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Behind Enemy Lines: Celta de Vigo

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After years of mediocre results and disappointment in Vigo, new manager ‘Chacho‘ Coudet has revitalized Celta. How did he do it and how does Celta match up against Real Madrid?

RC Celta v Deportivo Alavés - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

The last few years have been rough on Celta. Season after season, they built unbalanced squads that featured plenty of offensive talent—led by the amazing Iago Aspas—but lacked certain key defense and midfield profiles. Since Eduardo Berizzo left in 2017, Celta burned through five managers who all struggled to figure out how to optimize for the available personnel.

The issues also went beyond tactics and squad building: there seemed to be attitude and discipline issues that made it even harder for managers to get players to buy into the game plan. This was reflected in the disciplinary problems with Emre Mor and Pione Sisto or the drama of this past October when coach Oscar García stripped Hugo Mallo of the captain armband.

As pointed out by journalist (and Celta specialist) Alexandra Jonson, things went downhill for Celta not just due to Berizzo’s departure in 2017, but also the departure of sporting director Miguel Torrecilla in 2016. And like many other La Liga teams in the last few years, Celta has lost a lot of talent to richer clubs—Jonny, Stanislav Lobotka, Daniel Wass, Augusto Fernández, Maxi Gómez—without being able to replace them properly. The silver lining of this situation is that Celta are finally giving more opportunities to their youth academy prospects.

This kind of tactical and emotional context has resulted in Celta barely managing to escape relegation in the last two seasons. To survive, their last two managers—Fran Escribá and Oscar García—chose more reactive, conservative game plans. Celta players became increasingly better at deep block defending and the team’s defense improved further with the signing of Jeison Murillo this year. The offense, on the other hand, still lacked structure and depended heavily on whatever Aspas could produce.

Despite last season’s defensive improvement under Oscar García, things went downhill once again. In the first nine games of the 2020-21 season, Celta only obtained 7 points out of 27, with García seemingly losing control over the dressing room and being fired in November before the international break. This is the part of the story where our hero and protagonist, Eduardo ‘Chacho’ Coudet, comes in.

Coudet’s All-Out Attack Breaks La Liga’s Defensive Mold

It is no secret that in the last few years, La Liga has become the most defensive and conservative of the big five European leagues. Coach Unai Emery explained it best in a recent interview with El Pais: most La Liga teams—including Real Madrid and Barcelona—have lost talent and due to financial problems they are choosing to rebuild with younger players who are cheaper but take more time to develop. So to survive through this period, many La Liga managers are choosing more conservative game plans. They are focusing more on work against the ball and slowing down the tempo of games. What made Spain stand out from other leagues was their focus on possession and what their players did with the ball, but now that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

As pointed out by journalist Alejandro Arroyo, in such a context the arrival of Coudet is a breath of fresh air for the league. Coudet wants proactive football rather than reacting to the opponent. He wants quick possessions and lots of pressing to create higher tempo games with lots of duels and chances. He wants to beat opponents by focusing on outshooting them rather than conceding fewer chances.

Before Celta, Coudet had only coached in Latin America (Rosario Central and Racing in Argentina, Internacional in Brazil) and the game plans he used back there seem to be porting pretty well to La Liga. Colombian analyst Eduardo Ustaritz points out that the 4-1-3-2 shape that Coudet uses now with Celta is similar to what he did with his Racing team who won the 2019 Superliga in Argentina.

The Midfielder Roles in Celta’s 4-1-3-2

Coudet wants his team to move the ball forward as quickly as possible but through short, quick passes rather than long balls, and the 4-1-3-2 helps his team achieve this goal. It is a narrow shape that accumulates lots of players in central areas. This makes it easier to do the kinds of quick passing combinations and third-man runs that break opposition defensive lines and allow the team to progress through midfield quickly.

The central figures in the midfield structure are Renato Tapia as the holding midfielder and Denis Suárez in the more advanced role. During the buildup, Tapia will often drop in between the center backs to form a back three. Ahead of this back three are the two fullbacks—Olaza and Mallo—providing the width and Denis Suárez with a lot of freedom in the center. This can be seen in the picture below, which was annotated by analyst Rául Pérez.

