The constructor of Rayo, one of the most fun teams to watch in the League, appears sober and pale as marble, in the shadow of the benches of the League’s stadiums. But as soon as he sits down at a table in the Ciudad Deportiva de Vallecas to talk with the visitor, Andoni Iraola Sagarna (Usurbil, Gipzukoa, 39 years old) discovers himself to be outgoing, his muffins rosy, his frank smile and his gaze awake. It is so evident that football has bewitched the former Athletic side, the youngest coach of the First Division, as it is that he carries the spell with total naturalness.
Question. This Wednesday he receives Barça [19.00, Movistar]. What does your first match as a coach against Barcelona suggest to you?
Answer. I played my first professional game against Barcelona. It was Valverde’s first game as a coach, and I think Rijkaard and Ronaldinho’s first game in La Liga: 0-1, Cocu’s goal. And the last game I played with Athletic was also against Barça: the 2015 Cup final.
P. Did you have the soul of a midfielder?
R. In my first games as a professional I was altering between the inside and the side. But he didn’t play that much inside. I always said that I was more to play on the inside, because I was not that fast for the band. Today the vast majority of full-backs who end up reaching the elite come from more offensive positions. Wingers, midfielders who are lateralized, players who are technically more level than the typical full-back of 30 years ago and end up developing in that position. Before it was said: ‘The one that is worth, is worth, and the one that does not right back’. Now they assume a lot of prominence. You need sides with a good foot to start because you direct the pressure to one side and they are the ones who assume that exit.
P. Does that midfielder spirit have something to do with your vocation as a coach?
R. You start learning football when you get older. When your legs are gone, you say to yourself: “If I had understood the game when I was 18, what a player I would have become!” It happens to all of us. As your legs run out you have to make less mistakes because you don’t get everywhere.
You start learning football when you get older. As your legs run out you have to make less mistakes because you don’t get everywhere
P. Valverde transplanted the 4-4-2 from Athletic to Barça. Do you have to be made of a special paste to play in that 4-4-2 that requires so many sacrifices?
R. There are many nuances. There is a side, especially in the Nordic teams, who play with a 4-4-2 of very close lines, everyone tipping a lot. At Barça, Valverde varied between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 depending on the players he had to defend and those he could release from that defensive role. Many times they defended with seven, 4-3, and then the top three “let me win the game.” And when he needed more work, perhaps he thought that with three released he would not give him to win and he pulled that 4-4-2 with a false band like Vidal or Paulinho. Madrid has also varied between those two structures in recent years.
P. Did Barça lose its reference principles?
R. They went from a time when each player was one of the five best in the world, to having a very good team, but without the excellence – especially on the inside – that gave them another level.
P. Has your Ray inherited something from that 4-4-2 of Valverde?
R. I say we use a 4-4-2 with a six, a Eight, a ten and a nine in the middle, staggered at different levels.
P. His Ray is said to be the reveal of the championship. What do you think?
R. A quarter of the league has passed. We have a lot left. We cannot draw such absolute conclusions.
P. What team have you wanted to build?
R. A Lightning that is capable of winning in any scenario. I want the parties to always have two directions. That even if you sometimes feel dominated, as will happen to us against Barça and Madrid, that they always worry about us. I feel like the team spirit is going towards it. All these players like to attack. They have that bravery point of saying, “Here I am.” That point of daring that gives them to be newcomers, to be excited and not have so much pressure.
P. Mourinho was scribbling. When you write things down in your notebook, on the bench, you show precise handwriting and fill in the pages without wasting paper.
R. I am very paper and pen. So that nothing happens to you and to be able to correct things at rest, it is better to write it down. Most of the people think that soccer players to coaches demand freedom from us to do what they want. I do not entirely agree. Footballers demand that you know what they have to do at all times. And then when they have the ball, obviously they will decide.
Most of the people think that soccer players to coaches demand freedom from us to do what they want. And footballers demand that you know what they have to do at all times.
P. Coaches who, as players, have seen football clearly, like you, often think that the players they coach will see things the same way. How do you overcome this conflict between what you imagine and the reality of the staff you have?
