La Liga Champions League wrestlers could learn a lot from Rayo Vallecano

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The immediate future of LaLiga clubs in the Champions League over the next 48 hours has more permutations than your hapless lottery numbers every time they enter the draw and ultimately fail to make you a multimillionaire. But it is possible that on Wednesday night, a country that broke into this season’s competition with an armada of five clubs will be reduced to a stingy survivor.

It would be an unprecedented calamity.

Simply qualifying five clubs for the greatest club soccer competition of all time is a rarity. Only the three top-ranked UEFA nations (most recently: Spain, England, Germany) can send their top four league players straight into the massively lucrative group stage of the Champions League. In order to get a precious fifth, you need to have a “wild card” team – a team that is good enough to win the Europa League and thus earn that precious “extra” place in Europe’s best club competition, but which doesn’t. isn’t powerful enough to finish in the top four in their own league.

Only Spain and England managed to win the Europa League since they offered an automatic qualification to the “big brother” tournament. But generally the team that does it (Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Sevilla) are also logically and ingenious enough to finish in the top four domestically as well. Outliers have been Villarreal (this season), Manchester United and, once, Sevilla.

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Yeah, yeah – before La Liga fanatics fall into apoplectic rage, there’s an alternate prospect (though unlikely) where, with Madrid already sure to pass, Los Blancos are joined by Sevilla, Atleti, Villarreal and even Barcelona. I’d love to know the odds of that happening, although one thing is for sure: they should be evil.

One of the reasons that La Liga’s performances in the Champions League are plummeting – six wins for Madrid and Barcelona in the eight finals between 2011 and 2018, but no wins or even finalists since – is that a squad of other elite clubs in Europe have been eagerly recognized and adopted, a hybrid football brand that is beyond the best in Spain at the moment.

Over the past three or four seasons, most of La Liga’s top players have tended to play slower, more precise and more strategic football. Likewise, they tend not to have the means to exert pressure and fiercely dominate, like Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain or Juventus at their best, or to do athletic blitzes from top to bottom. in waves of counterattack, then then fall back into place as if they were at the end of an imaginary rubber band.

We’re talking general descriptions, yes, but the tendency has been that Spain’s best in recent seasons don’t possess the same intensely fierce, repetitive, and very pierced one. “automatismslike their peers in England, Germany, France and even Italy. Nor do most of Spain’s top teams have the scintillating ball players that have characterized their last 15 years of domination, these talents enabling their teams – including the national team – to counter ultra-athleticism, height and power with total control of possession.

Madrid are exceptions, although this column doesn’t really cover them. Not only have they qualified and have only to fight for first place in their group with Inter Milan; they counterattack with a beautiful blazing, synchronized speed, which may not be unusual in the Bundesliga or England, but it is certainly a huge force for them in Spain and, now, an automatic need in the League of champions. They haven’t fallen as far behind on the trend of how the rest of Europe’s big boys want to play as their LaLiga cohorts. Also: Let their midfielder have some time on the ball, as Liverpool found out last season, and MM. Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos can always make you miserable.

With the ball they can still dominate you the old fashioned way.

This is not to slander Sevilla, Atleti or Villarreal, who have all recently won the Europa League. The hard fact for them as clubs, and for their fans, is that each of them is run by a guy with conservative footballing values.

Diego Simeone, Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui are all coaches open to the idea of ​​their teams playing for entertainment, but certainly not totally committed to the concept. These three guys see “not losing” at all costs as much more natural, much more important than going out of your way to win. Their teams are tough to beat, but they generally don’t play against equivalent teams off the field with urgent, high pressing, physically and athletically dominant, wave after wave of high-cadence football.

Look at their tactics, field positions, substitutions, and how narrow their scores usually are – all over a period of time long enough to make a firm impression – and the analysis becomes obvious.