Screen capture by Rául Pérez (@BatRaulPerez): https://twitter.com/BatRaulPerez/status/1335690479875272704

Coudet has turned Suárez—usually an attacking midfielder or winger—into Celta’s central midfield director. Suárez is now the main man in charge of linking up Celta’s defense and attack, the midfielder with the most impact on how, when, and where Celta attack. He has almost doubled his passing numbers under Coudet, averaging 55 passes completed per game compared to the 29 passes he averaged under Oscar García.

The interior midfielders who play on the sides of the 4-1-3-2 have very curious roles. In a normal 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond, the interior midfielders stay deep while the central attacking midfielder plays in between lines. However, in Coudet’s 4-1-3-2 diamond these roles are inverted: the central attacking midfielder (Suárez) stays deep while the interior midfielders play in between lines.

For these unusual interior midfield roles, Coudet chose players who have normally played more as wingers—Nolito and Brais Méndez—instead a more natural central midfielder like Fran Beltrán. So Celta essentially plays with a triple mediapunta: Nolito, Méndez, and Aspas all await in between the lines, ready to flick the ball to the nearest teammate and create quick passing combos and third-man runs to break the opposition defense.

Celta’s 4-1-3-2 setup against Cádiz.
Between The Posts https://betweentheposts.net/match-plots/

Without the ball, this 4-1-3-2 presses intensely and man-to-man. The two strikers press the opposition central defenders and try to cut off access to the opposing holding midfielder. The interior midfielders will press the opposition fullback if he has the ball. Depending on the opponent, Suárez may press the opposition holding midfielder (like he did against Athletic) or stay a bit deeper (like he did against Alavés). Meanwhile, Tapia awaits behind those 3 midfielders and 2 strikers, ready to sweep up whatever threats make it through Celta’s pressing lines. Another screen capture from analyst Raúl Pérez illustrates this well.

Screen capture by Raúl Pérez (@BatRaulPérez): https://twitter.com/BatRaulPerez/status/1335690479875272704/photo/1

Aspas Back To His Best

FBL-ESP-LIGA-CELTA-GRANADA Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images

It’s kind of shocking how little we talk about Iago Aspas. Ever since he returned to Celta in 2015, he is one of only a handful of players who have scored and assisted more than 100 goals in La Liga. And the other players in that list—Messi, Suárez, Ronaldo, Benzema, Griezmann—have all played for the top three teams in Spain while Aspas has done it for a decidedly midtable side.

He’s 33 years old now and had lost significant speed over the last couple of years, but his goal and assist productivity remained high. In the last four seasons, he scored or assisted a whopping 40-50% of Celta’s goals.

This season, however, Aspas looks revitalized: lighter and faster like in his younger days, he can show up anywhere in the pitch. He could appear in between lines as a passing outlet. He could take the ball from deeper positions, carry it forward, and wreck the opposition defensive line with a through ball. He could make a run into the channels to score or deliver a deadly cutback into the six-yard box.

Aspas’ stunning form has further increased his impact on Celta’s offense. Up to now, an incredible 15 out of Celta’s 22 goals (68%!!!) this season have been scored or assisted by Aspas. To give you an example of Aspas’ impact beyond goal-scoring, see his recent assist masterclass vs Granada, where he created a huge number of high-quality chances.

Celta’s Current Form

Source: Transfermarkt https://www.transfermarkt.com/celta-vigo/spielplan/verein/940

Coudet has only managed Celta for 7 games but the improvement was immediate and massive. In the first 9 games under Oscar García, they won only 7 points out of 27, while under Coudet they have won 16 points out of 21. In just six weeks, Celta has moved from the relegation zone to 8th place in the league table, already competing for Europa League spots.

