Celta Vigo would almost certainly be on the road to relegation if they didn’t have Iago Aspas.
Their points-per-match rate from the 20 matches he has started this season would see them in contention for a top-eight finish if it had been maintained through the campaign to date; their points-per-match rate in the 12 matches he hasn’t started is so low that they would barely have made it into double figures if that had been their season-long average.
On a per-match basis, Celta have scored 64% less goals, conceded 17% more and taken 76% less points when Aspas hasn’t been in the starting XI. In the three month period at the start of this year in which a couple of calf injuries prevented him from making a start, Celta recorded just one league victory, alongside nine defeats and a draw. His return coincided with a haul of seven points from three matches that have at least temporarily lifted them out of the bottom three despite a 2-0 defeat, with Aspas suspended, to Atlético Madrid at the weekend.
When Aspas is involved (in his 20 starts and one substitute appearance), Celta Vigo take 33% more points than their average (1.33 to 1) for the season, ranking him fifth in La Liga by that measure amongst players who have seen more than 1,400 minutes of action, as per TransferMarkt. He is one of only two attacking players to have made more than a 20% difference to his team’s outcomes.
The expected goal figures posted by Celta with and without Aspas are not quite as dramatically opposed as those top-line numbers, but there is still a significant drop-off when he isn’t involved. Prior to the defeat to Atlético, with Aspas on the pitch they had averaged 1.11 expected goals (xG), 1.41 expected goals conceded (xGC) and average expected goal difference (xGD) per match of -0.29. Without him, they had averaged 0.69 xG (38% less) and 1.51 xGC (7% more), leading to an average xGD of -0.82, just over half a goal worse than with him present.
That Celta struggle to such a degree when Aspas is absent is unsurprising when one notes the degree to which he dominates their attacking output. Despite missing over a third of their matches this season, he has still made a direct contribution (scoring or assisting) to 18 non-penalty goals (0.90 per 90), five more than any other player. He has scored 13 times from open play (significantly over-performing his xG in the process) and twice from the penalty spot.
On a per 90 basis, he leads the team in shots and key passes, and in both xG.
And xG assisted.
Across the whole of La Liga, only Lionel Messi of Barcelona has provided a higher percentage of his team’s xG contribution (xG + xGA) on a per-match basis, with 61% to Aspas’ 54%. Alongside Ángel of Getafe, they are the only three players with contributions above 50%. Widening it out a little, Aspas has touched the ball at one stage or another of the moves that have led to 76% of Celta’s xG output per match.
It can be of no surprise that all within the club are happy to have him fit for the run-in. “He is a decisive player because of his quality and what he provides to the group,” coach Fran Escribá said recently. “Aspas is different kind of player, our reference point,” defender Gustavo Cabral said last year. When he broke down into tears after scoring two goals in his first start back against Villarreal last month it was partly because of the pressure that had been building up on him during his layoff -- the pressure he had put on himself and the pressure that was applied externally by the expectations of supporters and even teammates on what is the youngest squad in La Liga. “For many of my colleagues, the fact that I was out on the pitch helped them emotionally,” he explained afterwards.
Aspas was not quite such a talismanic figure at the time, but this is not the first occasion on which he has had a key part to play in saving Celta from a relegation battle. He was one of five members of the current squad (and two of the coaching staff) involved in their miraculous escape in the 2012-13 season. Given just a 4% chance of survival, they recorded back-to-back wins over Real Valladolid and Espanyol to leapfrog three teams and maintain their top-flight status. Indeed, it was Aspas who skilfully skipped past an opponent and squared for Nacho Insa to score the decisive goal in the final-day win over Espanyol.
But it also possible to go back even further than that, to June 2009, when a 21-year-old Aspas was just starting to work his way into the first-team picture at Celta having come up through their youth ranks and B team. The club were struggling badly at the bottom of the Segunda División, with relegation a real possibility. In a crunch match against Alavés, Aspas came off the bench for only his second appearance and scored twice, including the winning goal deep into stoppage time.
Can he inspire Celta to another survival? Even with him in the side, their underlying numbers are still some of the poorest in La Liga. With six matches to go, they have just a one-point cushion over the bottom three. Home matches against fellow strugglers Girona and Rayo Vallecano are likely to prove key. “I’m not going to give up until the very last match,” Aspas said after the win over Villarreal. With him by their side, his teammates won’t either.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association