Paco Jemez, hired to take over a struggling Las Palmas side in December, once defined the difference between managing a side battling relegation as opposed to a big club as a matter of existence. When Real Madrid or Barcelona lose a match, it translates into angry headlines. Yet if a club like Las Palmas, currently in last place in La Liga and five points from safety, gets relegated, it could set off a downward spiral in which the club disappears entirely. The 47-year-old Spaniard is well versed in this type of pressure, having managed Rayo Vallecano from 2012 to 2016 until the side were relegated in his final season. He then took over Granada the following year, who were also relegated (Jemez was fired after six winless matches).
In a league where aesthetics and results intertwine and become both the dog and the tail, Jemez is known for two primary reasons: first was this tearful moment right after Rayo were relegated. Second, and most relevant here, is his absolute insistence on attacking play no matter the opponent or cost. He is a cult figure in social media analytics for carrying out the positional play theory of spacing made famous by Pep Guardiola (Guardiola considered his Bayern Munich team, Barcelona and Rayo as the only three true practitioners in the world). Carlo Ancelotti described Jemez’s Rayo side as “the best way to explain how Spanish football is.” There are countless YouTube videos of his playing sequences and training drills, all to get a glimpse of the football utopia. His ideas placed him in the rumor mill of potential replacements for Luis Enrique at Barcelona.
Although in having a cult following, it is also important to note that his legend looms larger outside of Spain than in it. Jemez appears reckless when studied under the traditional approach for a small side staying in the top division by packing the defensive half and hitting out on counters. In giving up 73 goals in 2016, the defensive frailties of his Rayo side peaked with a 10-2 loss to Real Madrid midway through the season in a match where his side were actually up 2-1 before being reduced to nine players. Jemez called the result a disgrace to the quality of Spanish football, adding that “nobody won, we all lost.”
In spite of the loss, the amount of goals given up, and the relegation battle, his side caught attention for their playing style. They averaged 57.6% possession, third in the league behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. His sides shows traits of a modern side with high pressure, attacking fullbacks, and a back three when in possession. Center midfielder Roberto Trashorras attempted the most passes in La Liga that season, 200 more than second place Toni Kroos. Adding to the intrigue was their annual budget of less than $10 million per season. Despite these financial constraints, Jemez was able to keep Rayo up for three seasons before relegation.
After his failure with Granada, he signed a one year contract to manage Cruz Azul in Liga MX. In leading the club to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, he left with a renewed confidence as well as having an impact on Mexican football in his short period of time.
Jemez follows a tradition of ball playing managers at Las Palmas, the most successful being Real Betis manager Quique Setien. The second half of the season also presents a no lose situation for Jemez as he comes into a club stricken with supporter discontent focused at the ownership level. Perhaps one day, he will take over a side with a bigger budget. For now, he has to keep Las Palmas existing.
Eduardo Berizzo was sacked by Sevilla just one week after the Argentine returned from prostate cancer surgery. Even with the struggles that led to his firing, Sevilla remain fifth in the league and have a Champions League round of 16 matchup against Manchester United in February.
In his place came Vincenzo Montella, who was sacked from Milan in November. Yet Montella managing in La Liga always felt like his destiny. Using possession-based tenants of split center backs, wingbacks playing up the field, and high pressure, his Fiorentina sides were often described as the most Spanish team in Serie A during his time at the club from 2012 to 2015. He used Borja Valero, bought from Villarreal and one of underrated Spanish midfielders of his era, as his passing fulcrum. Mauricio Pochettino observed that Montella resembled a Spanish manager.
Yet the success of his early years have overshadowed his performance thereafter. He left Fiorentina under a cloud of mystery, then moved to Sampdoria for a season before taking over at Milan. In addition to the sixth place finish in his first season, his biggest success was in the development of a young core including Suso, Manuel Locatelli and Gianluigi Donnarumma. Then came the infamous spending spree from last summer that put Montella in an awkward position of molding an entirely new lineup in one offseason, with the world watching.
Thus Sevilla presents a crossroads for Montella’s managerial career in terms of his level, although one could give a similar description of the club itself after sporting director Monchi left over the summer. They don’t face the immediacy of relegation that Jemez described, but there is a risk of losing their identity as European overachievers and masters of the Europa League. Monchi’s eye for talent and putting together a side that simultaneously competed for trophies while developing players to sell is impossible to replace. And while this is the first time the club are in this position since the turn of the century, at the very least Montella needs to rediscover his attacking imagination that made him a manager to watch in the first place.
Whether fighting relegation at Las Palmas to battling for a Europa League position with Sevilla, these are the stakes from year to year in La Liga. And the managerial carousel moves on, from Juan Carlos Unzue taking over at Celta Vigo after being passed over for the Barcelona position, to Jose Angel Ziganda replacing Ernesto Valverde at Athletic Bilbao. During his final season managing Barcelona, Enrique described Jemez’s Rayo as having one of the biggest personalities in Spain, a small consolation. As for Montella, he implored his new side to play with spirit and passion in his opening press conference. Thrown straight into the La Liga deep end, his league debut was a derby match at home versus Real Betis. Betis scored 23 seconds into the match as Sevilla lost 5-3 in a match as thrilling as the scoreline suggests. But therein lies the true test of a manager, in balancing the personality with results.