Simeone, Emery and Lopetegui are hugely successful, well paid, very experienced and extremely smart in the way they understand, plan and deliver football. You wouldn’t bet aggressively against either of them lifting the Europa League trophy in Sevilla next May. But none of them, right now or even recently, offer the same kind of playing ethic that is taken for granted at Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG and Atalanta, or that was recently identifiable with Dortmund, Manchester United, Juventus and Inter Milan.

It was inevitable that this breach would come too.

Back in the days when Spain, the clubs and the country, dominated with a particular brand of technical football, dominated by possession and geared towards the press, other leading nations were forced to take the concepts, to bring them to the fore. process and add them to existing ideas on size, power, athleticism. and endurance. Barcelona, ​​for the purposes of this argument, must be put aside: they are in the mud because they have been an indescribable mess in the planning, spending and restocking of their football over the past four or five years.

It all adds to the interest and impressive Rayo Vallecano this season. Under the management of former Athletic Club and New York City FC full-back Andoni Iraola, the modest (to put it mildly) Madrid may be the European shock team this season: undefeated at home, fifth in the standings, winner over Barcelona and just four points from second place.

What stands out, however, is the way they play, as it’s almost unique in La Liga.

It’s not as if Sevilla, Atleti and Villarreal are playing football without risk, but they are populated by expensive, skilled and individually excellent ‘star players’. If any of these three teams attacked the ‘Rayo way’, not only would it be quite sensational to watch, but it would be much more in line with the general trends among the top teams in the Bundesliga, Premier League, Ligue 1 and Serie A.

Have you watched Rayo a lot this season? It is enriching and exhilarating.

Iraola always cares about the form of the team, defending well and keeping the sheets clean. But Rayo’s two full-backs and their four forwards – usually Iván Balliu and Fran Garcia as wide defenders, plus Alvaro Garcia, Isi Palazon and Oscar Trejo behind Sergi Guardiola, Randy Nteka or Radamel ‘El Tigre’ Falcao – are all a said to attack their counterparts as often as possible and with as much pace and cunning as they can muster. The thrill of the one-on-one duel.

It probably helps that, growing up, Michael Laudrup was Iraola’s favorite player. You can’t worship the “Great Dane” and not want your team to play bold, attacking and frontal football as well.

Rayo’s current philosophy is simple, yet very effective. It’s smutty to watch, and players clearly love the freedom they are given to attack and try to beat the opponent closest to them. Over the din of radical, boisterous, loyal, disbelieving, lawless and lovable Rayo fans, you can hear the “click” of a football philosophy perfectly in place with the ability and appetite of just about anyone. the players of the Iraola team.

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Pablo Zabaleta praises Real Madrid’s consistency in La Liga after increasing their lead to eight points by beating Real Sociedad.

Rayo’s budget being what it is – they spent less than 5 million euros total last summer – there clearly aren’t many quality Champions League players on their squad (or at least that’s what they looked like when they got promoted this summer), but they continue to move worryingly closer to qualifying positions for this tournament. And it’s much easier to recognize the kind of philosophy Liverpool, Chelsea and Atalanta have in Rayo’s performances, pound for pound, than in those of Sevilla, Atleti and Villarreal.

Iraola recently told El Mundo: “Football has fundamentally changed in terms of physical preparation. You and your rivals have studied each other so much that there can no longer be a weak link. You cannot afford to anymore. “Having defenders who just defend, because you have to initiate while your opponent tries to rush you and find weaknesses. This changed the prototype of the player: everyone needs to be more complete.

“Compared to a few years ago, everything on the pitch is going much faster, and the footballers need to be better prepared physically. Those who are only good with the ball will find it difficult to survive as coaches demand more and more of it. At European level, this type of team – Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern – already dominates. They stand out from the crowd because in addition to being technically very good, they all run and work. “

The wisdom, realism and clarity of someone whose club is humble but from whom, I say, Emery, Simeone, Lopetegui – and maybe even Xavi – are ready to learn important truths that Spain performs. in the Champions League this season suggest, have been forgotten or ignored for too long.


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