Paco Jémez is just fantastic. The job he's done in turning Rayo into mid-table optimists from relegation battlers is admirable. He doesn't see much use in playing for a draw (the only teams with two of fewer draws this season are Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Rayo). He doesn't see a difference between losing by five and losing by one. He doesn't even think to apologize for the way his team plays. He's going to use three forwards to make opposing defenders make decisions for a full 90 minutes. It's amazing. Jémez manages a La Liga club the way I managed the Brazilian NT in FIFA 2006 on my PS2.
Only four teams in La Liga take more shots than Rayo, and only Real and Barcelona keep more possession. Paco's fortitude makes the opposition adapt to his tactics, something Real Madrid don't often have to do. And so, Rayo looked the better side through the first hour or so yesterday.
The James Influence
The Isco-or-James debate will reign through the summer, and probably next season for that matter. I think each player is equally valuable in certain situations (a very bold assertion, I know). Rayo press, and they press enthusiastically. And against these types, I think James is a better fit.
To make a broad generalization, Isco brings width, and James brings verticality. Rayo play with a high back line and aggressive midfielders, so James had plenty of chances to hit long passes and shoot from afar. Which is exactly what he did.
Bale and Ronaldo were constantly getting service from James, and he clinched the match with a goal from outside the box. (graphic from FourFourTwo's Statszone). Ronaldo's goal was birthed from a long ball from Kroos, and James doubled the lead by following the attack straight down the center of the pitch. Real got the points by not getting cute and trying to confuse Rayo. The poor first half seemed mostly like an adjustment period. Once they got used to Rayo's aggression, they gave it right back to their hosts by passing straight over them. Not many teams will force Real to do this, but they had to against Rayo.
A big difference between Isco and James is the way they move on the pitch. Isco dribbles in and out of the wing, opening up lanes. James runs more directly at the defense, which is probably what makes him a better fit behind Ronaldo.
Defenders just don't really know what to do when Ronaldo and James are running at them. Four Rayo players were facing Ronaldo, and both James and Bale were in enviable positions.
One Good Number
12. With his assist yesterday to James, Ronaldo's already matched his career high for assists in a season at 12 with eight matches left.
One Bad Number
1. That's the amount of corners earned by Real yesterday. Unlike some teams from the Spanish capital, Real Madrid don't lean on set pieces to score, but 13 of Real's 57 goals have come this way. The 1 corner taken yesterday is probably an outlier in the big picture, but it's probably the poorest number to emerge from yesterday's match. Also worth noting is Rayo's 61 percent possession through the first 45 minutes, but that's not anything to be ashamed of against Rayo.
What I can't quite figure outI don't know how to feel about long balls. Playing long is horribly inefficient.
Elche and Eibar hit the most long balls per game (76 and 81, respectively), and they both rank near the bottom of La Liga in goals per game (.82 and .93, respectively). Rayo are a remarkable outlier with 76 long passes per game, and 387 short passes per game, which are the third and fourth highest totals across the league. Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only clubs to hit fewer than 60 long balls per game, and they're each streets ahead of the rest in goals scored.
Some of that might be correlation, but the numbers say if you want to score more goals, don't lean on the long pass. But with James, Modrić, and Kroos in Ancelotti's 4-3-3, Madrid have a capable midfielder with an equally capable forward to link up with in front of them.