What did we learn from the last encounter?
Celta went into their January game against Real Madrid on a hot streak, winning 16 out of 21 points in the first seven games under coach Eduardo Coudet. As I detailed in the previous Behind Enemy Lines piece, Celta often pressed in a 4-1-3-2 shape, but on the ball, their shape became more of a 4-2-2-2, with Denis Suárez and Renato Tapia as a double pivot behind the ball.
Real Madrid won that game 2-0 without throwing any fireworks on the offense but by performing quite well in defense, with the Asensio - Lucas winger duo delivering an outstanding performance both in defense and counterattacking.
Celta’s narrow 4-2-2-2 shape accumulated midfielders and forwards in the center lanes but left the aggressive fullbacks isolated on the wings. Both Asensio and Lucas tried to run behind Celta fullbacks, which led to the first goal. In the 5th minute, Kroos delivered a perfect ball into space for Asensio, who ran behind Mallo, beat center back Araujo in a footrace, and then crossed into the box for Vázquez, who outsmarted defenders Murillo and Olaza to score.
Afterward, Real Madrid defended that lead with a good pressing setup and tried to hit Celta on the counter: Celta had the ball 60% of the time but only got 2 shots during the first half.
Zidane’s pressing plan sent Kroos and Modric forward to press midfielders Renato Tapia and Denis Suárez, while Asensio and Lucas stayed deep and tucked inside, blocking the passing lanes to attacking midfielders Brais Méndez and Nolito. Asensio and Lucas alternated brilliantly between pressing Celta’s fullbacks and midfielders, which helped shut down Celta’s possession circuit.
In the second half, Aspas’ injury and the second goal killed off the game. Modrić pressed and intercepted a pass, Casemiro sent a ball into space for Lucas, who outsmarted Murillo again and set up Asensio for the goal.
All in all, Zidane and his men delivered an excellent performance from a tactical perspective: pressing to prevent Celta passes to their attacking midfielders while countering quickly on the wings. Coudet’s Celta has not changed much in the last two months, so this could be an effective tactical blueprint for this second encounter.
How has Celta played in the last two months?
The defeat against Real Madrid in January—and especially the injury to Iago Aspas—marked the end of the “new manager honeymoon period“ for Coudet and Celta. Results and performance have been solid enough to keep Celta in a respectable 11h place on the table, but not as good as in those first two months.
Despite the excellent collective structure Coudet has built for Celta, life without Iago Aspas was still very tough. The legendary Celta striker missed four games in January and February and Celta did not register a single win in those games (1 draw, 3 losses), a stark difference compared with their record when Aspas does play (6 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses).
Before his injury, Aspas was unplayable, scoring and assisting a total of 12 goals in 9 games. After returning from the injury, Aspas hasn’t scored a single goal and registers only 2 assists in 6 games. Aspas’ poor form post-injury helps explain Celta’s decreased performance and results in the last two months, as shown in the chart below.
Celta are shooting roughly as frequently as they did in the first two months under Coudet, but they are shooting from significantly worse locations, likely due to Aspas’ productivityy issues. This is reflected in their decreased expected goals (xG) created. Defense has also taken a hit: Celta are pressing as intensely as before but less successfully, which leads them to concede higher quality shots
Expected Celta Lineup
Over the winter transfer window, Celta saw the departure of left-back Lucas Olaza and the arrivals of backup striker Facundo Ferreira and right midfielder Augusto Solari (Santi Solari’s cousin!). Both of these new signings are unlikely to start against Real Madrid. Other than injured keeper Ruben Blanco—who will be replaced by Ivan Villar—Coudet will play his gala XI against Real Madrid:
- Keeper: Ivan Villar
- Center backs: Nestor Araujo on the right, Jeison Murillo on the left
- Fullbacks: Aaron Martín on the left, Hugo Mallo on the right
- Central midfielders: Renato Tapia as the defensive midfielder and Denis Suárez as the midfield director ahead of him
- Attacking midfielders: Brais Méndez on the right, Nolito on the left
- Strikers: Santi Mina making aggressive runs behind defenders and Iago Aspas alternating between striker and number ten positions.
Expected Real Madrid Lineup
With Ramos not playing this game as a precaution and the return of Casemiro, it’s likely that Zidane will go back to the usual 4-3-3 lineup: Mendy and Lucas as fullbacks, Nacho and Varane as center backs, and the midfield trio of Casemiro - Kroos - Modrić.
Vinicius went back to his dribbling best against Atalanta and it might be a good idea to start him against Celta and let him follow up on that great performance. On the other wing, we’ll see if Zidane starts Asensio or Rodrygo.
Since Coudet’s Celta are playing in a similar way to how they did back in January, the key matchups won’t change much compared to their previous encounter against Real Madrid.
Defensively speaking, the biggest challenge for Real Madrid will be how to protect the Casemiro zone, which will be once again 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.
Zidane solved this problem last time with the pressing structure we discussed earlier, where Vazquez and Asensio stayed back and tucked inside when Modric - Kroos went to press. Will Vinicius and Rodrygo / Asensio have a similar defensive behavior this time around?
Kroos and Modrić will likely be in charge of pressing Renato Tapia and Denis Suárez, the players in Celta’s buildup phase. A good pressing job from them could deactivate Celta’s possession circuit. With the ball, Kroos and Modrić will once again be the key for Real to make it out of the intense Celta press.
Finally, watch out for the damage that Vinicius and Asensio / Rodrygo could do running behind Celta’s fullbacks in a similar way to how Lucas and Asensio ran in behind during the January match.
This will be a tough game against an intense opponent, but fortunately, Zidane and his men figured out how to beat them last time and since Celta hasn’t changed much, the game plan that worked back then could work again.