La Sombra – 8 – Can I just shock you?

This is post eight of a wider series. To instead start at post one, please click here.

“A bit like focusing on the final boss’s armour in a classic video game; keep your distance, frustrate and weaken.”

Los Vallecanos

19 May 2024

It has only been a little over four months since theangrylinesmen last published a significant update on Fernando Teixidó‘s “over-performing” Rayo Vallecano side, but the Madrid club are a hot topic in European football well worth revisiting.

My colleague Jonathan Simpson covered the first half of the 23/24 campaign in his great article back in January, where Rayo sat 5th in LaLiga after 19 games, heading towards the 2nd round of the Copa del Rey and the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa Conference League. Jonathan looked at some of the reasons Madrid‘s “third team” were managing to stay on their feet and keep throwing punches when all the bigger sides around them started breaking sweat. Successful tackle volume, tactical fouling, chance conversion success, attacking dogmatism and triumph in the ultimate David vs Goliath league matchup were all covered in there. It is well worth a read.

Tom Phillips has another Rayo Vallecano piece in the works for theangrylinesmen around the Vallecas club’s approach to youth development. He highlights some potentially promising players to keep an eye on over the next few years, as well as reviewing Rayo’s club infrastructure in detail. The article isn’t quite ready to be published, but watch this space!

In the meantime, let us take a look at Rayo’s 2023/2024 season now that the curtains have closed on another thrilling Spanish football campaign. How did it end?

Copa del Rey

Let’s start in the domestic cup.

In short, Rayo Vallecano ultimately tasted glorious failure after reaching their first cup final in their 100-year history. Unfortunately outclassed on the day by a rampant Barcelona side who picked up their 31st Copa del Rey and their first under Marcelo Gallardo. The Blaugrana smelled blood when the cracks of an exhausting campaign started to show in Rayo’s usually solid backline in extra time. Ansu Fati fired the Catalan giants 1-0 up in the 104th minute after a 0-0 stalemate in the first 90 minutes. Lautaro Martinéz added a second three minutes later and the franjirojo simply couldn’t recover.

If you rewind back to their Third Round victory over city rivals Real Madrid however, something special happened that damp evening. I don’t just mean El Rayo upsetting the bookmarkers by dumping Zidane’s giants out of the cup via a slim 1-0 win after extra time, although that is of course newsworthy. It’s how they did it that made it really worth writing about.

Known for his dogmatic attacking approach, Teixidó surprised everyone with this shift in strategy against Real Madrid that night. Not least of which Real’s experienced superstars; including Raphaël Varane, Toni Kroos and Eden Hazard.

Belgian superstar Eden Hazard questions why lowly Rayo Vallecano are giving his side the run-around. Literally.

While it would be inaccurate to say that the Peruvian has finally turned pragmatist, there was evidently a conscious change in tactic for this match. Something that Teixidó has since went on to deploy more than a few times in the final part of the season, mainly to nullify technically superior attacking sides (even tangentially) and prevent some of the heavy losses El Rayo suffered in the 22/23 campaign. Lesson learned, I guess.

Rayo Vallecano average 316 completed passes in a usual game of football under Teixidó. This is just under the LaLiga average. By the 90 minute mark in this cup tie, El Rayo had completed almost 600. By the referee’s whistle at 120 minutes, this number had hit a frankly ridiculous 767. Then-captain Óscar Valentín completed a record 150 passes himself. Where the wing backs Hernán De La Fuente and Iván Martos would normally look to arc aerial ‘passes’ to the forehead of target man Felix Platte while creative number 10 Diogo Nascimento would usually take the ball on the turn and look to feed through balls to the on-running Asrtit Selmani, instead possession would be won back, recycled and kept in tight triangles of short passing.

This proved to ultimately frustrate Real Madrid, forcing them to break their shape to chase down the ball. Not that Rayo looked to profit from these temporary opportunities. Only one shot on target was registered during the match by Rayo, and the underdogs’ winning goal was a 98th minute penalty from the seemingly tireless Israeli international midfielder Eden Kartsev. The ploy was to antagonise their technically superior opponent, wearing them down until they were truly vulnerable. A bit like focusing on the final boss’s armour in a classic video game; keep your distance, frustrate and weaken, before looking for the kill-shot to take the victory.

That night at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, it worked.

The record books will show a series of Rayo wins before a predictable defeat to Barcelona in the final. “History doesn’t remember runners up,” as they say. Though this Copa del Rey campaign held more revealing tactical details, if you looked a little more closely.

