Gabriel Veiga: Why European giants are queuing up to sign Celta Vigo's €40m-rated star
La Liga's February Player of the Month award had an unexpected recipient. It didn't go to Antoine Greizmann, who was spearheading a turn around in fortunes Atletico Madrid. Nor did it go to Ronald Araujo, whose dominance at the back had buoyed a Barcelona European defence that has been the best in Europe this season. Real Madrid superstars Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema were both also snubbed.
Instead, it went to a 20-year-old attacking midfielder who had only broken into a mid-table Celta Vigo side in August. But that player, Gabriel Veiga, was a deserved winner.
The midfielder had led a surging Celta side, pulling the strings for a team pushing up the table, and taking on the mantle of leadership from club legend Iago Aspas. Veiga has now scored nine and assisted four in La Liga in 2022-23, establishing himself as one of the most exciting youngsters in Spanish football.
Now, the rest of Europe has taken notice. Veiga is wanted by a host of clubs, both in Spain and abroad, with many tipping him to be a top-quality attacking midfielder for years to come.
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Where it all began
Veiga was born in O Porrino, a stone's throw from Celta's stadium, Balaidos. He joined Celta's academy at 11 and worked his way through the ranks as a promising but not exactly heralded talent.
He was a distinctly unremarkable midfield product for most of his youth career, and like many in the Celta system, he idolised Aspas. But there was little suggestion that Veiga could reach the Spain international's heights.
The midfielder instead took his chances as they came, and began to impress for Celta's reserve side as a 17-year-old.
In 2020, he was handed his first-team debut, and made a smattering of appearances thereafter, including one start, for a Celta side that finished eighth in La Liga.
The big break
Heads first started to turn in the 2021-22 campaign as Veiga scored nine for a Celta B side that finished sixth in the Spanish third tier, and was entrusted with a further 10 appearances for the first team.
This season, though, things have skyrocketed. Veiga didn't figure to be a regular, but a series of departures in central midfield saw him forced into the picture.
He settled for a series of appearances off the bench in the opening month, but cracked the starting XI after a star showing against Real Betis last October. Veiga scored the winner, a 30-yard-screamer, to hand his side a 1-0 victory.
That showing — complete with a memorable goal — was enough to keep Veiga in new manager Carlos Carvahal's line up for good.
How it's going
Since then, Veiga has only improved. Previously tasked with being a more conservative box-to-box midfielder, the 20-year-old has been asked to get into advanced areas more regularly, playing as an active No.10 for a Celta side that likes to hit on the break.
And he's produced a handy return of both goals and assists since the positional shift. Veiga scored the equaliser against Sevilla on December 30, bagged a brace in a 4-3 win over Betis in early February, and scored two of Celta's three in a drubbing of Valladolid at the end of the month.
10 - Celta de Vigo's Gabri Veiga is the first midfielder born in 2002 or before to have been involved in 10+ goals in the Top 5 European Leagues this season (seven goals and three assists). Youth. pic.twitter.com/i0wRMdiarA— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 26, 2023
The midfielder has become a dangerous attacking threat with his pace and ball carrying ability. He has now created at least one chance in 12 of his last 13 appearances, and ranks in the 96th percentile of successful take-ons among midfielders, per fbref.
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Despite being quite tall for a playmaker at 5'10 (178cm), Veiga is an excellent dribbler, and uses his power to work his way out of trouble in crowded spots before making driving runs into the final third. That he is able to receive the ball on the half turn and then hit full speed quickly makes him an incredibly difficult player to mark.
And there's little he can't do when he gets into the right areas. Veiga has scored some terrific goals from distance this year, and has the rare blend of confidence and technique to shoot from outside the box — especially while on the run.
But the 20-year-old also has a real finesse to his game, too — something he showed with a delightful dink over the keeper in Celta's recent win against Betis.
Veiga is, then, the perfect attacking midfielder for sides that like to play on the break.
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Room for improvement
Veiga is a high-energy player capable of eating up ground. A lot of the time, that is a very good thing, especially given his crucial role in launching Celta's counter-attacks.
However, he can be rather erratic at times, with his decision-making standing out as a clear weakness. Veiga is comfortable dribbling out of pressure, but when forced to react on the fly, he can often struggle.
Veiga's pass completion percentage is, in fact, concerningly bad. He ranks in the 16th percentile among all La Liga midfielders, though he is an admittedly low-volume passer. Chances are, he will need to become more well-rounded to make it at a big club, and that means his distribution will need some real work.
His defensive instincts are also something to work on. Although Veiga functions as a useful pressing weapon due to his speed and athleticism, he doesn't intercept or win duels at a high rate like some of the elite attacking midfielders in the game. The good news is, these are all very coachable flaws.
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The next... Fede Valverde?
Picking out an exact comparison for Veiga is tricky, not least because there are very few Spanish players like him. In fact, his mould of attacking midfielder is more common in the English or even Dutch game.
There is a bit of Cody Gakpo in the way Veiga turns away from opponents, while his quick feet and agility are vaguely reminiscent of Mason Mount.
But a more accurate association might be Real Madrid's Valverde. Both are tall athletic midfielders who like to shoot from distance, they share similar dribbling styles, and a remarkable versatility that could see them function in a number of different systems. And, like Valverde in Real Madrid's counter-attacking setup, Veiga is deadly on the break.
Replicating Valverde appears to be a more immediate goal for Veiga to reach, but perhaps a loftier target would be Steven Gerrard.
Veiga certainly has a long way to go to be at the level of the Liverpool legend, but his stride length, relentless running and flawless shooting technique evoke memories of the ex-Liverpool skipper.
What comes next?
Well, Veiga seems certain to leave. Celta have reportedly worked a €40 million(£35m/$44m) release clause into his contract, a figure that could turn out to be a bargain given Veiga's potential.
Club president Carlos Mourino admitted that the player will probably be playing elsewhere next year, telling Cadena Ser: "The clauses are in place and it is one of the requirements of La Liga. We are not going to sell Gabri Veiga, but they are going to buy him from us. Nobody has to negotiate with us.
"We know that there are clubs that have called, but we don’t know who has spoken with Gabri Veiga. There were other teams that called us asking if we would give them a hand."
All of the usual suspects have been linked. Real Madrid and Barcelona have shown some form of interest, with Los Blancos supposedly hoping to add the Spaniard to their impressive midfield ranks.
Manchester City have also been linked, and a deal there might make sense, especially given City could lose both Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva at the end of the year.
Liverpool, in dire need of midfield reinforcement, are also reportedly in the mix, while Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle have all been cited as potential destinations, too.
Celta have reportedly offered the player a contract extension, if only to work a higher release clause into his deal. But Veiga is yet to pen a new deal, and the club's hand will likely be forced into a sale this summer.
Whoever gets their hands on him, they are getting a top, top talent.