all competitions of any player in the Rayo team, which shows just how valuable he has been and just how much Iraola trusts him. If he keeps up this level of performance, I do not doubt that Real Madrid might come back for him very soon.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

So where does that leave El Tigre? Radamel Falcao’s move to Vallecas in the summer certainly caught many eyes within LaLiga, even if it did float a bit under the radar in the grand scheme of the European Summer Transfer Window. Falcao remains quite a big name in the world of football, and his exploits in LaLiga with Atlético Madrid certainly remain in the memories of fans. So has he been central to Rayo’s success this season? Well, sort of.

Falcao is currently Rayo’s joint-second leading scorer in all competitions with five goals, level with fellow striker Sergi Guardiola (who is not related to Pep). The Colombian has, interestingly, reached that tally in only 17 appearances. Falcao himself has only played around 650 minutes of football in all competitions this season, as of time of writing, which is the equivalent of playing a little over seven games for a full 90 minutes. Rayo have used 29 players in all competitions this season, with Falcao’s minutes total putting him 11th from the bottom of the list of most-played Rayo players this season. This probably should be expected, as the Colombian is now 36 years old and certainly cannot be relied upon to be a central player who plays significant minutes.

But maybe the story here is just how effective Falcao has been able to be in the time he is on the pitch. Being second in the team in goals while being 19th in minutes played is quite a dichotomy of stats, and it might show how he is being used when he is most potent and able to contribute. The ability for Iraola to rotate between playing Falcao and Guardiola at striker allows him to always utilize the fresh player, and whichever player does not start suddenly becomes a dangerous option as a substitute. It is something that Iraola highlighted in a piece that he wrote for The Coaches’ Voice (which you can read here) where he talked about Falcao being a player who does not demand special treatment or increased playing time, one who understands his place within the collective and knows that collective success leads to individual success. We are seeing those principles in action with Rayo this season, and it seems to be another sign of success for Iraola as a coach.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Rayo have certainly over-performed in the first half of the season, riding a wave of optimism and strong home performances to being comfortably in the top half of the table and within a shout to finish in a European place and potentially reach a Copa del Rey final. Will they? You would not bet on them. Iraola has said himself that he does expect the performances to level out. But you certainly would acknowledge that the possibility is there. Football is a beautiful and crazy sport, one where we never quite know what can happen next at times.

If there is any team that can upset the apple cart, any team that can gate-crash the party and get their seat at the opulent dining table that is the European places, it might just be the barrio boys from Vallecas.

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