Celta de Vigo: A Spanish Midtable Transfer Success Story
Slowly but surely more clubs in the major European leagues are becoming smarter about recruitment. Stats usage, good scouting of lesser known markets, smart Directors Of Football, a holistic approach that helps newcomers fit a club’s playstyle, or a combination of any or all of these options – many are the ways to make a club’s strategy more calculated.
It's impossible to judge a club's methods from the outside, but from the look of transfers it's possible to find relatively accurate patterns in their business. Liverpool and Brighton have had consistently great windows by bringing in players that fit their style and show up well in analytic models. In Spain, Sevilla had success under Monchi's leadership and the same thing is slowly starting to happen under his watch at Roma. Monaco have invested a large majority of their budget in young players over the last couple of seasons, a perfect fit for a great developmental manager in Leonardo Jardim.
Celta de Vigo might be smaller than they other clubs on the list, but they're no less smart. They’re now entering their seventh season in the top tier of Spanish football since being promoted in 2011/12. After a pretty rough initial season, they managed to break into the top ten three times and finish safely mid-table in the last two campaigns. They even put together a Europa League semi-final run.
Their managerial appointments have proved mostly successful, as well. With coaches like Luis Enrique and Eduardo Berizzo getting moves to Barcelona and Sevilla, after their time at Vigo. After missing the target with their appointment of Juan Carlos Unzué last season, they went for another unorthodox choice this time around with Antonio Mohamed – known for his entertaining pressing style – coming in from Mexico.
When it came to transfers it, they consistently brought in some South American talent, alongside players that didn’t make the step up into bigger Spanish sides – taking advantage of La Masia graduates that didn’t make the cut with Barcelona’s main team among otherse. Over the last few seasons, though, their market focus has shifted further north into Scandinavia – an unusual direction for clubs from the South of Europe.
Miguel Torrecilla, Celta’s previous Director of Football, was a fan of these leagues and paid €1 million for Michael Krohn-Dehli from Brondby back in 2012. He added Daniel Wass and John Guidetti three years later, both Nordic players but arriving from France and England, respectively.
Felipe Miñambres is the club’s current Director of Football and he seems to have doubled down on Torrecilla's approach. Since 2016, the summer he took over took over, Celta have signed Pione Sisto, Andrew Hjulsager, Stanislav Lobotka and Mathias Jensen – all from the Danish Superliga – as well as Emre Mor, who came from Dortmund but developed at Lyngby and in Nordsjaelland’s youth ranks. They're all 23 years old or under.
Sisto finished last season fifth in the league for assists (just like Daniel Wass) and, between his crossing and key passes, made a huge step up from his first campaign in Spain – becoming one of the team’s main creators from wide (again, much like Wass). Starting four World Cup games helped push his value even further and the initial €6 million fee seems a bargain now.
Lobotka spent the summer window constantly associated with incredibly lucrative moves to the Premier League after just one season of showing his immense press-resistance as a deep-midfielder in Spain. He seems to be staying for another campaign, but Celta is almost guaranteed to make a good profit on him soon enough.
Emre Mor finished the season with a record amount of successful dribbles /90 in La Liga but played just under 700 minutes. Reported issues with the old manager explain a bit of the situation, and he should get a new lease on life under Mohamed. Hjulsager seems to be the only failed purchase from this list, not even asserting himself on loan in the second tier. Guidetti and Wass, the oldest Scandinavian players at the club up to this season, both left this summer to Alavés and Valencia, respectively, but both at a profit and after several fruitful campaigns with Celta.
Buying from Scandinavia means less direct competitors and, by consequence, cheaper prices. Celta are also taking advantage of the Nordic academy set-ups, which are producing much more technical players nowadays, but are still stereotyped as producing players more fit for physical leagues. On top of that, the language and integration issue that would be a big hurdle for any other Spanish side is diminished due to the pipeline the club has established.
And while the focus of their market is there, it hasn’t stopped them from making the odd useful addition from another countries – whether it is from South America or eastern Europe. Like Maxi Gomez who arrived from Uruguay for €4 million and will eventually bring in plenty of profit, after scoring 17 La Liga goals last season.
Celta are in this great position to profit off young players: they’re in one of the world’s best leagues, they prioritize attractive football, they always have a slight chance of a European campaign and their players have enough quality for relegation not to be a pressing worry. It's the perfect environment for a team whose model seems to be buying, developing and selling a diverse set of promising players.
All of Celta's smart tendencies have been on display in this summer’s transfer window, arguably the best one since Miñambres took over and one that could push Celta to be one of the most fun teams in La Liga this season. Mathias Jensen was one of the best Superliga players last season and is the latest Denmark export: a 22-year-old centre-midfielder whose influence in the final third, both setting up his teammates and being a threat on goal himself, is somewhat reminiscent of Christian Eriksen.
Okay Yokuslu is another midfield addition and one that data flagged throughout last season. He not only posted great defensive numbers, he also managed a spectacular 1.9 successful dribbles per 90 with a 90% take-on success rate. Arriving from Turkey might make his adaptation slightly more difficult, but the player quality is clear and makes the transfer a no-brainer. Partnering up with Lobotka, Yokuslu and Jensen could make for one of the most press-resistant and fun to watch midfield trios around.
They also invested in Nestor Araujo from Mexico, who the manager is familiar with, Juncá on a free to replace the ongoing Jonny Castro, as well as the loans of Junior Alonso and Sofiane Boufal. Two seasons of Boufal at Southampton weren’t enough for him to impress, but if Celta can recreate the production he had in France they’ll get a quality wide attacker in a deal with little to no negative consequences. To finish up they made 19-year-old Fran Beltran their third most expensive player ever, a midfielder arriving from Rayo Vallecano who should be integrated slowly into the team while still getting plenty of minutes this season.
And, through the sale of a bunch of players – most of them on the wrong end of the age curve –, they actually made a profit this window, all while undeniably improving the squad available to them. Celta’s project shows us the importance of having an actual transfer plan, shows us the role of the Director of Football, how key it can be to explore of new markets, as well as how to make the most of your place within the football pyramid. All of these serve as foundation for successful displays on the pitch and that’s why all of us should watch out for them as they kick off their season this weekend.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association