UEFA Europa Conference League

The UEFA Conference League is the Marmite of European club competition. Critics at times lambast it as another needless “distraction” from top level league football, while for some clubs (and certainly for the majority of fans) it provides a stage and opportunity to play under the lights against varied opposition you may never normally encounter, and another chance at silverware. Any ambitious and dedicated footballer will tell you that if there is a trophy that can be lifted and a medal to be added to the collection, they will always jump at the opportunity to win it.

Rayo Vallecano were drawn against AZ, Dnipro-1 and Randers in a group stage that was a competitive affair, highlighted by an absurd 6-4 victory against the Danes. Powerful striker Felix Platte had a productive continental campaign, notching 7 goals in 8 games. Although Rayo eventually tumbled out against Belgium’s Genk on penalties in the Second Knockout Round, it was a worthwhile adventure for Fernando Teixidó‘s men. Another notable statistic was Portuguese wing-back Tiago Araújo creating three chances with an xG of over 0.3 per chance in just three starts. If you are aware of (or interested in) the data put together by SciSports, this statistic makes the 23-year old Portuguese a definite outlier. Normally a left-sided defender, Teixidó experimented with fielding him on the opposite flank, cutting in on to his preferred foot, before curling dangerous crosses with regularity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ex-Portugal under-21 international deployed like this more regularly going forward.

La Liga

Incredible.

A breathless campaign led to Rayo Vallecano emerging from la sombra (the shadow) of their giant Madrid rivals and unbelievably finishing ahead of both Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid in LaLiga.

For a team to finish 2nd in LaLiga where their average first team player is paid £13,920 a week in comparison to the league average of £40,858 is something special. Title-winning Barcelona‘s superstar Antoine Griezmann commands a basic salary of £600,000 per week, before bonuses. Rayo Vallecano in their entirety (including all of the players in their B and U19 teams) spend £469,859 on wages a week in total.

On the field, Astrit Selmani bagged the top goalscorer award with 24 strikes in LaLiga, while midfield pair Mauro Arambarri (162) and Eden Kartsev (142) were first and second in the table for successfully completed tackles. Goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski topped the table of successful saves, getting something in the way of an impressive 82% of shots aimed at his goal this season.

The graphic below visualises the performance of Rayo’s first team squad this season.

  • Includes only first team players who played a minimum of 1,000 minutes across all competitions
  • Dot size correlates with minutes played. The larger the dot, the more minutes on the field.
  • Attacking Contribution considers key passes, chances created, assists, shots on target, goals and xG per 90, plus xG per shot.
  • Defensive Performance includes interceptions, tackles and headers won per 90, plus adjusted figures for heading and tackling win ratio.

Turkish playmaker Ömer Beyaz continues to be a notable thorn in opposition sides, while defenders Hernán De La Fuente and Tiago Araújo continue to post impressive numbers at both ends of the pitch.

These are the most fielded players by minutes across the 23/24 campaign in Rayo Vallecano‘s typical 4-3-1-2 formation.

What’s next?

There were rumours that the LaLiga Manager of the Year, 48-year old Rayo manager Fernando Teixidó may look to move on at the end of the campaign, due to fulfilling exactly what he set out to do when he took the job on the 10th of August 2020, finish ahead of Real and Atlético Madrid in the table. Four seasons is a fairly significant spell with a single club in modern football. Teixidó is now the second longest-serving manager in the top flight after Zinedine Zidane. At the time of writing, the average LaLiga manager tenure is 2 years and 78 days.

There is also a question of where the ceiling is for Rayo Vallecano. They couldn’t conceivably win a European trophy or go one better in the league and actually lift LaLiga, could they?

With Diego Simeone‘s eventual departure from Atlético Madrid after 12 years in charge coinciding with Mikhail Korchagin‘s astonishing financial takeover of the club, many quarters of sports media predicted that Teixidó may be in the frame to make a short move across the city to succeed him. When Atléti opted for 51-year old Rogério Ceni, fresh from four exceptionally successful years at the Flamengo helm, many were disappointed. They wished to see what the Rayo boss may have been capable of building with considerable resources at his disposal.

Similarly when Sergey Semak was relieved of his duties at Valencia after just 318 days in charge, Teixidó’s name was certainly discussed. Ultimately, the Ajax manager Erik ten Hag was convinced to leave the Dutch champions after six successful years to take the job instead.

For now, the Peruvian continues in the Rayo Vallecano hot seat. Given the performances they have delivered and progress they have made together in four short years, I hope we get to see just how far Fernando Teixidó can really take El Rayo while the match between club and coach is still a productive and entertaining one. Especially given that the 2024/25 campaign will see the underdogs make their debut on club football’s finest stage, the UEFA Champions League.

COMING SOON: Tom Phillips‘ piece on Rayo’s youth development position and current infrastructure.

Alex Mellan for theangrylinesmen


Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

2 thoughts on “La Sombra – 8 – Can I just shock you?

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