Real Madrid’s first game back from the winter break was a nervy occasion, as they allowed Celta Vigo the clearest chances before they were indebted to Karim Benzema’s breakthrough goal in the 67th minute. Manager Carlo Ancelotti said Real were “a little slow and not well balanced” as Celta’s attack, led by the on-loan Barcelona winger Rafinha Alcantara, posed a dangerous threat on the counter attack.
In the end Madrid relied on the £160 million pair of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to overpower lowly Celta, who sit 18th in La Liga, as they combined for two goals in the last eight minutes. However the concluding period would have provided an element of positivity for manager Luis Enrique as, five minutes before Ronaldo’s first and Madrid’s second contest-deciding goal, he introduced his young striker Santiago Mina as a replacement for Charles.
The Real game was the 18 year old’s 15th appearance of the season as Enrique, possessing a bright background in youth progression as the successful coach of Barcelona B during the Pep Guardiola era, points Celta towards the future. Despite a dismal campaign in which the Galician club have won just 3 of their 18 matches so far, Enrique will be encouraged by the promise of central-defensive duo David Costa, 18, and Jon Aurtenetxe, 22, as well as the 19 year old Jonny, the highly-rated full-back. Barca’s relationship with Enrique was fruitful enough for the champions to lend him the 20 year old livewire Rafinha, the club’s best performer of an otherwise troubled season with 3 goals, 1 assist and 23 chances created. It is however, in the club’s own attacker Santiago “Santi” Mina, who has been 18 years of age for only a month, where most excited eyes are being cast.
Born locally in Vigo, the striker began playing for Celta’s youth team and after plundering a remarkable 27 goals in 17 games in the Juvenil leagues, even more than Lionel Messi achieved at the same level, he was unsurprisingly called-up to Vigo’s B team at the age of 16. He then hit 8 goals in 12 games for the reserves, earning a regular chance to train with the senior squad under then-manager Paco Herrera and a Primera Division debut at the age of 17 years and 2 months. His replacement of Iago Aspas against Getafe on February 16th meant he became the third youngest player ever to feature for Celta in Spain’s top-division.
It was a month after Mina was handed a five year deal with Celta, a significant move in securing the next stage of the youngster’s development at the club after they lost their last exciting prospect, the midfielder Denis Suarez, to Manchester City after he became a star performer for Spain’s under-17s. A major part of thinking behind hiring Enrique, a young, ambitious coach with previous experience of managing and encouraging the progression of young players, as Herrera’s successor in the summer was the aim to make 50% of their squad home-grown each year. By tying Mina down until 2018, the hope would be that the teenager would follow Jonny and Ruben Blanco, the B team’s goalkeeper, into the next stage of development as the next wave of Celta’s future becomes clear.
The substitute appearance against Getafe remained his sole top-flight appearance of the season as he remained with the B team, scoring 7 goals in the last 5 games of the season to complete a successful push for promotion from the Tercera division, Spanish football’s fourth tier. His talent was also apparent in the end of season Copa De Campeones, the most prestigious youth tournament in Spain, where he scored 3 goals in 4 games to lead Celta to the final where they were ultimately beaten by Sevilla.
That proved to be his sign off to junior-level football as in the off season he was promoted on a regular basis to the full-squad by new manager Luis Enrique. Despite initially starting the season with the B side, he was handed only his second senior appearance in Vigo’s third game of the season away at Bilbao. It was a fairytale evening for Mina, emerging from the bench to score a header after neat build-up play, securing his place in history as Vigo’s youngest ever top-flight scorer.
That was followed by his first ever league start a week later against Villarreal and a further 15 appearances to date, though they have mostly been restricted to substitute and cameo roles as he has been trusted to complete 90 minutes just twice so far. Incidentally, one of those occasions came against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa Del Rey last month where he again became the scourge of the Basque outfit, scoring the only goal in the 1-0 victory. It was a goal and a performance that led his manager to describe him as a “rough diamond who is very hungry to do well and is craving to play”. With Mina continuing his progress and showing further signs that his burgeoning talent can adapt to the highest level, it seems likely he will achieve his wish as Celta enter a decisive 2014.
Mina is seen by many as a conventional striker, a throwback to the old notion of naturally instinctive strikers, of which Spain have a void in favour of technically gifted wingers and nimble-footed creative attacking midfielders, in the words of Spanish football expert David Cartlidge. It was his predatory nature that saw him achieve his prolific scoring feats, a strike rate of a goal every 57 minutes, in the Juvenil leagues, leading to his coach, David de Dios, to be particularly effusive over the youngster’s scoring. “Everything he touches goes in. He can score with his head or foot, can volley, use his left or right, inside the area and outside it too” he said.
It will be the goals that will stand out whilst assessing the potential ability of the young striker, but what is also notable is his powerful presence when leading the front-line. For a player who stands at a modest 5 ft 10, his robust upper body strength and fine sense of balance allows him to be a constant handful for defences when dropping off to hold the ball up, or also when lurking in the box to poach on difficult chances.
His versatile forward play, as well as an agile frame and sharp movement in and around the box, is something Luis Enrique has tapped into as he has handed Mina the majority of his first-team chances in a withdrawn striking role, mostly to the right of the attack. From there, he is especially prone to cutting in from the flank to get shots away, his 14 league appearances have seen 15 attempts at goal, while the team is unbalanced with his lack of crosses, 0 successful from 9 attempted despite his wide-positioning, shows where his overriding instincts lie, to head directly towards goal rather than be a creator for others.
His prowess in the direct game has been complimentary to the struggling Vigo side as he has been involved in 52 aerial duels, winning almost half of them with 28, another indicator of his ability to use his sense of movement and strength to become a target man. Though his willingness to get involved in the play to hold the ball up is perhaps undermined by his low pass success rate of 67.8% as a result of an average of just 10.6 passes per game and only 5 chances created in his 612 minutes of football.
As that may be caused by a team in poor form failing to see much of the ball in attacking areas, or even Mina’s single-minded direct style, his link-play and decision-making must be improved upon if the 18 year old is to become an effective forward at the top level. He has shown he has the scoring instincts and the characteristics to play as a complete forward, though he needs to be given time, and more game time by his manager, to realise that potential and adapt it to the modern game where a prolific strike-rate alone just isn’t enough.