Iago Aspas and Liverpool: What went wrong?

Iago Aspas and Liverpool: What went wrong?

Former Liverpool striker Iago Aspas has returned to Celta Vigo after two unsuccessful years away from Balaidos, but what exactly went wrong for the Spaniard away from his beloved home side?

charlie-malam
Charlie Malam

Thursday's return to Celta Vigo completed a turbulent two years for Iago Aspas.

The 27-year-old striker only left Balaidos two years ago, in a £7.6 million move to Liverpool - where he was expected to ply his talented combination of craft, creativity and relentless work ethic in an ever-gelling side.  

On paper, the transfer made perfect sense.

Aspas, then just 25, had just enjoyed a stellar individual campaign in La Liga - where he, more than anyone, helped Os Celestes avoid relegation.

Aspas was the man to rely on as he scored 12 of Celta's 37 league goals, assisting a further seven - meaning he was directly involved in 51% of their total tally. 

He was to add to a developing Liverpool side, who had improved greatly in the latter stages of the 2012-13 season thanks to January additions Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, who propelled the side into a fine streak of form in the second-half of the season.

As such, Brendan Rodgers' side rescued something of his maiden campaign - winning 36 points in 18 games post-Christmas, after having won just 28 points in 20 games before it. The Reds eventually finished seventh, but there was enough promise from the way in which they finished the season. An eight-game unbeaten streak gave food for thought towards the 2013-14 season.

Regardless of their improvement, Liverpool still needed to stock up in the final third and Aspas, at what seemed like a low cost, looked like the ideal signing - given his playing-style, which would surely see him slot straight in at Anfield.

Obviously, it didn't.

In fact, Aspas was to be one of a number of Liverpool signings under Rodgers who failed to live up to their potential. But what exactly went wrong?

An overachieving pre-season 

Having arrived late June, Aspas was given a few weeks to integrate before his first game in a red shirt - a friendly away at Preston North End

The Reds showed their superiority, winning convincingly as Aspas got amongst the goals in his first ever game. A 4-0 win was capped off by the striker late on, hammering a strike past on-loan goalkeeper Sam Johnstone.

It was a welcome start to life in England, and throughout the rest of Liverpool's warm-up games - from Asia to Ireland, Aspas was in excellent form.

Five goals in eight games put an intriguing gloss on a constructive pre-season, with seven wins producing 21 goals and some impressive performances, both as a unit and individually.

In essence, the high level of his performances only set himself up to fail - because regardless of the fact that he was impressive against lesser sides in friendly games, expectations were certainly raised as a result.

Aspas, in both creativity and goalscoring, was seen as a fine back-up option for Luis Suarez, or even Daniel Sturridge, and it looked to all that the former Celta Vigo hero was going to prove a shred swigning.

Early season struggles 

It soon became clear that that perhaps wasn't the case. Due to Suarez'w eight match ban, Aspas was thrust into the first-team from the opening day of the league campaign - a home game against Stoke City.

He showed glimpses of his ability, most notably slipping a neat one-two through ball for Sturridge to test Asmir Begovic - but despite some promising movement and a fair few neat touches on the ball, he failed to really make much of an impact on the right-side of a front-three, before he was subbed off.

Aspas did gain an assist, laying off the ball for Sturridge - who took much of the credit for a drilled drive low into the bottom corner from 25-yards, but elsewhere he was quiet.

For much of the game, he struggled physically - a trend that would continue throughout his stint in the first-team. In the first three games of the season, all 1-0 wins, Aspas won only two of seven tackles and completed just one of three attempted take-ons - all of which came against Stoke. 

Furthermore, of five aerial duels - Aspas won two, and he also completed a single interception across his first three games. Of course, these contributions are not exactly awful, but they were not exactly eye-catching either.

Aspas generally struggled in all three games, creating no chances and making a miniscule impact - but there was more than a hint that his could just be a struggle to transition to a new league, and a new country.

The Spaniard would go on to feature in the two games before Suarez's return, but featued for no longer than 54 minutes in each game and was restricted as a result.

