January 3rd 2016. Prior to Saturday, that was the date of Rafa Benitez’s last LaLiga visit to Mestalla, the stadium where he forever etched his name into Spanish football history as a two-time league champion in the early 2000’s.
It was also the date of Benitez’s last game as Real Madrid coach and final match in Spain before a surprise return for a new challenge in Vigo this summer.
A disappointing 2-2 draw against Gary Neville’s Valencia side proved the final straw for Benitez’s short-lived stint as boss of Los Blancos. Nearly eight years on, the experienced boss found himself under pressure once more as he returned to Mestalla with one of his former players in the opposing dugout this time around in the shape of Ruben Baraja, a key midfielder in the Valencia sides that conquered Spain two decades ago.
While the stars of both Valencia and Benitez may have faded since those heady days, the latter still retains a large amount of clout as the last coach to win LaLiga with a club outside of the current “big three”.
1 win from 14 games, but Benitez set to survive “November curse”
Aside from that ill-fated half season in Madrid, Benitez had not managed in Spain since departing Valencia after winning the second of those league titles in 2004. That only added to the intrigue that greeted his appointment as Celta Vigo boss this summer, but more than a third of the way through LaLiga 2023/24, it’s safe to say things have not gone to plan.
Indeed, it’s perhaps only Benitez’s reputation and status as one of the great modern day Spanish coaches that ensured he even survived the third international break of the season to take in the warm applause of his former public on his return to Mestalla.
It was a game that served up 21 attempts (13 of which were by visiting players) but only one shot on target and no goals, ensuring Benitez’s record is now one win from 14 as Celta boss in LaLiga. It’s the kind of record that few recent occupants of the Balaidos hotseat could have dreamt of surviving.
Antonio Mohamed was sacked after two fewer games in November 2018, having chalked up two more victories. His replacement, Miguel Cardoso, won three out of 14 before he too was dismissed.
Fran Escriba was ousted in November 2019 with the club, as they are today, in the relegation zone. November was the month of another Celta sacking the following year as Oscar Garcia departed having started the season with one win from nine.
Chacho Coudet’s reign did offer promise and an element of longevity, but he too fell victim to the November curse, departing after two years in 2022 with Celta two places higher than they currently are under Benitez.
The stats behind Celta’s struggles
Based on recent history, Rafa Benitez can count himself more than a little fortunate to still be in a job. However there is a degree of logic to Celta’s reluctance to opt for change again this November, which goes beyond the impressive track record of their boss, not to mention the hefty pay-off that Celta would need to fork out were they to cut ties with the 63 year old.
Celta’s underlying stats are by no means horrific and with better finishing and perhaps a bit more luck, they could easily be sitting in a far higher position in the league.
According to FBREF, Celta have created more xG than their opponents in five of their 14 fixtures. In addition to those games, there was a negligible difference in the quality of chances created in their matches against Osasuna, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Las Palmas.
Celta lost all four of those games, somehow letting a 2-0 lead disappear in the final ten minutes in Barcelona while it was a similar story in Gran Canaria when they led a low-scoring Las Palmas side 1-0 heading into the final ten minutes, yet ended up with no points to show for their efforts.
Their Expected Goals Difference of -2.9 sees them rank 10th in LaLiga and suggests they are currently conceding more goals than would ordinarily be expected based on the chances they are giving up. In terms of total xG for the season, they rank joint 6th with 18.9, the same amount as Real Sociedad and more than Real Betis.
A failure to convert chances has been a recurring theme. Long-serving talisman Iago Aspas is enduring by far his toughest spell as a Celta Vigo player with just one goal in his last 25 appearances in LaLiga. Given the tightness of the majority of their games, it’s not hard to imagine how differently the table may look had Benitez been able to depend on the prolific Aspas of seasons gone by.
However, with the forward now 36, the time was always going to come when Celta could no longer depend on their long-serving local hero to keep being their difference-maker.
Aside from their wastefulness in front of goal, Celta Vigo are also convinced that a host of refereeing errors go a long way to explaining why they are still loitering in the relegation zone.
Things came to a head three weeks ago against Sevilla when a furious Aspas threw the VAR monitor to the ground after a Stoppage Time decision to overturn a Celta penalty that would have served up the chance for the Galicians to claim just their second win of the season.
Benitez was equally damning of VAR in his post-match comments claiming “I can’t understand it.”
“The matches have to be called from the field. We could have eight, nine or ten more points.”
A decisive December and cash to splash in January?
Despite the poor results, there is little sign currently that Celta Vigo are considering dismissing Rafa Benitez. While pre-season talk of them even being dark horses for a European push has long since faded, the next two months will go a long way towards defining their season.
Celta’s next two home games are against Cadiz and Granada. Two fellow strugglers and two sides that they really need to be beating at Balaidos if they are to avoid getting embroiled in a genuine relegation battle this season.
Win both, and some light at the end of the tunnel will emerge for Rafa Benitez and this Celta Vigo side and they can then approach the January transfer window with a greater degree of optimism and ambition.
Should the poor form continue through a kinder December fixture list, only then will what is set to be a new-look Celta board have a real decision to make regarding Benitez and also as to how best to attack a transfer window when they will have money to spend.
Celta Vigo’s summer plans to bolster Benitez’s squad were severely hampered by Gabri Veiga’s on-off transfer saga with a move to Napoli falling through before the academy product, who lit up Balaidos last term, finally joined Saudi side Al-Ahli on August 26th for €30m.
While the likes of Carl Starfelt, Carles Perez and Anastasios Douvikas did arrive on permanent deals, Celta still made a net transfer profit of around €20m in the summer and should be in a position to strengthen in January without the time pressure of operating in the final week of a window.
The question for the club’s hierarchy will be whether to fully invest in Benitez and some kind of long-term vision, or whether to target short-term signings who are capable of making an immediate impact to ensure Celta stay in the league.