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Five Managers Catching the Eye: Andoni Iraola at Rayo Vallecano

Andoni Iraola: Making waves at Rayo Vallecano
Andoni Iraola: Making waves at Rayo Vallecano

In the second chapter of our series looking at managers making waves across the continent, we venture over to Spain to take a look at a talented young coach gate crashing the La Liga party at a working class club from Madrid…

Andoni Iraola (Rayo Vallecano)

La Liga may now feature three-time Champions League victor Carlo Ancelotti, defending league champion Diego Simeone and the returning Barcelona icon Xavi, but it’s another unexpected manager who has taken the top-flight by storm so far this season.

Step forward Andoni Iraola, who has financially-crippled minnows Rayo Vallecano challenging for the European places upon their return to La Liga, complete with a tornado-esque style of play which has drawn parallels to a certain Marcelo Bielsa, who just so happens to be his former manager at Athletic Bilbao.

“​​I was lucky enough to work with him at Athletic, and I say lucky because it was incredible to be with him,” he told Coaches’ Voice.

Iraola, a former Spanish international, played over 500 games for his beloved Bilbao where he agonisingly finished as a runner-up in five cup finals, including the Copa del Rey three times and the Europa League.

He would end his playing days over in New York City in a new role as a defensive midfielder, where he was managed by Patrick Vieira, and played in a star-studded team that consisted of future bosses Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, as well as David Villa.

It was playing under Vieira which inspired Iraola to become a coach. He moved back to Spain to start working towards his badges, then stepped into management in 2018 with Cypriot club AEK Larnaca FC, where he spent six months; winning the Cyprus Super Cup and reaching the Europa League group stages.

Back in Spain, Iraola then took charge of Segunda División new boys CD Mirandés for a year, during which he took the club on an unbelievable run through to the Spanish Cup semi-finals for only the second time in the club's 92-year history - stunning the La Liga trio of Celta de Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal before falling narrowly to Real Sociedad 3-1 on aggregate. Meanwhile, in the league the newly promoted Mirandés finished just five points off the top-six in 11th.

Iraola caught the attention of another second-tier side in August 2020, taking over from Paco Jémez at Rayo Vallecano, who had missed out on the top-six by one point. In his first season Iraola propelled his side up to La Liga after winning the play-offs, and has gone on to make a sensational impact in the top-flight.

Rayo lost their first two games of the current campaign but then rocketed into 2022 in the dizzying heights of the Champions League spots, and while they are now 7th after 20 matches, they are only three points off 3rd.

No team in La liga has accumulated more points on home soil than Rayo (26) who are unbeaten in 10 matches at the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas.

Rayo have won more games (nine) and conceded fewer goals (21) than Barcelona (eight and 23 respectively).

Furthermore, it was Iraola’s side who hammered down the final nail in the Ronald Koeman coffin after stunning the Catalan giants 1-0 back in October - see below.

Another stand-out result was a dramatic last-gasp 2-1 win away to his former side Athletic at the San Mames.

It's not just the club's results and high standing in the table that have caught the eye, but Rayo's style of play under Iraola.

"His philosophy is refreshingly high risk, high reward, relying squarely on athleticism and commitment to maintain some sort of order within the chaos, whereby attacks are full-blooded and direct, and defence is immediate and aggressive," as described by Thomas Harris in his piece on Breaking The Lines.

The Guardian’s Spanish football writer Sid Lowe writes: “There’s a vertigo about Rayo, something wild and wonderful to watch, the place packed and roaring every game now - they come at you from everywhere and from the start.

“No team has completed more crosses. Only Athletic produce more sprints, Rayo pressing fast in a first wave then racing back into a deep position if that doesn’t work, as relentless as they are rapid. When they set off they stampede, footballers everywhere.”

The manager himself has said: “I prefer too much chaos to too much organisation.

"I prefer us to play at a high pace, even if it means a touch of precipitation, than play at a lower pace and have a bit more control. It suits us. We have to do our bit for the people to enjoy it.”

At 39, Iraola is the the second-youngest manager in La Liga behind Levante’s Alessio Lisci (36). Rayo's rapid rise under his leadership is made all the more remarkable considering that not only are Rayo the smallest club in La Liga but one that's enduring financial difficulties. Their stadium is in need of a drastic repair job, the fans despise the owner and protest frequently, most of his players had never played in La Liga prior to this season, and you can't even buy match tickets online.

