Iago Aspas Juncal is Mr Celta Vigo – that point simply isn’t worth debating. There is no doubt that his name will be chanted around Balaídos for decades to come as the connection he has with the club, coupled with his undisputed aptitude and attitude on the pitch, has truly touched the hearts of the Celta faithful. In Aspas’ case, absence really does make the heart grow fonder; in fact, his return to Celta after an unsuccessful sabbatical away in Merseyside is the one of the clearest examples of that old saying.
Aspas was born and bred in Galicia in the north-west of Spain. He grew up in a province called Pontevedra and grafted his way through the youth ranks of his boyhood Celta de Vigo. He was playing for the B team between 2006 and 2009 but got the opportunity to appear in the Segunda División and make his senior debut during the 2007-08 season. Celta fans were reintroduced to their future hero in June 2009 when he came on as a second-half substitute while his team were locked at 0-0 at home against Deportivo Alavés. To put it candidly, it was love at first sight.
Within 20 minutes of his introduction, his shirt was off, almost metres into the air, and he was being smothered by his teammates. Seconds beforehand, he had arrived in the box at pace to score a tidy goal that would momentarily keep Celta in the division, but the celebrations were short-lived as merely 8 minutes later, Alavés equalised. As it stood, Celta were down and out, but once again there was a twist to the tale. In added time, Aspas was in the right place at the right time to tap home a rebound and distance Celta from relegation for good. A young Iago bounded over the advertising boards in ecstasy to be met by multiple Celta fans that would embrace him tightly. A sign of things to come.
It wasn’t long before a Premier League club snapped up the gallego as Liverpool landed Aspas on a deal worth €10.8 million in 2013. 23 league goals and the Zarra trophy in the season before were what caught the Reds’ attention, but a subsequent tally of zero goals in 14 appearances saw him loaned out to Sevilla and he eventually ended back up where he started, in Vigo. For most players, this would be a demoralising turn of events but, for Aspas, it was a blessing in disguise.
Ever since his return, Aspas has seen it all with Celta, from European semi-finals to relegation battles. He reopened his account in September 2015, scoring a brace in a 4-1 demolition of Barcelona and he has not shown any signs of slowing down ever since. His style of play encompasses a wide variety of skills and attributes that make him a delight to have as a teammate; his ability to hold on to the ball and pick out passes (especially key passes) has made Celta an extremely dangerous side going forward in recent years, and his dribbling capabilities breathe confidence through the team as he is able to quickly open up dynamic attacking possibilities for his teammates.
The cherry on top of course is his potency in front of goal. ‘The Magician of Moaña’, as he is often dubbed with reference to his birthplace, established himself as the top-scoring Spaniard in LaLiga in 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19 with his most prolific domestic season since his return coming in the second of those campaigns, scoring 22 goals and providing five assists in 34 appearances.
Those three consecutive Zarra Trophy triumphs earned Aspas a call-up into the Spain squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but he hasn’t been involved with the national side since late 2019, to the bewilderment of many Spanish fans across the country.
Luis Enrique seemingly trusts Álvaro Morata more than any other option that Spain has to offer in the final third, but supporters have been calling for Aspas’ reinstatement in the squad since before the most recent Euros. Why? Quite simply, his impressive goalscoring consistency as illustrated by the graph below.
Going beyond the eye test and the goal tally (which can be simplistic), Aspas provides us with an interesting batch of statistics. We know that he is a lethal finisher, but where is this efficacy most visible? According to the shot map provided below, Aspas has tailored his game to find the best opportunities in the penalty area and this has been further complemented by Eduardo Coudet’s style of play.
Celta adopted a similar philosophy to that of Coudet’s Racing Club in Argentina, encouraging possession and short passing between the midfield and defence while also opting for a high defensive line. The 4-1-3-2 formation provides Aspas with sufficient personnel in the final third to link up with and advance into the opposition box.
In comparison to other forwards in Europe’s top five leagues, a lot is revealed about Iago Aspas’ game. Contrary to his incredible scoring records, Aspas finds himself in a fairly low total shot-per-90 percentile, averaging 1.62 per game. At the other end of the spectrum, Aspas is within the highest percentile rankings in assists (0.28 per 90 – 90th percentile), passes attempted (39.82 per 90 – 94th percentile), progressive carries (5.78 per 90 – 90th percentile), progressive passes (2.99 per 90 – 89th percentile) and blocks (1.11 per 90 – 86th percentile). These numbers themselves show that Aspas has several strings to his bow, such as his progressive movements, playmaking and even defensive capabilities on top of his striking ability.
Graham Hunter described Aspas as a ‘local boy with global talents’ on an episode of his ‘The Big Interview’ that was dedicated the Galician sharpshooter. Hunter highlighted a recent game that speaks volumes not only about the quality of Aspas, but also the high esteem that he is held in at Balaídos.
Barcelona made the long journey across Spain in October, and they found themselves three goals to the good at the interval. Aspas’ form this season was not conforming to the high standards that are expected of him, so Edouardo Coudet pleaded for fans of Los Celestes to completely rock the stadium in the 10th minute because it would supply Aspas with a healthy ovation to help him perform. Believe it or not, the Argentine was right. Aspas brought his team out of the dressing room in the second half a completely different side and he was at the forefront of it all, scoring a goal early on and then finding an equaliser from outside the box in added time after Nolito grabbed Celta’s second mid-way through the half. It was a touching moment when, once again, Aspas launched his shirt into the air and hurdled over advertising boards to get lost in a crowd of delirious Celta supporters after being smothered his teammates on the pitch. It’s a familiar tale.
Aspas himself is synonymous with the fanbase of Celta Vigo. He’s their hero, from Moaña, in the heart of the Ría de Vigo. In an interview with LaLiga in 2017, Aspas outlined what his childhood consisted of in this small, north-western settlement: “Since we were young, we all [the Aspas Juncal family] liked football a lot. My older brother, Jonathan, got me hooked on it. We used to live a few metres away from the old Moaña ground and we would just play football every day, having a ball at our feet at all times. I will try to pass this down to my son and nephew, so they also continue to have ties to football.” Jonathan was the past, Iago is the present and by the looks of it, the younger generation of the Aspas Juncal family will be following in the footsteps of their predecessors. The future of Celta is in safe hands.
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