After a rather mediocre performance garnered a brilliant result when Granada visited the Mestalla Monday night, Nuno’s boys are headed for the Vallecas to add three new points to their tally in the dash for a spot in next year’s Champions League. There they’ll face Paco Jeméz’ crowd favorite Rayo, who are on pace to stay in the BBVA for a club record fifth consecutive year.
The 11th placed side are currently in no man’s land as far as league placings are concerned, and barring a complete collapse or an inconceivable rally to end the season, that’s where they’ll finish as well.
What to expect
For most of the season, Rayo have been basing their team around a 4-2-3-1 when on the ball, and I wouldn’t expect them to deviate all that much from this identity on Thursday night. We’ve periodically seen them experiment with other shapes, like in their Celta-game recently where they started with a three at the back formation, but I don’t expect to see anything of the sort here. If you’ve seen the result of that match, or how early they made their first pair of subs, you’ll likely understand why.
In fact, Rayo aren’t generally all that adaptive to begin with. Not to a fault, necessarily, but more so because even as a – relative to Valencia i.e. – tiny club, they have the mentality of a much bigger team.
A few weeks ago they hosted Real Madrid, a game they ended up losing 2-0. However, if you had watched the game on mute without any prior knowledge of either team and were asked at half time to guess which of the two sides was the reigning champion of the biggest club competition in the world, I doubt you’d have to think long and hard about it. You’d likely point straight to the lads in red and white who had calmly passed the ball between themselves for 45 minutes with no noticeable care for their black-clad neighbors or what they were up to.
This complete disregard for the entire concept of inferiority is what makes them such an incredibly entertaining side to watch. For lack of a more appropriate term; they just don’t give a sh*t. And I love them for it.
This fearlessness is also a prerequisite when playing like Rayo do. Manager Paco Jeméz is a former player and youth team coach at Barcelona, a fact the football-savvy among us could probably identify even without consulting Google. The Barca-influences start with the relations between the players and their structure on and off the ball. They utilize the principles of space extremely well, as is the foundation of most possession-oriented systems. What I mean by this is that they stretch the field when they have the ball and condense it when they don’t.
During build up they form a very deep five-man horseshoe, where one central midfielder pulls deep between the central defenders and the fullbacks stretch the field horizontally, hugging the sideline near midfield. The center forward and the wingers sit on the shoulders of the opposing defensive line, forcing it back and opening up the field in the process.
Rayo defend in a 4-4-2 shape where attacking mid and goalscorer extraordinaire Alberto Bueno defends from the front alongside whoever starts up top – Manucho as of late, due to Atletico-loanee Léo’s injury. They squeeze the field to the extreme, and you will often notice times where all ten outfielders are within an area of 30×30 meters or smaller. Even without the ball, they dare to reset their team height when able. If the other team as much as plays a back-pass during an attack, Rayo will pounce on it instantly. Instead of staying put or continuing to fall off like most teams would do, they will push out, starting with their defensive line, and once again limit space for the opposing eleven.
In pretty much any game involving the lads from the capital, a lot is about the wings. Not only is this where most of their chances are made – it’s also where they’re the most vulnerable. It seems that lacking quality and precision when trying to thread balls through the middle is a big reason why the flanks seem to be where they have the most success. After periods of unsuccessfully attempting to attack the space behind opposing defenses directly, they seem to resort to wide play – often in the form of individual brilliance from right winger Gael Kakuta.
Like mentioned, though, this is also their biggest area of weakness defensively. There are, in my opinion, two reasons why this is the case. Firstly, and this one is quite obvious if you think about it; when you’re tightening up and trying to pinch the other team, you’re inevitably going to leave space open out wide. The second reason why I believe this is the case is that the wingers seem to get overly caught up in maintaining structure. This can lead to them neglecting to backtrack when faced with an overlapping fullback, which in turn leads to number-advantages wide for the opposition.
I love this team. If it weren’t Valencia for me, it would be Rayo as far as Spanish football is concerned. They’re relentless. They’re unafraid. They have no concept of inferiority – they expect to dominate the game regardless of who they’re up against.
While there are quality players in this side, they’re a collective first and foremost, and that’s the reason they are where they are – not individual quality. They’re the poster child for the notion that in football, the whole can very much be better than the sum of it’s parts.
They’re a well-oiled machinery where the parts are interchangeable – in the five matches I’ve seen of Rayo the last few days, three different players have occupied the role of the deep central midfielder (Fatau, Trashorras, Baena). Paco Jeméz has done a tremendous job getting as much as he has out of this side, and for that he deserves a ton of praise and likely a better job.
I say ‘as much as he has’ , though, because with the talent that’s currently on the team, there likely isn’t much further he can take them. And that’s the rather unglamorous end to this orgy compliments – I do still love the team, mind.
If I’m Nuno…
…I focus on structure and defensive discipline. I’m not saying to sit back, but I think that limiting space in the final third while making sure my wingers give the fullbacks defensive support will go a long way in shutting down large parts of Rayo’s attacking game.
When attacking, I want to emphasize constantly stretching the field and attacking wide with both my wingers and my fullbacks. I want to see my central midfielders to be smart about their pressing, making sure that they don’t overextend themselves and get caught out.
And first and foremost, I want Javi Fuego to do whatever he can to limit Bueno’s impact on the game. In the absence of Léo Baptistão, he’s the only natural goalscorer in this Rayo-side.
While I do expect to return to Valencia three points richer when all is said and done, I’m under no illusions that the points will come easy.