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Five Seasons in Vallecas

This is a fantastic piece written by guest author @Chalkontheboots

We’ve all got one. Sometimes we keep it quiet. For others, it’s more readily apparent. It’s always in the most unusual of places too. And it doesn’t matter what you do, it simply won’t go away.

Different techniques.

Different angles.

Faster.

Slower.

The itch persists. It needs scratched. It’s easier just to cave in. Scratch. And scratch some more. Once you’ve started, the itch only subsides temporarily and will repeatedly flare up. The scratching continues. Football Manager was my itch. I used to play Football Manager incessantly. It was like an addiction. Craving my next fix and planning new formations to implement as I dominated both domestically and on the European front with my all-conquering Arsenal side. It was difficult but I triumphed eventually. I broke free. I stopped playing. And gradually I returned to normality. My sleep patterns becoming more sensible once more. The claim of “just one more game” at midnight still reigns as one of the biggest lies I’ve told myself. Yet eventually I resisted. I stopped staying up to 4am most nights of the week. I stopped scratching. And then I began reading more and more blogs on Football Manager and the trials and tribulations with various approaches. The itch needed scratching once more. My resistance was feeble, it was only a matter of time. FM15 was downloaded. Thus far I’ve only stayed up to 4am on one occasion and in my defence, it was when the clocks went forward so technically, technically, it was really only 3am, wasn’t it?

What particularly intrigued me was the desire to succeed at Football Manager using the Moneyball approach that has proven so successful in Baseball. The use of analytics is gaining an increasing foothold in football albeit components of the mainstream media remain sceptical to say the least. To me, the key components of Moneyball seem straightforward and at a major club, should be easier to implement mainly due to the finances that you have, which is odd given that Moneyball should be more applicable in some respects to smaller clubs with less money seeking to develop. But what if the club is so financially constrained as to make many of the Moneyball rules irrelevant? What then?

The rules of Moneyball, as detailed in Soccernomics, are as follows:-

  • Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend (pp. 14-21).
  • Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome (pp. 21-22).
  • Don’t buy players who looked Gucci at international tournaments: they’re likely over-valued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team (pp. 22-24) – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments, and it’s a super small sample size.
  • Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England (pp. 24-25).
  • Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside (p. 29).
  • Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one (pp. 43-44).
  • Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value (pp. 45-47).
  • Centre-forwards cost more than they should (p. 47).
  • Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold (pp. 48-49).
  • Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players (pp. 49-51).

Many of the key criteria of Moneyball were concepts I followed in earlier versions of Football Manager. Not because I knew of them but simply because that was how I liked to manage. Developing the club infrastructure and promoting from within the club with the long-term goal to have a trophy winning team filled entirely with players all from the club’s own academy. I came close on a few occasions but never quite fulfilled it always having at least two or three players that had arrived in their early twenties. Now I had the Ten Commandments to follow. I would follow these devoutly and achieve my aim. In theory at least.

Choice of club? Well, that was easy. Too easy in fact although it came with a tinge of sadness as I replaced the wonderful Paco Jemez as manager of Rayo Vallecano. And then the pain began. The club’s main objective for the forthcoming season was to avoid relegation. And that would be the easiest part of my job. It was all of the additional grief that created far greater issues to resolve…

I’m not interested in just winning. I’m the Xavi of my managerial generation. There has to be something greater than the result. There has to be a legacy. I will be the man who establishes Rayo Vallecano in La Liga. The days of free transfers, loan signings and relegation scraps will become a distant memory as Rayo progress under my tutelage. I want to create a base for the club to develop and grow, ultimately becoming sustainable. And so, in homage toward economic planning within the former Soviet Union, I unveil the Rayo Vallecano five-year plan:-

  1. Year 1 Avoid relegation, rebuild squad and improve youth facilities.
  2. Year 2 Mid table, improve squad and improve training facilities.
  3. Year 3 Top half and ground redevelopment / expansion.
  4. Year 4 European qualification.
  5. Year 5 Title challenge.

That’s the aim. The reality is somewhat different…

I’ll start with a disclaimer. This is my third attempt with Rayo Vallecano. My first attempt saw me finish 7th in La Liga and narrowly miss out on Europa League qualification. My second attempt saw me finish 10th, yet the margin of error was smaller this time around with the Champions League places just seven points away from me as a cluster of clubs contrived to all slit each others throats during the climax to the season. The reason for starting again? Success on the pitch was not mirrored with progress off the pitch. On both occasions I made poor choices off the pitch which left me with the very same structural problems I had intended resolving. And that’s the thing about managing Rayo Vallecano. What you do off the pitch will have a significant impact upon what you can achieve on it. It’s not just about selecting the right tactics. It’s about selling your best players every season to wipe out the debt to let you rebuild before you sell your best players to wipe out your debt to help you rebuild before you sell your best players to wipe out your debt to help you rebuild.

You see what I’m saying?

Everything revolves around the lack of finance at the club. It’s become a vicious circle. I want to break this cycle.

The Club

Firstly, some brief background information for those unfamiliar with Rayo Vallecano. If that’s you, shame on you. Rayo play in Vallecas in the suburbs of Madrid. The club have one of the lowest, if not the lowest, budgets in La Liga. The ground has a tiny capacity of just 14,400 and only has three stands with a permanent hoarding behind one goal which only partially obscures the high-rise flats that surround the ground. Despite their financial limitations, the team play an attack minded, possession orientated style of football with manager Paco Jemez refusing to budge and alter his style irrespective of opposition. It’s worked in each of the last three seasons with Rayo finishing comfortably in mid-table even allowing for the habitual heavy defeats they suffer. No other side in Spain has drawn so few games over the past three seasons as Rayo. Jemez philosophy is simple. For a team attempting to avoid relegation, a draw is useless. The objective is always to win. Ten draws are worse than four wins and six defeats. The margins are that fine.

