After getting back to winning ways against Athletic Club, Barcelona will be back on the road against Celta. Despite battling relegation, they will pose a striking challenge for Quique Setién’s team. And so, there’s a need for looking at the strengths and weaknesses of Celta de Vigo in this detailed tactical analysis.
We now head to matchday 32 as Barça prepares to once again play before their rivals Real Madrid. The Catalans have been shuffling between alternate home–away fixtures, and are now once again the travellers. They will be visiting the Estadio Municipal de Balaídos on Saturday afternoon to face a relegation-threatened but rejuvenated team lead by former Barça man Óscar García Junyent.
As a player Óscar García was an academy graduate who spent a total of 15 years at Barcelona including his period as a young prospect. From 1984 to 1999, he was nurtured with the Barcelona way before heading off to different parts of Spain. During his time as a footballer at Barça, he won four league titles, two Copas del Rey, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup.
His career as a manager saw him move across different parts of the globe, before finally returning to La Liga in 2019. He took over from Fran Escribá in November, after the Spaniard was sacked within his first season as Celta’s coach. Since then, García has guided his side to seven wins, nine draws and six losses, with a 31.82% win percentage.
Coach Óscar García renewed his contract with Celta just today | Photo by Rodrigo Jiménez via Imago
Celta now sits at 16th place, seven points clear of the red line. However, their improvement in form wasn’t immediate. García’s first match as the Célticos‘ boss was precisely against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, which his side lost 4–1. Since then, which was in matchday 13, it took them till matchday 23 for them to climb out of the relegation zone. With continual stretches of draws, their escape from the drop spots was slow and gradual.
Nevertheless, since the restart of football, they have been in sumptuous form. Óscar’s team lost the first game to Villarreal and then drew to Real Valladolid, but then followed it up with a 6–0 thumping of Deportivo Alavés before beating Real Sociedad 1–0 at Anoeta. Scoring seven goals and conceding just one since the restart, they look a lot more threatening in all departments.
Last five league finishes
2014/15 | 8th · 51 points
2015/16 | 6th · 60 points
2016/17 | 13th · 45 points
2017/18 | 13th · 49 points
2018/19 | 17th · 41 points
As you can see, there has been a gradual decline in Celta’s league performances over the past years. Prominently, it was last campaign that required a miraculous escape from relegation. Finishing four points ahead of 18th-placed Girona, Iago Aspas single-handedly carried them out of the inevitable drop by scoring 20 goals.
Indeed, aside from Aspas, there isn’t much consistency from the rest of the team. And this is the primary reason why they have fallen from a top-half side to relegation battlers. Until Óscar García took over, it looked like Celta was going to go through yet another uphill struggle for staying in La Liga next term. Still, with seven matches left to play, they can even target a finish in the top half as they are only nine points behind tenth place.
Under Fran Escribá, the Celestes were set up in a 4–4–2 with a double pivot of defensive midfielders shielding the backline. Notwithstanding, despite trying to compensate with the lack of quality at the back by increasing numbers, they were in free fall. By matchday 12, they won only two games, drawing three and losing seven. Escribá was replaced after four uninspiring consecutive losses. He didn’t try to switch the formation and didn’t attempt any tactical alterations which deservedly cost him his job.
Óscar, on the other hand, had more depth in terms of tactical understanding. One quality that he absorbed from his period as an azulgrana midfielder was the ability to read the game well. He wasn’t the most gifted footballer, but as long as one could understand Barça’s philosophy, it would suffice. He carried the club’s traditional 4–3–3 with him as a coach and has been trying to implement the same at Celta.
Barça loanee Rafinha Alcântara has been in scandalous form lately | Photo by Imago
Indeed, the primary goal wasn’t to have them playing pretty football but to survive relegation. Because of this, Óscar shifted between 4–3–3, 3–5–2, 3–4–1–2, 5–3–2 and 4–2–3–1. He has been implementing different formations that vary with the tactical magnitude of the opposition. Either way, he has fielded a 4–3–3 on eight occasions, implying that at some point, he wants them to emulate the Catalans’ golden style of play.
The one thing Óscar must be appreciated for is him willing to compromise for the sake of attaining results. Numerous managers are adamant in their tactics and don’t alter them even if they aren’t working for the club. García, on the other hand, shuffles between back fours and back threes, fielding an extra centre-back whenever he thinks there is a need for more protection.
The acquisition and loan, respectively, of former Barcelona players Denis Suárez and Rafael Alcântara has provided more creativity in the midfield and up top. Aspas no longer looks like a lone warrior. And now that they have signed Nolito from Sevilla as an emergency signing, the manager has many attacking options.
Óscar García must be well aware of the fact that his side cannot win the midfield battle against Barça, and so he might look to overload the central portion of the pitch. Attempting to emulate the Barça way against the blaugranas might not work due to the mismatch in quality. He is likely to play for a result, and not get the excellent form they’re in into his head. But there will always be an element of unpredictability. As he is a manager who has so many tricks up his sleeves.
Player to watch
Denis Suárez and Rafinha have improved the overall squad depth and quality. Fyodor Smolov and Santi Mina are excellent centre-forwards. And winger Nolito is a wonderful addition with a profile that their squad was missing. Clearly, they pose a transcendent number of attacking options and are a team that can pull off surprises wins against the big outfits. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that one man carries the entire ship. Iago Aspas is the player Quique Setién’s side should unquestionably keep an eye on.
Already at 11 goals and 2 assists, Aspas seems to be having yet another high-grade season despite being in a relegation battling side. He has started 30 out of the 31 games so far and has always been a player who gave his 100%. Since returning to Celta after a disappointing season at Liverpool and then Sevilla, Aspas’ form upfront has only been improving exponentially.
Iago Aspas, the genius and saviour of Celta | Photo by Joaquín Corchero / Cordon Press via Imago
He has scored 14, 19, 22, and 20 goals in the four years so far, and is likely to hit the 20-goal mark this season if Celta continue their excellent form. Last course, he carried them out of the relegation zone by scoring or assisting almost every single one of the club’s goals towards the closing stages.
Currently, he is one of the most underrated attackers across Europe. He is progressive, smart and deadly in one-versus-one situations. With a dribble success rate of 66.7% ( 52 / 78 ), Aspas has managed to unlock defences by weaving through them by himself. He has made a total of 134 touches in the opposition’s penalty area this season, which makes it an average of 4.5 touches per game. A player of Aspas’ quality getting an opportunity to make those many touches in the opposition box, despite being a winger, means that the Catalans should be mindful while defending.
Over the past two games, Barça left-back Jordi Alba has had to face two quality wingers in the form of Lucas Ocampos and Iñaki Williams. Aspas will be his third big challenge in a row. But judging by how well the Barcelona backline has been in the recent games, Iago will have to pull off something special to unlock the defence, and he is very capable of that.
Balaídos has always been a tricky trip for Barcelona. And now that they are in form, the challenge ahead for Setién’s men must not be underestimated. A reunion awaits Rafinha and Denis, who will have to be at their best alongside Aspas. While Óscar García will also be looking to show his boyhood club how far he has taken Celta since they last met.
Los Blancos will be watching Barcelona’s clash with Celta, as they had already dropped points against them at the Santiago Bernabéu just before the lockdown. They will be facing RCD Espanyol, and are unlikely to drop points against the side that is rock bottom. With off-pitch disturbances lurking the dressing room, there are chances of Setién’s side not being at the best of their concentration. But anything less than a win against Celta would severely weaken their chances of retaining the title.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.