La Liga: Top-Four Odds

Real Madrid
WIN PROB: 94%
1
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Barcelona
WIN PROB: 91%
1
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Atletico Madrid
WIN PROB: 73%
1
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1/3
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Villarreal
WIN PROB: 29%
1
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5/2
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6/4
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Sevilla
WIN PROB: 31%
1
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9/5
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8/5
Real Sociedad
WIN PROB: 22%
1
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7/2
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7/2
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7/2
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Real Betis
WIN PROB: 18%
1
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9/2
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9/2
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4/1
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7/2
Athletic Bilbao
WIN PROB: 14%
1
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6/1
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4/1
Celta Vigo
WIN PROB: 5%
1
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Valencia
WIN PROB: 5%
1
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Getafe
WIN PROB: 4%
1
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Osasuna
WIN PROB: 4%
1
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Espanyol
WIN PROB: 3%
1
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Rayo Vallecano
WIN PROB: 2%
1
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Almeria
WIN PROB: 1%
1
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Real Valladolid
WIN PROB: 1%
1
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Cadiz
WIN PROB: 1%
1
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Elche
WIN PROB: 1%
1
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Girona
WIN PROB: 1%
1
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Mallorca
WIN PROB: 0%
1
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Show More
Odds correct as of 2022-08-13 23:50 Odds subject to change.

It was quite the surprise when Iraola managed to add a sprinkling of stardust to his squad in September after he lured over free agent Radamel Falcao, 35, who the following month scored the winner in that memorable victory over Barcelona.

In his ranks he also has Óscar Trejo whose tally of nine assists is more than any other La Liga player. Keeper Stole Dimitrievski has six clean sheets and has made the sixth most saves; he's even reportedly caught the eye of Barcelona. The squad also features former Man Utd midfielder Bebe, and Zinedine Zidane's son Luca; a goalkeeper.

But this is a side who aren’t about claiming individual honours, they are excelling as a team under Iraola’s high-risk, high-intensity approach which is at contrast to his cool and calm persona. His team might be exceeding all expectations, but he’s refusing to get ahead of himself: “I’m convinced that this will turn and in the second half of the season you’ll ask me the opposite."

Iraola isn't afraid to look outside the box or draw inspiration from other sports for inspiration, telling the Coaches' Voice:

"Outside of football, my interest in coaching was also there when I became more aware of the NFL, which I have been a follower of ever since. I see American football as a sort of extension of the set-pieces we have in our game. The blocking, the clearances, the overloads.

"The players are also very specialised in their roles, with a coach for each position. Soccer is not quite there yet, but it is progressing by the day. Surely, soon, we will get to see a coach for each position, just like in the NFL."

A last-16 clash away to second-tier side Girona now awaits Rayo and Iraola in the Copa del Rey - the side they beat in last season's promotion play-off - while you can still back them at 35/1 to stun the Spanish sphere and claim a top-four finish. It would be absolutely epic.

As for the future, Iraola's contract expires in the summer. Perhaps a move to the Premier League could be on the cards one day?

"To get to the Premier League things would need to go very well for me," he told the Daily Mail.

"I'd have to have a very good career to get there but I'd love to because right now it's the best league in the world."

La Liga Table
League Pos Team P W D L GF GA GD PTS
1. Real Madrid 38 26 8 4 80 31 +49 86
2. Barcelona 38 21 10 7 68 38 +30 73
3. Atlético Madrid 38 21 8 9 65 43 +22 71
4. Sevilla 38 18 16 4 53 30 +23 70
5. Real Betis 38 19 8 11 62 40 +22 65
6. Real Sociedad 38 17 11 10 40 37 +3 62
7. Villarreal 38 16 11 11 63 37 +26 59
8. Athletic Club 38 14 13 11 43 36 +7 55
9. Valencia 38 11 15 12 48 53 -5 48
10. Osasuna 38 12 11 15 37 51 -14 47
11. Celta de Vigo 38 12 10 16 43 43 0 46
12. Rayo Vallecano 38 11 9 18 39 50 -11 42
13. Elche 38 11 9 18 40 52 -12 42
14. Espanyol 38 10 12 16 40 53 -13 42
15. Getafe 38 8 15 15 33 41 -8 39
16. Mallorca 38 10 9 19 36 63 -27 39
17. Cádiz 38 8 15 15 35 51 -16 39
18. Granada 38 8 14 16 44 61 -17 38
19. Levante 38 8 11 19 51 76 -25 35
20. Deportivo Alavés 38 8 7 23 31 65 -34 31
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