The Club President welcomes me and once the pleasantries have been exchanged, the harsh financial constraints under which I will oversee Year 1 of the Plan are revealed. I have £252k to spend on wages per week and I’m presently spending £247k. I have a generous transfer fund of zero at my disposal too. I also lack staff. I have only one scout and badly need more coaches to ease the workload and improve training. On the pitch, my first team squad has eight players on loan. Add to that a further five players are in the final year of their contract and the issues that I face in the first season become apparent. Did I also say that the club’s financial situation is expected to deteriorate in the coming months as I leak cash? No? Well, there is that to consider as well with debt presently standing at around the £9million mark. The projections over the next few seasons are dire and entirely unsustainable.

One of the peculiarities of Spanish football is the lack of a collective TV deal. Each club must negotiate their own TV deal. This means Barcelona and Real Madrid sweep up over half of the TV income whilst the rest fight for the scraps. The system is slowly changing for the better but in the meantime it means that Rayo receive around £9million in TV income for the entire season. It’s quite simple, in season 1 I need to raise around £7million additional income to help me break even – note that doesn’t even confront the debt, I would simply stand still financially speaking. It’s not a sustainable position to be in. It’s also a vicious circle. I can’t expand the ground because I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough money because my ground is too small. I’m severely limited in my ability to generate extra revenue aside from selling players.

It has led Rayo to operate a revolving door policy each season. Reliant upon free transfers and loans, the vast majority of the squad changes each season. For the beginning of the 2014-15 season, there were a total of 39 transfers in and out of Rayo. There is no continuity and players take time to adapt to the demanding and particular methods of Jemez which explains the normally sluggish start to a season and the customary heavy defeats.

Players

How often do you take over a club, look through the players and find those with relatively lower statistics and try to sell him? It’s a common affliction and one that happened to me regularly in the past. The difference then was that I was always in charge of a bigger club and I could simply go out and buy a replacement. That option no longer exists for me. I now have to get the maximum from the players I have at my disposal. It means tweaking my tactical demands to fit the players available. It’s not easy either.

As mentioned I have eight players on loan and all are likely to feature in my first choice squad every week. However, a number of them are on chunky wages. Its decision time for me. I put my faith in the long-term approach. I have no idea if it will be successful but the first priority has to be getting the club on a sound financial footing. I terminate the loans of six players. Baptistao, Aquino, Lica, Kakuta, Insua and Fatau all return to their parent clubs and save me around £64k per week in wages in the process. Only Alvarez in-goal and Ba in defence remain on loan with me due to my limited options in these positions and also because their loan wages are around the £3k mark each. In their place I sign free agents Ezequiel, a 23-year-old winger who can play on either side, and Paulo Baler, a 39-year-old who can play anywhere across the midfield, costing me around £10k per week. Baler’s quality and experience will be valuable to the team but I’m quite limited to how often I use him as he insists upon an automatic one year contract extension if he plays 20 league games. I need him in the short-term but not the long-term. I agree but need to manage his playing time carefully.

Next, It’s time to raid the B Team and U19’s for any potential rough diamonds. I promote Embarba, Milla, Isl, and Akieme from the B team and the U19 team. Embarba is ready for first team action but the others have potential and nothing more. The B team is packed full of dross. This leaves me with limitations in several areas of my squad.

I begin the process of retraining a number of players in my squad to provide me with greater flexibility. Bueno will become my main striker rather than just an attacking midfielder. Pozuelo will move from an attacking midfielder to a midfielder. Other players are also shuffled around to ensure I have adequate cover across my full squad. This includes Baena being retrained to play in midfield and Morcillo being retrained as a defensive midfielder. I need greater versatility in my small squad.

Next up is renewing the contracts of those first team players with under 12 months left. It’s maybe early to do this but if I delay and the players perform well, they will either seek unaffordable high wages or leave too cheaply with their relatively low minimum fee release clauses. It’s a calculated gamble in that respect but I need security and I hope that the players will accept more or less the same terms again. Nacho, Pozuelo, Bueno and Baena all sign new deals. Manucho has 12 months left too but he is already in the U19 squad as I try to help him leave the club. I also try to offload David Cobeno to make further savings on wages but, unsurprisingly, nobody is interested him. Cobeno drops to the U19 squad. Yes, I know I said don’t discard any players immediately but Cobeno is my third choice keeper and on £7k per week. Therefore he’s an expensive luxury I can live without. Manucho is a target man striker and a pretty useless one at that. After offering me nothing in friendly games and on £7k per week again, he has to go and he does albeit for free. Cobeno leaves in January, again for free.

I also decide to grant a trial to any free agents that I am offered. It’s a random scattergun approach in some respects but it is also a potential opportunity to get a good player for free. Every player gets at least one week to impress me.

Staff

I have few staff and the staff that I have are not very good. That’s the situation in a nutshell. I try to get more staff to ease the workload focusing on quantity rather than quality at this stage. Even if quality staff were available, I couldn’t afford them. I get as many coaches to join my first team as I’m permitted even requesting to the Board to allow me to hire more staff, whilst I hire any coaches that will join my Under 19 side who presently have no coaches whatsoever.

With only a Chief Scout, I need more scouts to help me uncover my free transfers. I pick up Vilasca and Kike Duran and opt to run with just three scouts. I don’t have much money and I can’t afford to buy players so I focus my attention on Central and Southern Europe initially only looking for players under the age of 23, with potential of at least 3.5 stars and, critically, in the final year of their contract.

The quality of staff at Rayo B leaves much to be desired but I have no influence over them. It does leave me considering whether I should use Rayo B over the longer term.

Tactics

Having completed all of the administrative duties, I turn my attention to the pitch. I’m the manager of Rayo Vallecano. There is only one way to play. A possession based game revolving around short passing with an attacking mentality, high defensive line and pressing the opponent all over the pitch.

Yeah, right.

It’s a safety first approach from me. I’m limited in forward areas so it’s a counter attacking 4-1-4-1 that becomes my default formation. My players aren’t good enough to retain possession and press high without being exploited on the counter attack. I need the team to be as compact as possible and to move up and down the pitch as a tight unit but one that does not over commit.

Progress looks good in friendlies with wins and draws but I’ve focussed mainly on teams of a lower ability to try to get the team used to the formation and boost confidence. I opt to continue to play friendlies throughout the season to keep all of my players match fit. It helps any tactical alterations bed down quickly and also generates some much-needed income given I can make around £20k per home friendly playing small opposition.

