Thirteen games into La Liga 2023-24, Rafa Benítez’s Celta Vigo side sit in the relegation zone, but how much of their poor form has been down to bad luck?
Forget Newton’s Law and Murphy’s Law; have you heard of Rafa’s Law? It’s a macabre melding of the two that has Celta Vigo in the relegation zone after 13 games of the La Liga season.
Rafa Benítez’s start to life at Celta has not gone well. In fact, of all the nightmare scenarios the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager might have concocted in his head before taking the job, he is currently living one of the worst; the one where his team just can’t catch a break.
If football games were 80 minutes long, Celta Vigo would have beaten Barcelona, Las Palmas, and Sevilla this season and drawn with Real Madrid, Mallorca, Girona and Athletic Bilbao too. Instead, Benítez’s Celta sit in the relegation zone and the Spanish manager has come out swinging in press conferences to defend the club in the face of recent bad luck and controversial refereeing decisions. Benítez even asked how many Newtons of force it takes a player to be forced to the ground in order for Celta to win a penalty.
They have also succumbed to forces that are within their control.
Against Atlético Madrid, goalkeeper Iván Villar was sent off 25 minutes into a game they started well before ultimately losing 3-0. Villar failed to catch a routine cross and bundled Álvaro Morata over as he tried to recover the ball. And then, on the first weekend of November, everything was going smoothly until Rafa’s Law reared its ugly head. They led Sevilla 1-0 before Renato Tapia was sent off after 65 minutes, receiving a second yellow for a needless sliding tackle on Dodi Lukebakio.
Galicia is known for its long, wet and cold winters, but it’s November now and Celta Vigo are reaching boiling point.
Iago Aspas slammed the VAR monitor to the ground in disgust when the VAR team watching the replay decided the penalty awarded late on against Sevilla – which prompted Benítez’s questions on Newtons – was not a foul by Jesús Navas on Tasos Douvikas. The Celta captain might have just as easily grabbed Tapia and thrown him to the ground because this isn’t the story of VAR versus Celta; it’s a tale of bad luck, bad decisions, marginal refereeing calls and a bend-it-until-something-breaks style of play working against them and compounding into a story for the sadists.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Benítez would be out of luck entirely.
Benítez has managed some of the biggest football clubs in the world including Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid. He’s also famous for his rant against Manchester United’s then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson when the Spaniard was in charge at Anfield.
So, let’s look at the “facts”.
On the face of it, Celta are bad. Seven points from 13 games is the kind of form that earns you a one-way ticket to the second division. They are 18th in La Liga and just four points from bottom.
They have scored 14 goals; only Las Palmas, Alavés, Mallorca and Cádiz have scored fewer, but they sit sixth with 18.45 expected goals (xG). At the other end of the pitch, they’ve conceded 24 goals from 21.3 expected goals against.
It’s just 13 games but Celta’s 1.35 expected goals per game under Benítez is the best mark of any of the last five Celta managers dating back to 2019. They have only scored 0.92 goals per game, which is the second worst behind only Fran Escribá, who lasted just 12 games before being sacked.
The 42% share of possession is the lowest among any of the last five Celta managers and they are conceding 1.85 goals per game, which is also the club’s highest average during the last five seasons. But they’ve also played all four of the league’s best teams and took a two-goal lead in one of those games. They should have taken the lead against Girona too, only for VAR to rule out what looked like a perfectly good goal. They also played – and drew with – Real Sociedad, one of the best teams in Europe on current form.
Celta have given up 13 points from winning positions; only Villarreal (14) have lost more points once in front.
If they could hold their nerve, they’d be three points outside of the European places now. Instead they’re in the doldrums, with our expected points model suggesting this is comfortably a mid-table team who are underperforming.
So that’s the what of their current malaise. But why is it happening?
Crisis in Vigo
The story of Celta Vigo in recent years is one of extremes. From Eduardo Coudet’s gung-ho high press to Rafa’s more conservative, defensive approach. The thinking, it seems, behind Rafa’s appointment was that Celta, with him in charge, would be able to build a sustainable identity and improve on the club’s position from last season. He has been asked to do that with a significantly worse squad than last term.
They finished 13th in 2022-23, just three points outside the relegation zone, needing a final day win over Barcelona to ensure their top-flight status. The goals in that 2-1 victory came from Gabri Veiga.
Veiga played 2,308 minutes in the league last season (sixth-most in the team) and provided 15 goal involvements (11 goals, four assists). The Spanish attacking midfielder was one of the biggest names during the summer’s transfer market with links to Liverpool, Manchester United and Napoli. He ended up leaving the shores of Galicia for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli and was not replaced.
Rafa also lost Javi Galán in the summer, a left-back who played 3,162 minutes last season and one of the main catalysts in Celta’s attack. Hugo Mallo, another starter, also left after more than a decade’s service at right-back, where he dutifully soldiered up and down the field.
