Rayo Vallecano are having a discrete 19/20 season. After being relegated last season, they sit in the 10th position, just three points away from the promotion playoffs positions with a game in hand. They are proving to be a solid team and the difference between them and the top teams seems to be their excessive amount of draws (16 in 30 matches).
The man in charge of pursuing the come-back to La Liga is none other than Paco Jemez. He took charge of the team in the last 10 matches of last season and couldn’t save them from relegation, his second one with Rayo after the one in 2016.
Known for the all-attack, almost suicide style he used in the past, Jémez is a controversial figure in Spanish football. His advocates praise the adherence to his principles regardless of the opposition and his entertaining football. His detractors point out his naivety and his poor record at the highest level – Jémez has lost 52% of the matches he coached in La Liga, the worst register for coaches with more than 150 matches.
But this season Jémez seems to have found some stability without giving up his principles. Rayo have scored 37 goals (8th best) from 41.64 xG (2nd best), so their game seems to be generating enough to reach higher positions. Also, they have only conceded 32 goals (6th best), ending the debate about Jémez tactics defensive issues. This tactical analysis will take a look at the tactics and the philosophy behind these performances.
Rayo Vallecano’s most used formations on paper are 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1. They change their formation depending on the game phase. We can often see them in a 3-4-3 in the build-up or a 4-4-2 in certain moments.
The figure below shows Rayo’s average positioning and the most repeated passes. The clearest thing to take away from this is the isolation of their lone striker and their build-up diamond formed by the goalkeeper, the centre-backs and the defensive midfielder.
Alternatives to play from the back
Jémez’s Rayo triy to play from the back. In the build-up phase, they change their formation to a 3-4-3. The back-three is formed by one of the central midfielders dropping between the centre-backs. The midfield-four consists of the remaining central midfielder and the attacking midfielder in the centre and both full-backs pushing forward on the wings. Finally, the attacking-three is formed by the striker and both wingers, who usually leave the touchline to come into more central zones.
When in this 3-4-3 formation, the goalkeeper looks to play short and then the back three play short passes between them to attract the pressure. Depending on the shape of the opposition pressure, they have different ways of advancing.
If the rivals try to close the spaces down the middle, Rayo Vallecano’s wingers come inside to create spaces for their full-backs and the central midfielders overload one of the sides of the pitch. Then they attract pressure to that side and move quickly to the other side for the full-back to take advantage of the spaces created. The pace of the right-back Luis Advíncula is usually one of the main threats in open spaces.
In the example below, Rayo start their attack from the left, putting both central midfielders on that side of the pitch. When the opposition moves to press, their back three play quick passes to move the ball to the right and find the unmarked full-back who then has space to use his pace to run with the ball. The 3-4-3 formation can be seen here too.
When rivals choose to press in a wider formation and leave more spaces in the middle, Rayo change the way they play from the back. They try to find their central midfielders and that pass triggers the run of the full-back, who is free to receive a quick layoff and continue his run. This is a riskier option and the full-back who is not involved in the build-up usually steps down to form a back-four to defend a possible turnover.
This is seen in the example below. The original back three attracts pressure and one of the central midfielders approaches looking to receive the ball. As soon as the pass is played, the full-back rushes forward to receives the layoff. Two important details that allow all this to happen occur off the ball. The left-back leaves his original position (marked pink) and steps down to defend a possible turnover, and the right-winger (out of the picture) stays close to the opposition full-back to generate space.
But there’s still a third way Jémez uses to start attacks when pressed. When the pressure makes it impossible to use any of the alternatives mentioned above, Rayo Vallecano use a more direct approach. They still attract pressure passing between the back three and when the pressure is too intense they play direct balls to their striker. As the opposition commits numbers forward to press, Rayo find it easier to win second balls moving the whole team forward. They usually use powerful target-man strikers like Leo Ulloa (former Leicester City) or Yacine Qasmi (former PSG).
In the picture below we can see a good number of Rayo Vallecano players running towards their striker after finding him with a direct ball. This increases their chances of winning second balls and also makes it easier to press if they don’t.
Once Rayo beat pressure and reach the final third, their tempo radically changes. From the slow short passing they use to attract pressure and build from the back, they change to an aggressive and direct approach, looking to take advantage of the spaces created.
Rayo Vallecano rarely use the middle of the pitch to attack. They prefer to overload the middle and create spaces to play on the flanks, where their full-backs and wingers can create danger with their dribbling and crosses. In fact, they are the second team who uses the middle the least in their attacks. Below we can see the distribution of their attacks.
When the opposition doesn’t press and Rayo Vallecano reach the final third without beating any lines, they use similar plays like the ones explained for the build-up. Wingers come inside and look to receive the ball, drag their markers out of position and play quick layoffs to the running full-backs. If they can’t receive the ball because of the opposition closing down the spaces, it means there are spaces for the full-backs to attack.