Fleecing fans of their hard-earned cash is the way of the modern club and I’m not immune to that particular affliction.

Season 1

I leave training to my coaching staff during the first season as I focus on other matters.

The Board approve my first two requests; to improve youth facilities and increase the number of coaches I can hire as outlined above. It’s a good start. I’m now spending £210k per week on wages, £36k under budget (my wages budget was reduced slightly following signing on fees, compensation payments for staff etc).

I agree to reduce my wage budget to release cash for transfer spending and sign Danilo Pereira from Braga for £475k. He gets recommended by two of my scouts and I need another defensive midfielder. Although I’m retraining both Isl, Milla and Morcillo for this role, I can’t afford to wait. After that, activity in the transfer market is virtually non-existent:-

Season 1 Transfers

Season 1 Transfers

The start to my league campaign couldn’t have been any better. Narrow victories over Atletico and Barcelona despite being dominated helps me gain 16 points from my opening seven games. All games used the 4-1-4-1 formation with Bueno as a false 9. The system was designed to squeeze space between defence and forwards to give me solidity but also support in attack. I know the results won’t be sustained and it isn’t as I fall into a pattern of inconsistency, veering between a good performance and winning with abject performances and defeat. Strangely, I never really go on a sustained run of good or bad form. The 4-1-4-1 formation remains. It’s simply a case of getting through this season whilst trying to sort things out off the pitch. Injuries and suspensions start to take their toll on my small squad and variations in the formation start. I move to a 4-1-2-1-2 and then to a 4-3-1-2 with one winger, both formations forced upon me due to player availability. The results are still good though and I reach Christmas with just four league defeats.

I’m offered a new contract in November with the same salary of £15k per week through until 2017. I negotiate the offer and accept in December. I accept £5k per week until June 2016. Unsurprisingly, the President agrees. The club is short of cash. If I reduce my salary by £10k per week, that saves the club around £500k per season. It’s a no brainer. It’s money that I can reinvest in staff and players.

The new year starts with a whimper. One win in six games in January see me exiting the Copa Del Rey after losing both home and away legs against Sevilla and league defeats to Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Deportivo, the latter being particularly disappointing as Depor are a side I need to be beating to avoid being dragged down the table. I’m still fearful of a collapse in form given the tight margins.

My scouts have been busy bees focussing mainly on Spain, Portugal, France and Italy and I have a shortlist of possible players to sign on pre-contracts in January. I’m limited by the wages I can offer and the reputation of the club. Still, I make two signings. Kyle Bartley for central defence pops on when I search UK and Ireland. Fair enough, it’s hardly sensational but he will do exactly what I need. And a little known central midfielder from France by the name of Vincent Pajot. My initial shrug of indifference towards him will quickly evaporate as he becomes one of the pivotal players in my team. He’ll become my captain and make 143 appearances over the next four seasons scoring 7 goals and providing 15 assists. After that, I can’t sign anyone due to financial constraints.

I bounce back again and go on a nine game unbeaten run from February through to April which includes a victory over Athletic Club and draws with Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The 4-1-4-1 is back in vogue with a fit squad but again I run into problems as I enter the final stretch of the campaign with European qualification a real possibility.

A real issue is the lack of squad depth as I’m unable to field the same team in successive games as season draws to a close. The last 11 games of the season brings just one win against Getafe with a narrow 2-1 success. Five draws help me stumble over the finish line with a decent degree of form. This won’t be the last time I collapse at the end of a season either. During the final few games I begin experimenting with 4-1-2-3 to try to score goals. I’ve always enjoying more possession than opponents but very often I have fewer shots and most are from longer distances. The season concludes with a bit of an anti climax. I miss out on the Champions League place by just three points. Eight points from 33 in the final 11 games have cost me dearly.

Over the course of the season, 11 of my 16 wins are via a single goal. The margins are too fine and need to be improved. I’ve played neat tidy football and tended to dominate possession against the majority of teams in the league, creating chances but not taking them. Bueno finishes as my top goalscorer but has just nine league goals. The problem areas are easily identifiable.

I’ve also began the slow process of identifying who to clear out from my B team and U19 teams. All those players not deemed good enough will be offered mutual termination or, if finances permit, a free transfer. It’s a slow process and will take me into season 3 before it’s complete.

As the season draws to a close, the Board announce that due to the financial position of the club, the improvement to the youth facilities have been cancelled.

Season 1 League Table

Season 1 Table

Season 2

No sooner has the joy of finishing 8th in my first season elapsed than I’m planning for the season ahead. There are a few clubs sniffing around one or two players. I make a bold decision. I start offering up my best players to clubs in an effort to clear the debts. I spend June and early July hawking the majority of my players around looking for interested parties. I inflate the proposed transfer fee as high as I can and gradually lower if there are clubs are still sniffing about them. Once mid-July arrives, the process will stop on the basis that any player who is unhappy with my actions will have around five weeks to settle down before the season starts again. It’s risky but so is being manager of Rayo. I need to take risks both on and of the pitch if this is going to work out well.

My plan works. I manage to sell Tito, Quini, Raul Baena, Danilo Pereira, Alex Moreno and Alberto Bueno for a total of £16million although there are sell on clauses etc to be activated. Baena and Pereira were ever presents but just average with 6.96 and 6.92 average respectively. They were not offering enough either defensively or offensively. It’s tough to let Moreno go as he played 29 games last season averaging 7.04 whilst scoring five goals and providing seven assists. £3.2m though, you know. My final income is around the £13million mark. The debt is gone albeit temporarily. The fans are delighted by the departure of Pereira given his limited impact on the team. I also make a tidy profit. Ze Castro and Miku also depart on free transfers freeing up more wages. I ask the Board to improve youth facilities and the Board agree. Let’s see if the President is a man of his word and the facilities are actually improved this time.

I already had Kyle Bartley and Vincent Pajot arriving on free transfers but I need further investment in the squad. I spend £2.7million on Khouma Babacar from Fiorentina as a replacement for Bueno. Three of my scouts are telling me to sign him whatever the cost. I’m still deeply troubled at the thought of spending any money whatsoever nevermind almost £3million but I need a striker badly.