One look at their attacking sequence involvements from last season and you see that four of the players in the top seven are no longer with the club (Veiga, Galán, Óscar Rodríguez and Mallo). The players who have replaced them haven’t contributed enough, as we will see, and Rafa has been forced to adapt to make things work.
The player at the top of the attacking sequence involvements last season, Aspas, has been forced to dilute himself to the point where he isn’t the same sharp-shooter Celta have come to rely on over the last seven years.
What’s Wrong with Aspas?
You can’t spell Celta Vigo without Iago. Going into Friday night’s game in Bilbao, there was no player with more expected goals (3.81) yet to score across Europe’s top five leagues than Aspas.
Aspas left for ill-fated spells at Liverpool and then Sevilla before returning to Celta Vigo, where he became the axis upon which everything at the club spun around. Since then, his form has been the only constant at Celta as they cycled through managers after the 2017 exit of Eduardo Berizzo, who brought them to the cusp of a Europa League final before losing to José Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Aspas has scored 134 league goals since returning to the club in 2015; only Lionel Messi (188), Luis Suárez (163) and Karim Benzema (151) have netted more often in La Liga since then. One of those came on Friday as he ended the longest drought of his career, but he went on to miss a penalty later in the game, just in case anyone was getting excited about Celta’s luck turning.
Benítez’s Celta play in a 4-4-2 with Aspas as the second striker. His role hasn’t changed drastically since last season either. The argument is that Celta, this season, sit back and soak up possession and work on the counter instead of proactively trying to hurt teams, with their 29 direct attacks this season being the most in La Liga. That might be not sound like the place for Aspas to flourish as an attacker but his numbers haven’t necessarily been hurt by Rafa’s arrival; he’s touching the ball in the opposition penalty area the same amount as last season, he’s taking more shots and having slightly more touches. His chances created are 1.4 higher on a per-90-minute basis than last season, with more of a focus on creating than finishing but he is still getting plenty of opportunities.
Aspas has the second-highest combined expected goals and expected assists total in La Liga this season (8.3), only marginally behind Antoine Griezmann (8.4), who is considered the star of the league since his return to form upon re-joining Atlético. Aspas looks physically fine, his luck is just out.
The Performances Behind Their Poor Form
The detractors will point to how Celta Vigo play. Only ultra-defensive Cádiz, Getafe and Mallorca have a lower share of the ball than they do (42%). As mentioned earlier, they use a 4-4-2 shape out of possession; Benítez did experiment with 5-3-2 after the first couple of games of the season before reverting. However, he’s never truly settled on a midfield pairing – in Celta’s last four games, he has had four different partnerships in the middle of the field: Carlos Dotor & Fran Beltrán, Tapia & Hugo Sotelo, Tapia & Dotor, and Beltrán & Luca De La Torre.
They have comfortably the highest PPDA in the league (17.0), meaning on average they allow their opposition more time on the ball before engaging with a defensive action, and they’ve recorded the third-fewest high turnovers (74). The style of play might not be particularly exciting to watch, which is where much of the criticism lies, but it’s not relegation-level bad in terms of the underlying numbers.
Four of Celta’s 14 goals have come from set pieces, and with nine open-play goals they’re tied for the fourth-lowest total in the league, but Rafa recently spoke about Celta having more shots than Manchester City. He was referring to totals despite not playing the same amount of games (at the time) as Pep Guardiola’s side. Even if his statistics were portrayed in a way that made his side look better, the general sentiment of what he was saying was true; they do take a lot of shots, but converting them is a struggle.
They have taken 130 open-play shots, which is fourth in La Liga, and 175 non-penalty shots in total. They’ve converted just 8.0% of those into goals, however, the fourth worst in La Liga this season. In the absence of Aspas’ goals, nobody has stepped in to fill the void.
Last season, Veiga played an incredible supporting role and without his production Celta would have been relegated. This season, Jonathan Bamba is the only midfielder to have scored a goal. Three defenders, Unai Núñez, Óscar Mingueza and Carl Starfelt, have scored one each but Rafa’s midfield haven’t been able to provide goals at the same rate as last season.
Luca de la Torre, who has nominally replaced Veiga creates chances more regularly – 1.3 per 90 compared to Veiga’s 1.1, but his goalscoring and shot-taking is much lower, leaving a greater burden on the likes of Jørgen Strand Larsen and Aspas to finish moves, which they haven’t been able to do. The players aren’t available but Rafa will have to find a way to get more from his midfielders in terms of goals before it’s too late.
They play another five games before the winter break in La Liga, and three of those are against teams in the bottom half of the table – Valencia (9th), Cádiz (16th), Rayo Vallecano (10th), Granada (19th) and Villarreal (14th). According to the Opta Power Rankings, it’s the easiest run of fixtures of any team in the next five weeks.
There’s a big chance here for Celta to climb above some of the teams they’ve performed better than, but there’s also the risk of slipping further into the abyss. Benítez has been unlucky since taking over Celta, and if they can just hold their nerve, he could steady the ship.
The only good thing you can say about Celta’s first 13 games is that their bad luck surely couldn’t continue. Or could it?