Comparison of Celta’s numbers under Oscar García vs Eduardo Coudet.
Source: José C. Pérez (@jcperez_)

Everything has improved: Celta are scoring more and conceding less, and this improvement is backed up by underlying expected goal numbers. In terms of both goals and expected goals, Celta are a top 5 offense in LaLiga. They are a more proactive team than before, keeping possession more often and pressing more intensely. Understat data tells us that they are one of the most intense pressing teams in LaLiga now, as measured by passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). Interestingly enough, Coudet’s Celta do not shoot more often nor concede fewer shots than before, but now they generate higher quality chances and concede lower quality ones.

Even though the numbers look great, it’s hard not to wonder if this level of performance is sustainable over the long term. Coudet has a very clear starting XI that works great at the moment, but we’ll see if the team can cope with squad rotation and injuries in this upcoming tough schedule that will be packed with Liga and Copa del Rey games.

Matchup against Real Madrid

Zidane’s biggest issue for this game will be facing one of La Liga’s most powerful offenses without captain Sergio Ramos, who will be replaced by either Nacho or Eder Militão. Nacho has more experience and has played better than Militão this season whenever needed, so there’s a good chance Zidane will trust him for this game. Meanwhile, Mendy will surely go back to the starting lineup after being rested against Elche.

For midfield, expect no rotation. Kroos and Modric are playing some of the best football of their careers right now and it’s unlikely Zidane will rest them against such an in-form opponent. Their press-resistant contributions in the buildup phase will be sorely needed against Celta’s intense pressing. In the forward line, Rodrygo is not available due to injury, but Hazard is once again available and likely to start. This means that the most likely front three for this game will be Vázquez - Benzema - Hazard. Vázquez will be vital in defensive duties.

On Celta’s side, Coudet will likely use his preferred and strongest starting XI, with no rotations from the midweek game against Huesca.

Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 buildup structure against Celta’s 4-1-3-2 pressing block.
Source: Share My Tactics http://sharemytactics.com/156368/

Defensively speaking, the biggest challenge for Real Madrid will be how to protect the Casemiro zone, which will be overloaded by Celta’s triple mediapunta threat of Nolito - Aspas - Méndez. As Modric and Kroos move forward to press, Celta’s attackers will lurk behind their back and Casemiro will need help from his defensive line to contain them. Varane and Nacho could step up to track them, but then they run the risk of Aspas and Mina running in behind. Perhaps Carvajal and Mendy can tuck inside more often than usual to track interior midfielders Nolito and Méndez, while Vázquez keeps track of Celta left-back Olaza, who is quite productive and precise with his crosses. Aspas will be looking to run into the channel between Carvajal and Varane, and both defenders will have to look out for that.

Real Madrid CF v RC Celta de Vigo - La Liga Photo by Alejandro/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

As usual, Kroos and Modrić will have a tremendous impact on every phase of play. In defense, they will likely be in charge of pressing Renato Tapia and Denis Suárez, the key men in Celta’s buildup phase. A good pressing job from them and Lucas on the right wing could deactivate Celta’s possession circuit. With the ball, Kroos and Modrić will be the key for Real to make it out of the intense Celta press, and they will have extra buildup work tonight in the absence of Ramos.

Real Madrid CF v RC Celta de Vigo - La Liga Photo by Alejandro/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

However, even if Kroos and Modrić manage to lead the team in overcoming the Celta press, Coudet’s men will track back aggressively and will be hard to beat in 1v1 duels. It’s probably too much to ask for Hazard to have a good dribbling game right after he came back from injury, but that would be quite helpful to break down Celta’s defense. If he can’t do that, then Real will have to depend once again on Modrić’s magic dribbling and close control to create chances. Modrić will be key as a secondary threat in between lines, helping Benzema overload the zone of holding midfielder Tapia and hopefully create good passing combinations with Hazard that can lead to chances.

FBL-ESP-LIGA-REAL MADRID-CELTA Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images

As expected from a pressing team, Celta will probably be most intense and dangerous in the first 30 minutes of the game. Brace yourself for one of the most spectacular, high-tempo, and vertigo-inducing first halves of the season.