Lass Bangoura, Mojica and Diego Aguirre all arrive back from loans elsewhere. Bangoura and Mojica join the first team squad but sadly, nobody wants to sign Aguirre for free. Matias Cahais arrives on a trial and I immediately sign him as my first choice central defender. The “trial for everyone” experiment begins to reap rewards. Oduro and Bjelica join on frees during pre-season after trials giving me further options on the right and centre of defence.

With the departure of Tito and Quini, I secure Patric from Barcelona at right back for a modest fee. Midfield still needs strengthened so I sign Moglievets for £450k and then Abou Diaby arrives on a free in early September. Yes, he’s injury prone but he is also a quality player and worth the risk. If fit, he’ll be my best midfield player by some distance. The remainder of my activity surrounds the ongoing clearing out of the B team and U19 team.

I need to offer potential first team players competitive football and start the process of identifying affiliated clubs. The key aspect here will be the quality of the facilities on offer. I want players to go on loan to clubs with quality facilities to help my players develop.

Season 2 Transfers

Season 2 Transfers

I decide to take control of coaching the first team and U19 squads with all players placed upon individual routines also. A few players continue to mump and moan but the majority seem happy with the new regime. It’s far more intensive for the U19 squad as I increase the level of training for those that remain part of this squad.

The season begins with a change to a 4-1-2-3 formation with two wingers. I now have sufficient strength to play with a more attacking formation particularly the quality in wide areas. The season begins well but not as spectacular as last season. After nine games, I’m sitting with 15 points having only two defeats and a home game against Malaga follows. I dominate the game both in terms of possession and chances but I lose 0-1.

I’m struggling to support Babacar as my lone frontman. My two wingers are too wide and not offering enough support to him. I decide to make a bold and radical change. This is the era of the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 and the death of other formations. You can no longer play with two strikers in the modern game they say. Let’s find out. I return to the golden era of British football and deploy a 4-4-2. I opt for a defensive ball winner and a more advanced central midfielder with two wide midfielders on support duty. This should help retain a narrow formation in the centre of the pitch. One striker drops deeper than the other also. The switch to a 4-4-2 yields immediate dividends as I defeat Cordoba 2-1. This is followed up with a 3-1 away win at Las Palmas with the same formation. I start creating more clear-cut chances and embark on a run of nine wins and four draws that catapult me into third place, four points clear of nearest challengers Valencia.

Off the pitch, my own contract negotiations stall for two months leading up to Christmas. The President will not accept my demands to increase the wage budget during contract discussions. This changes when I manage to rid myself of Lass Bangoura to Levante for £4.2 million (although a third-party clause takes £1.4million from me). Bangoura performed very well but quickly became nothing more than a nuisance with his constant whining off the pitch. It’s quite simple. With a small squad, I can’t afford any disruptive influences and so he packs his bags and leaves. I re-sign with Rayo for another season and increase my salary to £6.25 per week. Well, I’m worth it.

The highlight of the season thus far has to be the turnaround in the Spanish Cup 4th round vs Granada. Trailing 4-1 after the away leg, I win the home leg 4-0 and progress. Lighting almost strikes twice in the 5th round after Malaga thump me 4-1 in the away leg. This time I can only manage 2-0 at home. My abysmal form in the Copa Del Rey continues and will do so in the future also. It’s not a favourable competition for me.

Funnily enough, my good form against Barcelona continues with another win and draw against them. I’m now undefeated in four games against them.

January arrives and I sign Fernando Pacheco on a free transfer. The goalkeeper had been released by Real Madrid B last season but a cruciate knee injury had ruled him out until now. This is a real step up in quality between the posts for me. Xulu comes in for £200k in central defence. He’s available on a Bosman at the end of the season but I decide to sign him just now as I need a player of his quality in the team. He becomes a key player in my defence and a first pick alongside Cahais.

As the season progresses I begin trying to shut games down towards the end if I’m leading. This involves utilising the Contain mentality along with lower tempo, time-wasting etc and pulling every player back into my half of the pitch to break up momentum and secure the result. There are obvious dangers with this especially when you’re playing against much better quality opposition but on the whole, it appears to be working as I secure a high number of wins by a solitary goal. I complained about solitary gaol wins but I’m simply not good enough yet to completely kill off opponents.

I somehow clamber over the line fishing line in 5th place. European football in Vallecas. Unheard of. A 5th placed finish seemed barely believable just 10 months earlier. Off the pitch however, the problems persist primarily due to the individual TV deal and low prize money on offer. Unless I can sell big, I’ll probably never clear the debt. And it’s difficult to sell big when so many teams in the same league find themselves in the exact same position. At least the youth facilities are improved. Every cloud and all that.

Again, I squeeze by with 12 wins from 20 via a single goal.

Season 2 League Table

Season 2 Table

Season 3

With the last remaining coaches departing and not being replaced at Rayo B, I decide to remove all players from this team. Rayo B now only have a manager and no coaching staff so there is little point in having players there. Furthermore, I don’t want players in their mid twenties sitting at Rayo B and not contributing towards the club. If you’re not in the first team squad then you should either be a young player on loan or in the U19 squad.

Karlsruhe and Zurich are now affiliated and begin taking players from me on season long loans. This is key for development. Both clubs were chosen as they have better quality training facilities than me at present.

Minambres starts making his presence felt by acquiring promising youngsters for the club. Angle Sanchez and Enrique Yuste arrive at the club along with my usual collection of free agents in the form of Kosnic, Henriquez and Salifu. I splash the cash on Guido Vadala.

Season 3 Transfers

Season 3 Transfers

Jozabed has been a central component of my midfield but again, the offer from Cagliari is too good to refuse and he departs along with Diaby who, surprisingly enough, is injury prone. The loss of Jozabed hits my midfield area hard. He was used as the most advanced midfielder and in his 70 appearances contributed 6 goals and 14 assists. Pajot will replace him but he doesn’t offer the same threat in advanced areas. Amidu Salifu arrives from Fiorentina to become my new midfield destroyer.