Above, we see how both wingers come inside and both full-backs have space to rush forward. The winger receives between three opposition players and when they try to press him he plays a quick layoff into the run of the full-back, who has space to cross from a dangerous position. On the other side of the pitch, the situation is similar, with the winger in a very central position and the full-back having lots of space in front of him in case the team could play a long ball.
In the play below, the right-winger comes inside and drags his marker with him. As the opposition midfield tries to be narrow and close down spaces in the middle, the right-back has a lot of space to run and receive a long ball.
Once they have the ball in the flanks, Rayo commit a lot of players forward. Both their full-backs and their wingers are very good dribblers and they Jémez them to finish their plays with a cross or a shot. Depending on the play, between three and five players get into scoring positions in and around the box. As we will see later in this analysis, this is useful to counter-press quickly and effectively, but it can be dangerous as they leave a lot of space for the counterattack.
In the next play, Rayo Vallecano’s left-winger has the ball and is ready to dribble and cross. Five players are arriving at the box and the number of options is high. Note that only the four defenders remain back in case there is a counterattack and even both central midfielders join the attack.
The other way Rayo creates danger is recovering the ball high up the pitch and going forward with quick transitions. This will be looked at in the defensive analysis, but as a summary, we can say that once they recover the ball they try to quickly play forward and catch the opposition out of position.
Even if they don’t look to have the ball for a very long time in every attack, Rayo Vallecano rank first in the leagues in terms of possession with an average of 56.8%. But they are in the bottom half in the number of possessions lasting more than 45 seconds. Again, this is because of the defensive side of their game allowing them to recover possession quickly.
Pressing to attack and exposure to turnovers
As one of the aspects of his tactics, Jémez’s goal when defending is to attack. His teams try to recover the ball near the goal and use aggressive and intense pressure. This season, Rayo Vallecano are the team with the highest pressing intensity in the league measured as opponent passes per defensive action in opponent’s final 60% of the pitch.
When the opposition tries to play from the back, this pressure causes mistakes that Rayo are quick to take advantage of. They press from the opposition goal kick and they almost man-mark all over the pitch. They usually force the rival to make dangerous passes by leaving a player unmarked and then trying to anticipate or press before he can control the ball.
In the play below we see the opposition trying to build from the back. They pass the ball to their pivot, who is quickly pressed before he can control the ball. The pressure leads to a recovery by the played mark in yellow, who passes to the #4 (marked in green) and then he passes into the run of striker, who scores after catching the defensive line off guard. It’s interesting that #4, Mario Suárez, is the central midfielder but presses the centre-back as he was a striker.
Below, we see how Rayo press the opposition goal kick. They man-mark all around the pitch but leave some space where they identify the technically weakest rival, in this case, the left-back. Then they try to force the goalkeeper to pass the ball there and press their weakest link.
When they need to defend long balls they rely on their aerial power. They are the best team in the air in the league (52% success rate in aerial duels), and the few direct passes that get behind the defensive line are intercepted by the goalkeeper, who’s always outside the box playing a sweeper role. Below we see the centre-back winning an aerial duel with the goalkeeper well outside the box in case he needed to act intercepting the long ball.
Again below, we see how Rayo press very intensely one side of the pitch leaving the other free. This way they force the rival to make a risky horizontal pass across the field. The right midfielder is then quick to anticipate and intercept the pass, setting up a promising opportunity.
Rayo are very good when they can recover the ball in the opposition half. But they have defensive issues when their pressure is beaten as they leave a lot of space behind. They also have problems when they don’t finish their attacks as they usually have a lot of players ahead of the ball and any interception leaves their defensive line uncovered.
In the next image, we see Rayo Vallecano’s defensive setup after losing the ball in the build-up. Both full-backs are very far from their position, so the opposition quickly plays a ball to the left-winger, who then crosses to the far post where the left-back should be. This play ended in a goal.
Below we can see a situation that is repeated often throughout the games. Rayo Vallecano miss a pass and up to seven players are left behind with a simple run after the interception. It results in a three-vs-three counter-attack with huge spaces for the defenders to cover.
Some key stats
Jémez’s Rayo Vallecano ranks high in all the stats that relate to a direct approach:
- 15.12 touches in the box/90 (first in the league)
- 11.5 shots/90 (third in the league)
- 16.3 crosses/90 (fourth in the league)
- 30.39 dribbles/90 (second in the league)
- 72.04 offensive duels/90 (third in the league)
- 56.8% average ball possession (first in the league) with 12.9 seconds/possession (ninth in the league)
Jémez has finally found a style of play that combines his attacking philosophy with an effective approach in terms of winning matches. As the stats suggest, only the lack of clinical finishers has prevented Rayo from being in the promotion playoff positions.
They have lost some of their most important players in the last few months. Bebé and Ulloa did their ACL, Comesaña has been injured since November and Embarba signed for Espanyol for a record fee of €10 million in January. They are still in a good position to fight for promotion when/if the league starts again.
If Jémez proves he can adapt his style and create a winning team he will surely be one of the contenders to take over the most interesting benches in Spain. He was already linked with several Champions League clubs a few years ago, including Barcelona, and his career seems on its way up again.