In search of the Jemez method
"This is what happens when you're a coach: your hair falls out and you get ulcers. It's a disaster," joked Rayo Vallecano manager Paco Jemez, now without a single strand of the once flowing locks that graced his head during his playing days.
In truth, Jemez, who played for the successful Deportivo La Coruna side of the mid-1990s and represented Spain at UEFA EURO 2000, has plenty to smile about at present. The 42-year-old has emerged as the coaching revelation of the season in his maiden top-flight campaign, having taken Rayo to eighth in the league, where they sit just three points from the UEFA Champions League places. And this despite operating on the lowest budget in La Liga.
"I'm an optimistic person," he said. "Too optimistic, perhaps, but this surpasses anything I could have hoped for."
Only three teams have won more games than Rayo in La Liga this season, but it is the manner of their success that has impressed almost as much as the results themselves. Indeed, despite the Madrid club's limited resources, Jemez has transformed them into a side characterised by free-flowing, attractive football. FIFA.com caught up with him ahead of Rayo's forthcoming league clash with Barcelona, and was naturally keen to find out more about his winning method.
"There's no magic potion or secret formula," said Jemez, "but when you've got such a small budget, and need to compete at the same level as everyone else, you have to have something that makes you stronger than the rest. That something is commitment. When we started the project, we chose players with one thing in common: they all had something to prove, either because they were still young, or because they were older and hadn't yet been able to show their full potential."
"When you've got a difficult year in front of you and you want to make progress, you need people with a lot of commitment and dedication," Jemez added. That blend of youth and experience has certainly paid dividends for Rayo, with experienced campaigners like Alejandro Dominguez and Raul Tamudo combining to great effect with the likes of Leo Baptistao and Lass Bangoura, two of the league's brightest young talents.
After choosing the players for the season ahead – a season that, no matter how it ends, will be long remembered – the next step was to imbue them with a playing philosophy. And, as Jemez explained, that approach was guided by three clear principles.
"The first is bravery, because I want a team that takes risks and faces the challenge head-on," he said. "The second is to remember that the ball is the most important thing. That's why I always demand that my players do their job, which is to play football, and to do it as best they can. The third is the ability to win the ball back quickly. That's the mark of the very best teams."
Rayo have shown those traits in abundance this season, playing with a distinctive attacking style and using the ball impressively. As far as Jemez is concerned, this is the only way to play the game. "It's funny, but when we play badly, we always lose. When we play OK, we lose often. And when we play really well, we don't always win. I don't see the point of playing a football match without taking risks, and experience has taught me that, when you're a smaller team, the only way to achieve anything is by being bold."
With those values now deeply ingrained, Rayo find themselves pushing for an unlikely return to Europe. The club's only European campaign to date, in 88 years of existence, came in 2000, when their fair play record earned them a place in the old UEFA Cup. Now, they have a real chance of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. "We're in a good enough position to not have to look down the table, and, as always in football, that means Europe becomes a requirement rather than a bonus," said Jemez. "But what I tell my players is that we have nothing to lose, and a great deal to gain."
Rayo face Barcelona this weekend, and Jemez is hoping his side can take that same fearless attitude into the Camp Nou. "A team like Barça will normally beat you, but we get to decide how we're going to try to beat them, or how we're going to lose," said Jemez, adding: "We're a fun team. People enjoy watching us play, and I hope it'll be a great game."
Daring and bravery are the hallmarks of Jemez's side, but what of the man himself? "I'm just as much of a risk-taker in my personal life," he said, before laughing and adding: "Even my wife says to me, 'I don't know what it is in that head of yours that makes you always want to push the limits.'"
Whatever his wife may think, it is an approach that clearly gets results. Put simply, the Jemez Method works.