Opening wins over Espanyol and Levante bode well but I fail to win any of my next five league games but three draws help me maintain some stability. The consistency of my inconsistency is the one constant theme this season. I never manage to sustain any decent unbeaten run of form for any period of time.

I win my European debut with a 1-0 win over Malmo in the Europa League group stage. I initially began struggling in a relatively weak group containing Standard Liege and PSV however things improve. A win over Zaragoza on the domestic front suggests an upturn in form but I draw two and lose two in my next four games which includes a 7-0 hammering by Barcelona. Despite the additions to the squad, I struggle with the twin demands of domestic and European football. My squad still isn’t strong enough quality wise for the step up and although I qualify from the group stage, I’m wildly inconsistent domestically and abroad.

Henriquez doesn’t perform as I had anticipated and I decide to offload him in January and I find a willing purchaser. He departs for £2.5m plus a few add-on clauses. It’s a quick and easy profit. Despite being a key part of my team, Xulu becomes a nuisance who wants to leave so I sell him after one season. Kosnic takes his place. Again, a substantial profit is realised on the player. Kristoffer Ajer arrives for £1m and with more quality in midfield, I can revert back to a 4-1-2-3 when needed.

The Europa League campaign continues with a fairly comfortable aggregate victory over Kaiserslautern. The adventure comes to an end with a narrow 4-3 aggregate defeat to Sampdoria. The opening hour in the away leg when I conceded three goals proving pivotal. From being tipped to cling onto my top flight position in the last two seasons, I’m now reaching the latter stages of European football. The reputation of the club is enhanced significantly but so is the bank balance. It may not be much for bigger clubs, but the prize money in the Europa League is significant for Rayo. I’ve clambering out of debt. Slowly. But surely.

Domestically I win one then lose one for much of the second half of the season. I never look like breaking into the top six and staying there but nor do I ever appear to be in danger of dropping down the league table. Babacar and Vadala contribute 32 goals across all competitions for me as they form a decent partnership in attack, Vadala is usually tucked in behind Babacar but my defensive weaknesses hinder me severely.

The season ends a little disappointingly as I finish in 7th place. It’s a drop from last season but I have the bonus of Europa League qualification by default as both Copa Del Rey finalists have finished in the top 6.

I suffer 14 defeats in the league, a high that remains my record and my goal difference of just +4 is the lowest goal difference I’ve had. It’s clear I’ve made mistakes over the course of the season. It’s how I address these and progress that’s key now.

Season 3 League Table

Season 3 Table

Season 4

The usual wheeling and dealing occurs during pre-season and I decide to offload Kyle Bartley for £625,000. He only has a year left on his contract and is back up to my first choice pairing of Kosnic and Cahais. According to my coaches, he won’t improve beyond being a good player. Taking that on board, he’s offloaded to make way for a couple of very promising youngsters. From now on Sanchez and Gonzalez from my U19’s will be my deputies. I promote a number of other U19 players into my first team squad as cover and to help with experience but retain them playing for the U19s on a regular basis also.

The Board offer me a stupid transfer budget of around £6m for the season. It;s the start of the club really moving in an upward trajectory and it’s really delusions of grandeur. I shouldn’t have a budget anywhere near that. It’s tiny compared to most clubs but it’s quite frankly ludicrous for a club of the size of Rayo. Similarly, the wage bill is permitted  to increase up to £350k per week. This is entirely unsustainable. I vow to keep the wage bill below £250k per week. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Board have actually questioned my wage control stating that they don’t wish it to adversely affect the final product on the pitch.

Season 4 Transfers

Season 4 Transfers

I’ve performed well in the transfer market over the past three seasons and managed to squeeze value from the players I’ve brought into the club. I’ve improved the squad year on year despite my best players being sold each season. I’m becoming something of a mini Monchi but I hit the skids this season. Six players arrive in the summer with only money being spent on Vasquez. The £400k signing struggles and will eventually depart on a free transfer next season. It’s the first time I’ve signed a player who fails. Medjelled is equally as disappointing and fails to develop as envisaged. Masip arrives on a free transfer and provides competition for Pacheco in goals whilst Trapaga has potential but is mainly seen as providing cover. He’ll eventually become my first choice right back as he improves hugely. Cuevas joins for free and takes a hefty weekly salary but he can fulfill a number of positions on the left and provides an increase in quality. Again, an improvement on what I have at my disposal.

Minambres brings in Cucurella and Galan. Neither appears to be ready for the first team but hopefully with loan experience, they’ll develop as planned.

The season begins promisingly and then the problems begin. Kosnic and Cahais are both injured and out for 6 weeks and 8 weeks respectively. I’m forced to drop Ajer or Pajot back into defence as Sanchez and Gonzalez are just too weak as a starting pairing. My league form is awful as I struggle to score goals leaving me with just seven points from my opening eight league games. I’m dominating possession but not taking chances and I’m losing games by the odd goal.

I decide to make a number of alterations to my tactics with three major changes. Interestingly, when I check back on goals conceded, I’m now defensively weak with a 4-1-4-1 formation, conceding more goals on average than any other formation particularly on my left side. The formation that helped bring me to where I am is no longer suitable. Evolve or die it seems may actually be true. Firstly, I change the mentality of the team. For almost my entire campaign thus far, I’ve opted for counter attacking style. This is no longer good enough. I switch to an attacking side. I’m going to attack my opponents straight from kick off now to try to gain the upper hand. Pro-active replaces reactive. Over the next few games results pick up and I continue to tinker. The second major change is a permanent shift back to 4-4-2. I need to offer more of an attacking threat rather than just dominating the ball in the middle of the pitch. Playing with two strikers though, I need to get the balance correct. I used Babacar in his preferred role of poacher but I can’t afford to carry a player who doesn’t contribute to the team, outside of the attacking phase. I opt for one attacking forward paired with a deeper lying forward which on occasion can move deeper to an attacking midfielder in a 4-4-1-1 line up. The distribution of duties for my midfield pairing is a Ball Winning Midfielder normally on defend and a Central Midfielder who alternates between Defend and Support. I’m aware that without a recognised defensive midfielder, I will leave gaps between the lines possibly countered by my desire to now play significantly higher up the pitch but I’m confident of the quality of Salifu and particularly Pajot in central midfield. I play with two wingers but on the left I’ve now placed Cuevas on a Support duty whereas Embarba on the right is Attack. A small tweak but one designed to shore up my left side.

