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Iraola is the real deal

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“Football belongs to the footballers, coaches are not that important. The players make us look better and I am lucky to have players who are showing their level. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t be achieving anything.”

Those were the words of Rayo Vallecano manager Andoni Iraola when he was asked whether he was aware of interest in him from the likes of Leeds United. Winning promotion via the playoffs two years ago after a sixth-place finish in Segunda, Rayo earned a cult following last season, their adventurous football keeping them at similar heights before an eventual ending up in 12th, which is a resounding success.

Known to many as the last of the Spanish neighbourhood clubs, Rayo’s famous red stripe represents not just a football club, but an entire community. Vallecas, or the Independent People’s Republic of Vallekas, lies on the periphery of Madrid both geographically and ideologically.

Rayo are known for many things, but given the fact that they have never won a major trophy in their 98-year history, most of those are off the pitch. These include their unique stadium, which has the smallest pitch in La Liga currently and some apartment balconies behind one of the goals.

In other off-the-pitch news, Rayo Vallecano manager Andoni Iraola is on Leeds United’s radar as a potential replacement for Jesse Marsch, according to reports. Reports have suggested that Leeds are weighing up an approach for Iraola following Marsch’s dismissal early in February.

A 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was the final blow for the American coach who had overseen a poor run of form at the club that left the Whites without a Premier League win since November 2022. Despite the club backing Marsch with four new signings in the January window, the board have now decided that they need a new head coach to lead the team for the remainder of the season.

Building a side around high-pressing and energetic football is something that fans grew accustomed to under Marcelo Bielsa during his time in charge and former Athletic Bilbao defender Iraola likes to adopt a similar approach in Spain. In fact, Iraola even played for the legendary Argentine during his time at Bilbao and has clearly absorbed the mantra from the former Leeds boss.

So, who is really behind Rayo Vallecano’s recent success? A big part of the answer is head coach Andoni Iraola, who is the youngest in La Liga at the moment. His side have taken the league by storm with their intense style of play that is centred around a hybrid pressing system and involves some pretty slick possession play and counter-pressing.

Who is Andoni Iraola?

Iraola, 40, has been in charge of Rayo Vallecano for two-and-a-half years. The Spaniard even led his team to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey in the 2021/22 season for the first time in 40 years.

In 2015, Andoni Iraola ended his 15-year stay at the club he loved, Athletic Club Bilbao. Commonly a right back, he was an outstanding player for his dedication, maturity and effort that he provided in each match, in addition to the passion for his shirt. Under the mandate of many different coaches such as Marcelo Bielsa or Ernesto Valverde, Iraola decided to be a manager in the last stage of his career when he still did not know what would become of him after retirement.

Iraola is doing a remarkable job with Rayo Vallecano, as his pragmatic and well-defined tactical concepts are clearly being absorbed and executed well by the players. Their hybrid pressing is rightly the most widely-discussed aspect of their style of play as Iraola has struck a great balance between a zonal and player-oriented defensive system, but they are also a very competent side in possession, albeit slightly limited in the final third.

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Andoni Iraola’s tactics and style of play

The main thing that stands out while watching Rayo is their intense and unique press, which is arguably the most intriguing aspect of Iraola’s tactics. Heading into the World Cup break, they had the third-most high turnovers, third-lowest PPDA and fourth-highest buildup disruption percentage in La Liga, which proves that they like to press high up the pitch and do so regularly with a good deal of success.

With Iraola’s fluid, high-tempo philosophy, such pressing is also essential in ensuring that Rayo’s potential weaknesses on the counterattack are protected.

Iraola has forged a side that is aggressive, plays well on the counter and makes ample use of the wings. When they go, they press well and high, when they play, they do so with ambition. But if there is perhaps one thing that perhaps differentiates Rayo from many sides, that lends Iraola credit beyond the results, it is the approach of his footballers.

For now, though, in a place where chaos reigns, Rayo’s remarkable resurgence is something that should be savoured. You’ll never find stability in this part of Madrid – not in any part of life – but at least Andoni Iraola has got the local football team playing with exactly the kind of grit and determination that any team from Vallecas should.


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Andoni Iraola’s Vallecano analysis

Iraola’s philosophy is refreshingly high risk, high reward, relying squarely on athleticism and commitment to maintaining some sort of order within the chaos, whereby attacks are full-blooded and direct, and defence is immediate and aggressive.

Completing the 2nd most high-intensity actions per game, while also committing on average 3.2 men to the press after losing possession, it’s a demanding system, relentlessly positive and incredibly courageous for a side of such limited resources.

On the whole, it is clear to see that Rayo adopt an unusual mixture of zonal and player-oriented marking in their hybrid press, which ultimately is a relatively risky approach but with high rewards. The positives are clear to see in their pressing statistics, as previously discussed, and they also have managed to limit the damage caused by the risks with an open play xG conceded tally of only 12.68 in the league this season.

Leeds United have the right man on their wishlist. Although it will be a tricky decision for Iraola, considering swapping a team competing for Europe versus battling relegation. It may well be hard work that sees Leeds survive in the Premier League come May, a concept that will be very familiar to supporters from their time watching Bielsa. Iraola already seems to have connections with the club, whether or not those go one step further is still yet to be seen.

Arnold Lewis
A hardcore Chelsea fan, who is often found playing football on the weekends. He has an exceptional voice and his rendition of old Hindi classic songs will make your heart melt. He is the man with the funky hair.

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