R. It is important that once we decide to train we are aware that we are starting from scratch. We have to learn procedures, a methodology that despite knowing we do not master. We think that the profession is to understand football and give directions, and it is not like that. That’s why I don’t even get into the rounds with the players. For me that is over. Now the important thing is not what I know but what my players know and do. You are not going to be one on one.
P. The lanes are usually exhibitionists. Why did you always seem so withdrawn?
R. I have never been a super athlete. I have never been able to catch a ball and go away from three opponents. He did not have those powers. I needed the association, my colleagues, to participate in something more collective. That has helped me because I had to learn to do other things.
P. It is the same discretion that he practices as a coach in matches: always with the same pants and the same jersey.
R. The image is not the main thing but you have to be careful with imposing what you are not because the players notice it immediately. We have talked about it between coaches: sometimes you have a game that is not very motivating for the players, because of the rival or because of the schedule, or whatever. And we say: “That day is when you have to put on the suit.” And then when we play on a very big stage is when you have to wear a tracksuit.
P. The Spanish teams of the last decade have left their mark by doing very sophisticated and risky things. Do you at Rayo feel that you are going in the opposite direction, towards simplification?
R. We play a lot depending on the rival. I would love to always play the same way, but we are not that good at doing it. Depending on how the rival pressures us, we assume more or less risks. It is not the same that they send you two to the pressure that the whole team send you man to man. If the opponent gives us facilities to go out with the ball, we prefer to go from the bottom. Because in First, just playing direct, just playing against it, it’s not going to hit you. It’s not enough. Do you need anything else. But you have to carefully evaluate how far you can risk and in what scenarios it can be profitable for us to take those risks, which then have their rewards when you go out with the ball played, and in which scenarios you should be more practical. The key to the mystery is that.
P. Does that explain why Rayo is the team in the League that uses the long pass the most?
R. Yes. Today the long pass is understood as a clearance, as a ball that you get rid of. However, to gain depth, there is no better situation than a center-back looking for a diagonal to an extreme that gains depth and making the entire opposing team back down. If they recover you, they must initiate the attack from far away. They are passes that seem very good to me.
P. Aren’t you ashamed to say it? For years it has been fashionable to say that you have to get the ball played, and many coaches have said it without feeling it.
R. It does not seem less worthy to me. What is the first thing you have to do when you get the ball back? Look at your center forward, who is the one who is closest to the opposing goal. If it is well covered, you look at your ends, and if the ends are also covered then we have to look for one more security pass. But the concept of a security pass as such does not motivate me. Sometimes there is no other choice. But sometimes it is the least good of passes. For teams that are not super dominant, the easiest way to get there is the long pass.
P. Is Falcao worth looking so high above, even when covered? Wouldn’t it be more effective if Álvaro, Trejo or Isi gave him interior passes so that he could attack the space?
R. Falcao in the area is differential. Due to his stature, he does not give the impression of dominating the passing game. But then he moves very well and wins the position. What we want is to bring the area as close as possible. To give him inside passes we need to press well, steal high and gain depth with the wingers, because that allows you to place him inside the area. There we are going to get the best version of Falcao. He is aware that for this he has to help us with high blood pressure.
To give Falcao inside passes we need to press well, steal high and gain depth with the wingers, because that allows you to place him inside the area. There you get its best version.
P. Everything in his work seems very rational except the tape on his fingers.
R. I do not consider myself very superstitious and I am aware that it is worthless. But I’ve been wearing them since I played in the Athletic youth team. Some referee made me remove them, and nothing happened. I don’t usually say why I wear them on some fingers and not on others. They are stories that I have in my head. Things I want to remember.
P. Tape is like a sign of vulnerability. It’s strange because coaches often fall into the fantasy that they can control everything.
R. What makes the difference is the quality of the footballers, and that is usually determined by budgets. You take the League and at the end every year the first four are the same and the next four, in one order or another, are those that correspond to specific budgets. If you do things well, you can improve some percentages that make you advance within your economic range. But there is no magician here. In football, our guild is made up of secondary characters and that is the way it should be.
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