My Europa League form at least offers some comfort albeit not much. After cruising through the Europa League qualifiers’ I’m left toiling to progress through the group stage. I’m again drawn in a weak group with Genk, Dnipro and Nacional but following an opening victory over a poor Dnipor side, I draw the next four games leaving me an away fixture to group winners Nacional, needing at least a draw to qualify. A comfortable 3-0 victory occurs and things begin to click into place once more.

Under my watch Rayo will never go into a game with a negative mindset or formation again. Morir con botas los puestas is the phrase in Spanish. To die with your boots on. To never give in and if you lose, lose on your terms. Rayo will always attack from now on.

I’m in a bit of a dilemma now. I have the bones of a decent side and some very promising U19 players but I need to ensure that I can offer them the right amount of playing time to aid that development. Players who are solid but not developing any further are blocking the way. I need to address that problem.

The January transfer window offers an opportunity and I try to sell a number of players. I’m Rayo Vallecano. I’m bold. I’m brave. I’m possibly quite foolish as I sell my main goalscorer Khouma Babacar for £10million. Let’s be clear, Babacar was excellent for Rayo and could develop further in the future but I can’t turn down an offer that size. It’s a sizeable profit but it leaves me with no identifiable goalscorer. All I have left is forwards with potential. To put it into perspective, Babacar was my top goalscorer in Season 2, Season 3 and will finish as top goalscorer in Season 4 despite only playing half the campaign. Why did I sell? It’s the bank balance stupid. I’m in danger of moving into debt again and need to sell once more to survive. Edwin Cardona arrives on a free transfer and a chunky weekly wage of £26k but I’m immediately drawn to his value – £9.5million and the opportunities to quickly flog him and make a profit. I reconsider when he scores the only goal of the game direct from a free kick on his debut. Three points are still worth something.

Enrique Yuste becomes my first choice striker at just 17. The remainder of this season is about development for him but he’s already shows signs of significant potential. He starts ahead of Vasquez who I’ve lost all faith in at this point.

I’m motoring up the league as I travel to the Mestalla with a 14 game unbeaten run across all competitions. I lose 2-0 but I compete. I have more possession and an equal amount of chances created. It’s still progress. I now go into certain key fixtures believing I can win as opposed to just hoping.

I test the waters for my future career elsewhere with applications and interviews at Man City and Sevilla. I’m rejected by City but offered the Sevilla job. I decline but the very fact I’m showing interest in employment elsewhere antagonises the President considerably who appears to be a rather unforgiving fellow.  I’m suitably chastised with the warning that if I apply for a job elsewhere, I’ll be sacked. My contract expires in June but I reject signing an extension for the time being. I need to avoid the distraction of contract talks and focus on managing the club etc etc. Standard cliches are always the best.

One revealing part is the finances at the end of season 4. I decreased my expenditure this season by cutting the wage bill slightly and having very little transfer spend resulting in a drop from £46m to £44m. Add to that the huge increase in Europa League prize money and TV money plus the transfers fees received in excess of £12million and I should be sitting with a healthy bank balance. We are. Sort of. The club recorded after tax profit of £5million for the season. When you cut through the all the numbers, I now need to generate around £9million per season in player sales to stay out of debt. Let’s be clear that debt isn’t bad if you can afford it. The problem for Rayo is the income that can be generated is so small, going into debt can be a disaster.

I sign a 1 year extension to my contract on reduced wage of £5k per week.  Less money for me means more money for the club. I’m all about the club.

The now obligatory drop off in form occurs and I fall from 3rd place down to a final 6th position in the league. European football again in Vallecas.

Season 4 League Table

Season 4 Table

Season 5

Remember back at the start? Season 5 was when I was to mount the title challenge. Admittedly I should probably have qualified for the Champions League by now but we’ll skip past that part. The Board even recognise the changing outlook for the club. The minimum I’m expected to achieve this season is a Europa League place. Should I decide to opt for a title challenge I’ll be afforded a quite stupid wage budget and transfer budget, in excess of large years’ crazy figures. It’s all very well for the Board to back me but at the same time, it has to be realistic. I’d rather write off the majority of that transfer budget and improve training facilities or expand the ground. Sadly such a trade-off is not possible within the game at present.

I receive about £9.5 million per season in TV money. That deal is due for renewal in season 2020/21 – two seasons away. If I can continue to maintain my level of performance I’d hope that deal would double to £20million per year and immediately prevent me from selling the most valuable players in my squad. Add to that the possibility now of Champions League group stage football which could be worth about £10m to the club all in and you know what? That tiny speck in the distance that you can see? Look straight ahead. See it now? That’s the light at the end of the financial tunnel coming into view. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

It’s still some way off though so I begin Season 5 by promptly selling Mojica, Moglievets, Ezequiel, Masip and finally, the club captain, Nacho netting me a tidy sum of £10.5million in the process. Or £10million if you discount the £450k I paid for Mogilevets. Nacho only had one year left on his contract and his agent wanted his wages doubled. At 29 years old and with a penchant for getting sent off for ridiculous tackles, it’s time for him to depart. It’s not even the end of August yet and I’ve hit my £10m sales level. Perhaps I should reconsider my real life career and move into sales…

Season 5 Transfers

Season 5 Transfers

Ajer and Patric agitate for moves to Valencia but Los Che refuse to offer even the players basic valuations so they are going nowhere. A few new players arrive. The wonderfully named Isaac Success as a forward and Ozaryun for left midfield, both as free agents. With Masip departing I sign Lezzarini for free as goalkeeping cover. Adrian Molina is a raw 15-year-old with 5 star potential from all my scouts so he signs and will join in January.

Minambres, as is his want, signs more youngsters for me as Jose Luis Ruiz joins from Barcelona and goes straight into my first team squad. The 17-year-old midfielder has 5 star potential so I won’t complain. Pepe, Gary Johns and Galan arrive too as my Sporting Director goes on a mini spending spree. I consider taking Xavi Quintilla on loan from Barcelona as I’m still weak in central defence but Barcelona then transfer list him and he joins for £250k plus a further £150k after 50 league appearances. Again, he has 5 star potential. His wages demands are high but I’ve not really identified anyone else and I have plenty of scope on wages.

