With eight match days gone and the first Clásico of the season not scheduled until the 21st November, having two teams unbeaten and Barcelona and Real Madrid level on points feels like fairly standard procedure for La Liga. What doesn’t, however, is that only the latter of that pair hasn’t lost a game yet – and that those two giants aren’t positioned first and second in the division.
Instead, sitting above Barça on the virtue of a better head-to-head record and behind Madrid on the virtue of no head-to-head record (though they will face them this coming Saturday at the Estadio Balaídos), are the unbeaten Celta Vigo. It’s a highly deserved position, as well. A 4-1 thrashing of Barça in September has undoubtedly been the standout result so far, but two wins away at Sevilla and – in their most recent game – the high-flying Villarreal are similarly impressive.
Putting results aside for a moment though, their brand of football in possession particularly has been wonderful to watch too. Just as Luis Enrique did before him, who of course managed Celta before taking the Barça job in the summer of 2014, Eduardo Berizzo has got his side playing in a style which is orientated around controlling matches and dominating possession of the ball. The only team in La Liga who average a higher percentage of possession during games than Celta (59.7%) so far is Enrique’s current one, whilst their pass success (83.9%) and number of short passes per game (514) are both third highest behind Barça and Madrid.
Their key to enforcing such a style lies in the foundations set by their deepest central players. In Gustavo Cabral and Andreu Fontàs, a former La Masia graduate, they’ve got two centre-backs with the technical ability to comfortably pass the ball around and regularly step out of the backline, whilst Augusto Fernández who operates just ahead of them in midfield plays a big role in helping to vary their patterns of build-up play to stop it becoming predictable.
Only Rayo Vallecano’s metronomic Roberto Trashorras averages more passes per game than Fernández (79.0) does in La Liga, and his proficiency at consistently passing vertically from the deepest midfield position in their 4-3-3 system makes him crucial in linking things from the first third into the middle and final ones. Without this verticality from him, as well as from Cabral and Fontàs, possession would risk becoming sterile and somewhat pointless; instead, they get the ball moving and add necessary speed to Celta’s attacking play.
Because of what Fernández offers in deeper areas as the lone pivot (he’s also very good at breaking up play and winning possession back), it’s very rare that he goes forward in offensive phases. It’s his two midfield partners, typically Pablo Hernández and Daniel Wass, who are tasked with that. Hernández isn’t an overly creative player but he does stagger his positioning well to open up possible passing lanes, whereas Wass, a summer signing from Evian in France, is a bit more dynamic with the ball.
Wass, who has undergone the conversion from a full-back to a central midfielder in recent times, has settled in extremely quickly at his new club. The Dane has started seven of their eight league matches thus far and scored twice in that time – his first a tap-in against Las Palmas, the other a lovely rifled strike from just inside the box away at Sevilla. He’s also a fairly regular set-piece taker for them, and, as he demonstrated in Ligue 1, he’s a bit of a specialist when it comes to direct free-kicks. So that’s something to keep an eye out for during his time in Galicia.
He’s averaging 1.6 shots and 1.3 key passes per game so far, and although neither of those figures are extremely high or anything it does demonstrate his bigger contribution to attack than Hernández when compared with the latter’s 1.1 and 0.6 in the same areas.
For the real attacking edge in Celta’s side though, the ones who add true deadliness in the final third to their possession game, you have to look at the front three. Nolito, who’s been their star man since moving to the club in 2013, has had a wonderful start to the season once again, whilst Iago Aspas and Fabián Orellana have also been making big attacking contributions.
Between them that trio have 13 of the team’s total 17 goals – playing a huge part in their rise towards the top of the table. Whilst perhaps they (bar Nolito) aren’t brilliant players on a purely individual basis, the associative play and link-up which happens when they’re on the pitch together makes them a trio which is greater than the individual sum of its parts.
The predominant positioning of them is Nolito on the left, Aspas through the middle and Orellana on the right, but there’s a lot of fluidity and drifting involved. The two Spaniards in particular dovetail well, with Aspas often drifting out to the left (which is the side where the greater portion of their attacking play comes from) to allow Nolito space to cut inside onto his stronger right foot in the archetypal number 10 area. Orellana meanwhile has a bit less freedom and sticks more to the right, though he regularly takes up positions in the half-space on his side.
Nolito and Orellana playing rather infield also enables Celta’s two excellent young full-backs Jonny and Hugo Mallo (who get more freedom to attack thanks to Fernández sitting deep) to push up the left and right flanks respectively and provide added width, but the biggest benefit is certainly the enhanced ability for them to link up together when they’re in closer proximity to each other.
The trio are just as – and arguably more – exciting to watch when they play on the counter-attack, too, in situations when that combination play can be performed at a greater speed with masses of space to exploit. All three of them are quick and capable of beating players in one-on-ones, and as exemplified by Aspas’ two superbly-taken goals in that thrashing of Barça, it can be a real sight to behold.
Celta are right up there as one of the most fun sides to watch in the Spanish league when they have possession, and it’s undoubtedly a style which has reaped rewards for them. The biggest concern which has been raised over them though, as with any team outside the top two in La Liga who go on a good run of form, is whether they can keep it up.
It’s quite easy to reach the conclusion that they aren’t going to win the league, because, simply, that’s rather obvious. But what can they realistically aim for?
Well, looking at their underlying shooting numbers so far seems like a good start to that question. Their average number of shots per game, 15.5, is very good – that’s a figure which is surpassed only by Barça and Madrid. The same applies to the amount of shots on target (5.8) they’re recording out of those. The location of those shots is fairly decent as well; 60% of their attempts on goal are being taken from inside the box. That’s the ninth-highest in La Liga, whilst the conversion rate of 13.7% is the third-highest.
When put into the terms of sustainability, that’s all pretty good on the surface. They’re creating opportunities in good areas with quite strong regularity, and whilst the conversion rate is likely to regress towards the mean a bit it’s not as if they’re wildly over-converting like Villarreal are right now (despite having the least shots in the league from quite average positions, they’re the fifth-highest scoring team and their conversion rate is a staggering 17.9%).
Whilst the focus here has been directed almost solely towards their attacking play, it makes sense to look at Celta’s defensive record for a very brief moment too. Eight goals conceded in eight games so far is a reasonably good return (for some more perspective, pretty much the same backline and core of the team let in 44 in last season), and they’ve also quite impressively restricted opponents to just 10.6 shots against them per game – a record which only Deportivo can better. And like with their own attempts, the shots against them are also coming from reasonable areas: they match the league average of 58% when it comes to what percentage of shots are taken against them inside the box.
All things considered, if they can keep performing at a level similar to their current one then a challenge – even if it it's likely to be a failed one – for the Champions League places could well be within Celta’s reach. At the very least they look set to improve on last season’s 8th place finish.
It’s perhaps a lack of squad depth (coupled with the high intensity they play with when they don't have the ball) which will be their biggest problem in taking the next step up the table though, and in particular there's a real absence of attacking options beyond their first-choice front three other than John Guidetti. Any significant length of injury for any of the forward line could be painful for them, especially if it’s to Nolito. If the rumours of a move that are flying around are to be believed, there’s also a possibility he could leave Galicia in January.
With a bit of fortune on their side, however, Berizzo’s Celta could well have a brilliant season to match their beautiful style of football. Because of how entertaining they are, they deserve to have the neutral’s support to do so too.