LaLiga heads into the final international break of the 2022/23 campaign with many of the season’s surprise packages faltering and slipping back into an increasingly congested pack. Rayo are winless in 6, Mallorca without an away point in 2023 while Osasuna have won just 1 of their last 9 league games.
Step forward Celta Vigo to stake their claim as the season’s surprise success story. The Galicians have collected more points than Real Madrid since the World Cup and are testament to just how quickly things can change in a league as tight as this one.
Carlos Carvalhal – Celta’s unlikely saviour
Serious relegation candidates in the autumn after a summer of change, few pundits were reassured when Celta plumped for Carlos Carvalhal, something of a journeyman coach who was entering his 21st role in football management when he agreed to replace Chacho Coudet at Balaidos in November. They weren’t any more convinced after his first game, a 2-1 home defeat against Osasuna which saw Celta drop into the bottom three.
A useful point in Vallecas ensured they were at least spared the misery of spending the long World Cup break in the drop zone. As with other clubs who opted for early managerial changes, Celta would have been hoping that the unusually long pause would give their new coach a better shot at getting his ideas across in a bid to stave off a relegation battle. However even the most optimistic of followers of Os Celestes couldn’t have dreamt that they’d go into the next international break just two points off a potential European place.
Should the Copa del Rey end up in Madrid or Barcelona, 7th will be good enough for Conference League football in 2022/23 and right now it feels as though Celta have far more in the way of momentum and belief than the sides around them with their confidence seemingly growing with every passing week.
What has changed?
Carvalhal’s early response to taking over in Vigo was to ditch Chacho Coudet’s favoured 4-1-3-2 formation for a back three and a more cautious overall approach. Almost overnight, Celta transformed from one of the most open and often entertaining teams to watch, into something far more conservative.
They quickly managed to stop leaking goals with just 5 conceded in Carvalhal’s opening 7 league games. However Celta only managed to score 5 of their own across that period with a pretty clear trade-off taking place which saw them commit less bodies forward and take fewer risks in favour of a stronger defensive base. Their final two games in January, a 1-0 defeat at Mallorca and 1-0 home win over Athletic both produced a match xG total of less than 1 (according to Understat) which made what happened next all the more surprising.
Celta travelled to the Benito Villamarin on matchday 20 and played out one of the games of the season in LaLiga, ending up on the right end of a 4-3 scoreline. Carvalhal had switched back to a back four by this point as Celta almost doubled their goal tally under their Portuguese boss on one crazy evening in Sevilla with strikes from Joseph Aidoo and Jorgen Strand Larsen, and a brace from impressive youngster Gabri Veiga sealing victory.
The match demonstrated that Carvalhal’s Celta were capable of being more than just a functional, defensive side. While they’d lose their next game, 1-0 against an equally resurgent Atletico Madrid, the Galician side have not lost since with what has predominantly been a 4-4-2 system that at times even resembles Coudet’s 4-1-3-2, firing Celta to wins in 3 of their last 4 matches, with 9 scored and just 1 goal conceded during that period.
There have been several players who have thrived under Carlos Carvalhal’s leadership. Javi Galan has offered a consistent attacking threat from left-back while the previously unconvincing central defensive pairing of Aidoo and Unai Nunez has settled down and has been a big factor in the team’s ability to concede one or fewer goals in 12 of their last 13 league games.
It’s the sort of run that would have been hard to envisage during Chacho Coudet’s time at the club, although in the former boss’ defence, a number of predominantly young summer arrivals were always most likely going to need a bit of time to find their feet and gel as a team.
The main personnel changes since the turn of the year have seen Carles Perez and Luca de la Torre preferred as the wide midfield options with Franco Cervi and Oscar Rodriguez, regular starters earlier in the campaign, relegated to the role of impact sub. There has also been an enforced change in goal with the relatively unconvincing Agustin Marchesin succumbing to a season-ending injury, meaning Ivan Villar has started the last 7 games, keeping 3 clean sheets in the process.
The local lads firing Celta up the league
Unquestionably though, Celta’s two main protagonists are two local lads in the shape of Iago Aspas and Gabri Veiga. Born 15 years but only 12 miles apart, Aspas and Veiga grew up in different centuries on opposite sides of the Ria de Vigo but would both quickly win the hearts and minds of the Balaidos faithful.
Aspas was a little known reserve team prospect when he came off the bench on the final day of the 2008/09 season with Celta battling to avoid relegation to the Segunda B. Then 21, Aspas had barely any minutes let alone goals under his belt in first team football, but quickly broke his duck with a dramatic brace to prevent his already under-achieving local club from suffering the nightmare of dropping into the third tier.
It wasn’t really until a free-scoring 2011/12 season, still in the second tier, that the Galician forward really showed signs of the player he would go on to become, but Veiga’s impact has come quicker and at a higher level.
Still only 20, Veiga was playing for Celta’s B team in a 2-1 Primera Federación defeat against San Sebastián de los Reyes as recently as August. However in what was perhaps Chacho Coudet’s final inspired move as Celta boss, the Argentine threw the young midfielder into the starting lineup soon afterwards and was rewarded with some excellent displays with Veiga showing his eye for a goal from the off with a match winner against Betis in early October his first big contribution.
Ironically, it was Veiga’s red card in the 32nd minute at Almeria on matchday 12 which sparked the collapse that brought Coudet’s reign to an end. It came only 7 minutes after Veiga had fired in a stunning strike to give Celta the lead, the 3rd of the 9 league goals the midfielder has scored already in a remarkable breakthrough season. Several have been equally spectacular.
Between them, Aspas and Veiga have scored 66% of Celta’s goals in LaLiga this term with the long hunt to ease their dependency on the former, finding a solution within an academy that does have a solid track record when it comes to producing talented attacking players, with Joselu and Brais Mendez other former Celta youth teamers enjoying prolific seasons in front of goal.
Gabri Veiga’s game is not just about goals though. Nicknamed “El niño de Porrino” in reference to his hometown just outside Vigo, his coach is obviously a fan. “He is a very complete player” said Carvalhal. “He has a different profile to all the other midfielders in Spain, who are usually about touch and possession. Gabri breaks games open.”
Such has been Veiga’s rapid rise, that Celta will already be bracing themselves for offers for the 20 year old this summer. A reported €40m release clause is unlikely to deter some of the continent’s biggest clubs and Celta fans may have to savour every moment of seeing their two local heroes spearhead their rise up the league while it lasts, as sadly the prospect of Aspas’ swansong coinciding with the early years of Veiga’s career may not extend beyond this season.
There is plenty to fight for before that point comes though. The next three visitors to Balaidos are Almeria, Mallorca and Elche, all distinctly winnable fixtures that offer Celta the chance to continue their current charge when we return from the international break. A first European campaign in seven years does not feel out of reach.