I’m still open to selling a few more players particularly Vasquez if he doesn’t perform in pre-season and possibly a midfielder too. With Isl and Milla in the squad, I could still shift Salifu and retain Pajot and Ajer as my first choice pairing. It would leave me a little light quality wise however.

I try to punt Vasquez but nobody wants him. With Cuevas, Cardona and Vadala being the three non EU players registered, he’s not going to feature in the team. And then another welcome bonus. Vadala gets Spanish Citizenship and Vasquez can be registered.

My wage bill has ballooned to £310k per week due to contract renewals, yearly wage rises etc. Player sales help it drop and then I begin the process of culling the U19’s that are not considered good enough and sending the remainder of my U19’s out on loan if they are not going to be part of my first team squad. The wage bill drops to £280k per week. It’s still higher than I’d like though but realistically it will continue to grow given its small starting point. As my revenues increase, I can afford to increase salary costs provided I avoid spending sprees.

I’m awash with cash at the start of the season with the TV money also arriving into the bank and burning a hole in my pocket. Rayo Vallecano has never had it so good so I make my move and request improvements to both youth and training facilities. The Board agree to this investment costing £5.8 million. Alas, they agree that whilst further ground expansion would be worthwhile but they cannot afford it. That can wait until next season.

The season begins with a real sense of optimism. Without doubt, this is the most talented Rayo squad I’ve managed yet and there is greater depth to it now beyond the first eleven. I’m still a little light in areas particularly if injuries and suspensions strike. I’m targeting 20 league victories. If I can manage that, I should get the final Champions League spot.

Celta away lie in wait on the first game of the season. It’s 0-0 after 60minutes and I dominate possession but neither side is creating much. This is the type of game I need to win if I’m to compete for the Champions League. I make a radical change and for the first time ever at Rayo, I move to a back three and employ a 3-4-1-2 in search of goals. Yuste scores and I claim a 1-0 away win. Maybe I’m reading too much into the result but it’s the sort of game previously I’d have clung on for a draw at best or even possibly lose. Now I demand a win and get it.

Valladolid at home is next and with both Patric and Trapaga out injured, I have no right back. Even at U19 level, my right backs are all out on loan now. I stick with the 3-4-1-2 formation.

>Valladolid get battered for the first 25minutes but I only have one goal despite the dominance. A second goal arrives early in the second half before Valladolid pull one back. The 2-1 win is secured and I sit top of La Liga after two games. The die has been cast. Against weaker sides, I’ll now go 3-4-1-2 in search of victories from the outset.

A larger than expected crowd attends the Valladolid game. With season tickets at just under the 10k level, regular European football, ground expansion is a definite possibility now which would enable me to gain further income from the bigger games.

I’m off to a flier and my opening seven-league games reap 19 points. Undefeated, I sit top of the league albeit sterner challenges lie ahead including a three game run of Valencia, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

I get a fortunate draw in the Europa League and Plzen, Haifa and Fenerbahce should be straightforward enough opponents to see off. And they are as I stroll through with five wins and one draw to top the group. The reward is a tie vs Galatasaray in the new year.

Nine wins and two draws from my first 11 league games has me dreaming of a title challenge before I travel to the Mestalla where I have historically toiled. And toil I do. I succumb to a hefty 4-1 defeat. I bounce back with a great 1-0 win over Barcelona but two defeats follow. Away to Real Madrid which is fair enough but then Mallorca thump me 3-0 at home. The mini crises is halted though with a tie against Lleida in the Copa. Two easy wins follow and league form picks up too. Just in time for a 5th round tie vs Barcelona in the Copa. I’ve beat them in one-off games, can I win on aggregate? Indeed I can with an aggregate win on away goals after extra time. What’s more surprising is that I effectively write off the tie before it begins with more important league games on the horizon. I rotate heavily and get a bit of a beating in the away leg but escape with a narrow 2-1 defeat. A 1-0 home win with a stronger side, but not full strength, seals a famous victory.

Cardona has been quite magnificent in his short spell at the club. Despite being on £26k per week, I offer him a new contract entirely based around his release clause. He is valued at £9.75m and his release clause is just £11m. The renewal is swift and his wage packet now stands at £36k per week with a nice release clause of £17.5m. Quite frankly I don’t want to pay a weekly wage that high but I’m confident he’ll be leaving soon anyway. January, in fact, as a raft of clubs show interest in him. I’ve grown weary of clubs following players and unsettling them so I simply offer Cardona up. Dortmund meet his release clause and he’s off to Germany in two months. He’ll have played for Rayo for exactly one year when he departs. Deduct his signing on fees, agent fees and 20% sell on clauses and I’m left with a £10m profit. Tidy. Cardona made 33 appearances for Rayo scoring 11 goals and providing 6 assists. Excellent performance for a winger.

Opoku joins as cover in defence and Pepe and Molina arrive at the club too.

The club is riding the crest of a wave and I progress further in the Europa League reaching the last 16 after, defeating Galatasaray in the process.

I gain the huge sum of £425,000 for my game against Porto in the last 16 of the Europa League. Again, the bridge in quality was too great for my side when we moved to the business end of European Competition but I enjoy my best ever run in the Cope Del Rey, making it to the semi final. I’m one step away from a first final appearance and the opportunity to actually win something. My optimism is short-lived as Real Madrid crush me 6-0 on aggregate.

This is the breakthrough season for Enrique Yuste. Last season was about experience after replacing Babacar but the young Spaniard will finish the season on 20 goals from 38 appearances. His goals are driving me forward and he shines in a  7-1 rout of Zaragoza in March which sees me end a tricky period of four defeats in all competitions including highly damaging defeats to Elche and Cordoba. Both teams are fighting relegation and it’s games I need to be winning. I dominate both games with more possession, more shots on target and more chances yet win neither. The Cordoba result is especially galling as they have four shots on target and score with three of them. Understandably, the fans are raging about both results. It’s six points dropped for me. Six points that could prove pivotal at the season end.

I’m sitting in third place and three points clear of Valencia with eight games to go when Los Che arrive in Vallecas. Despite my poor record against Valencia, I win 2-1 to go 6 points clear then…Bang. As usual, I implode during the run in, recording one win, one draw and five defeats in my final seven games but I cling onto 4th place and secure Champions League football.

Season 5 League Table

Season 5 Table

Where I’ve Been

Despite the excellent progress that’s been made, there’s always the constant worry that I’m not extracting the full potential from my squad and that I could be achieving just that little bit more.

Have I opted for the correct formation or am I making basic errors? Should I be achieving more? Could I realistically mount a credible title challenge beyond the first ten or twelve games of the season?

The most obvious lesson is there is no one size fits all approach for a club of Rayo’s size. There are constant minor alterations to the mentality of the team and individual player instructions on a weekly basis determined by my opponents. I’ll be more attack minded against lesser teams whilst becoming more conservative when faced with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s not massive changes either. It’s minor. It’s starting a game against Barcelona with a standard mentality but lowering the tempo early on to try to retain possession and slow the game down. Bringing my wingers back to support duty rather than attack in an effort to avoid losing an early goal and moving into damage limitation mode.

Equally, as I’ve progressed more teams are now defending against me requiring an alternative approach to create chances. I need to get better support to my forward players as they will be more heavily marked by a team sitting deep against me. I’m no longer afforded the same level of space by the opposition.

What is also worth noting is how my forward thinking players all appear to have developed far quicker than my defensive players. The quality in my squad is all in the forward areas now with the exception of Pacheco in-goal.

The Board have consistently revised my targets upwards and the minimum I’m now expected to qualify for the Europa League and make the groups stages of the competition on an annual basis. The margin for error is being reduced every season.

One problem that appears every season is players having their heads turned by more glamorous clubs. And being honest it’s not particularly difficult to be a more glamorous club than Rayo Vallecano. I’ll always sell my best players. That’s the nature of the club I’m at and I accept that. The problem is when players want to leave earlier than I want to sell and I either have no replacement identified or the replacement player is still very young and a step down in terms of quality.

The infrastructure of the club has been built up substantially on and off the pitch with the exception of the stadium being expanded. The loss of potential revenue here continues to be an issue even with the increase in income via European Competition and sponsorship. It’s not quite a Leeds Utd scenario but I am highly vulnerable if I don’t qualify for the Champions League or enjoy an extended run in the Europa League. No European Competition at all would be an issue and require a return to selling players to survive.
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Where I’m Going

Planning begins for season 6 and the obligatory fire sale of my best players continues although this has been all but eliminated by a ground sponsorship deal which nets me £13million per season for the next 10 seasons. I’m almost, almost, self-sufficient now with no requirement to sell players every season provided I manage my wage bill carefully, don’t offer crazy salaries and have additional revenue from European football. That should be aided by me being loathe to offer anything beyond £25k per week. I’ll continue to sell the highest earners at the club partly to ensure that I remain financially secure but also because I’m on my own self appointed quest to gain value for money from every player. I’d like to share with you how this operates but I can’t as it’s nothing more than my own views on a player. The one principle of sorts is that when a player starts earning more than £20k per week I immediately assess if it’s worth selling him. It generates income for the club and keeps the wage bill steady.

This is a pivotal season for Rayo. Training ground improvements will complete in a few months time, there is cash in the bank and no debt and we’re competing in the Champions League generating further income. And the TV deal is due for renewal next season.

Where It All Began

Let’s revisit the five-year plan to assess how we did:-

  1.  Year 1    Avoid relegation, rebuild squad and improve youth facilities – 8th place finish. Squad rebuilding. Request for improved youth facilities denied.
  2. Year 2    Mid table, improve squad and improve training facilities – 5th place finish and European Qualification. Squad improvements continue. Youth facilities improved.
  3. Year 3    Top half and ground redevelopment / expansion – 7th place finish and European Qualification. Ground redevelopment rejected.
  4. Year 4    European qualification – 7th place finish and European Qualification.
  5. Year 5    Title challenge – 4th place finish and European Qualification. Youth facilities improvement accepted. Training facilities improvement accepted. Ground expansion rejected.

On the pitch, the challenges were met or surpassed. Off the pitch however, the proposed improvements lagged behind. Which consequently has a knock effect for the objectives of Soccernomics:-

  •  Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend (pp. 14-21).

Any spend is difficult when saddled with debt but wages have been kept low.  Possibly too low at times in an effort to clear the debts.

  • Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome (pp. 21-22)

 I had little money so avoided this completely.

  • Don’t buy players who looked Gucci at international tournaments: they’re likely over-valued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team (pp. 22-24)

I don’t need to worry about international tournaments. I’ve never scouted one.

  • Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England (pp. 24-25)

 Again, of no use to me as I’ve focused my searches around Southern and Central Europe.

  • Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside (p. 29)

 I’ve always had very young squads and in Season 5, the average age of my     squad is just 21. Players seldom reach 30 years old but if they do, they are sold or released.

  • Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one (pp. 43-44)

This has been followed for all acquisitions.

  • Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value (pp. 45-47)

I’ve tried to sign young players and have moved to only spending transfer fees on players under the age of 25. Anyone over this age has to be a free   transfer.       

  • Centre-forwards cost more than they should (p. 47)

I’ve tried to develop internally with the exception of Babacar and Vasquez.

  • Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold (pp. 48-49)

I can’t always replace as I often had no funds to buy until the player was sold. And often the proceeds from the sale went to paying off debts. It leaves the squad temporarily imbalanced.

  • Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players (pp. 49-51)

I’ve promoted constantly since taking over Rayo but without the investment in the facilities, the players cannot reach their potential.

Life has been tough in Vallecas but progress has been excellent. As noted at the beginning, what I did off the pitch was every bit as important to the future viability of the club as what the playing squad delivered on the pitch. Whilst that may be true of any club, when you sit at the margins financially, the constant balancing act that needs to be achieved cannot be ignored.

The boys from the Barrio have done alright. Here’s to the next 5 year plan.

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