He was on the periphery against both Swansea and Southampton, struggling to thread any meaningful creative passes as his battle to adjust continued to rage on.

Unfortunately for Aspas, the return of Suarez - who had been the club's top scorer with 30 goals in all competitions the season before - meant a period out of the side was always going to be inevitable.

But the Uruguayan's sensational form - and combination play with Sturridge - meant Aspas was forced to endure a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

New year, new promise? 

In the 14 games between his last start and New Years' Day - Aspas played for just 34 minutes - all of which were off of the bench. Understandably kept out of the team as Suarez excelled, Aspas was given a longer cameo against Hull City on January 1st, replacing Steven Gerrard on the hour-mark - but the game had already been won and he again failed to make any impact.

Four days later, he finally netted his first goal for the club. Drawing 0-0 with Oldham Athletic in the third round of the FA Cup as the game approached the hour mark - Aspas latched on to Raheem Sterling's clipped cross to hook a ball into the bottom corner - which he called a "proud moment" after the game. 

But despite his contributions, Aspas would continue to sit out on the bench for another month - as Liverpool's first-team began to hit their peak, thrashing the likes of Stoke City, Everton and Arsenal as they competed for a place in the top-four.

The Spaniard's appearances were short, but far from sweet - due to the fact that he was brought on in games already settled, merely to help run down the clock.

That damn corner kick

Aspas would go on to make just four more appearances after scoring his first goal, all of which were from the bench - only one of which was longer than 10 minutes.

That, infamously, was the 2-0 loss to Chelsea - a game which took the Premier League title away out of the Merseyside club's hands. Aspas came on in the 80th minute, Liverpool still desperately searching for an equaliser. 

Deep into extra-time, the Reds won a corner at the Kop end. This could have been it. The perfect time to net any kind of equaliser and send Anfield into deafening raptures. 

Aspas sprinted over to the right-sided corner flag, allowing the likes of Steven Gerrard to get in the box, but he got his execution all wrong - attempting to roll a ball across the edge of the box, as opposed to whipping one in, and he played it straight into the path of Willian - who gratefully ran the ball away from danger. 

It was Rodgers' side's last chance, as Chelsea would go on to punish Liverpool's full-frontal approach with a simple counter-attack in the 94th minute. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aspas would spend the last two games as an unused substitute, just as he had 23 times before in the season. Presumably, he sat and pondered whether had he opted for a more conventional corner-kick - whether things could have been different. 

But alas, it was too late, and it was a rather suitable way to end a distinctly poor campaign for the striker. It has to be said that his inconsistent selections were undeniably down to the scintillating form of Suarez and Sturridge, or SAS as they became fondly known.

Rarely has Liverpool seen any other strike force so potent, and so devastating in top form, and Aspas gave little evidence during his brief performances to suggest he could challenge for their spots.

Shipped out on loan 

Aspas' disappointing inaugural season at Liverpool, interrupted by injuries, poor form and a superb strike-force meant he was loaned out for his second year - back to the comforts of his homeland.

Europa League champions Sevilla, and the side whom the Reds would prise their new left-back away from, to be exact.

But whilst he found chances at a premium on Merseyside, he was not to receive much more joy back in La Liga - making just 10 starts, less than half of which were in league competition.

Instead, he was forced to spend the vast majority of another season on the bench - being substituted on a total 16 times throughout the campaign.

Two hat-tricks, both against second-tier side CE Sabadell - one of which came within four minutes in a 5-1 win, were the highlights. Other fond memories of his time at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium were few and far between, as he made just three appearances in their Europa League campaign. 

Unai Emery's side won the trophy back-to-back for the second time in their history to ensure they are the only club ever to have won the tournament four times, but Aspas did not feature past the group stage. 

Aspas' Copa del Rey form, with seven goals in five games and a consolation goal against Real Madrid were the only real highlights of another disappointing season - whilst another memorable moment, for all the wrong reasons, came when he was headbutted by Cadiz striker Kike Lopez in a friendly. 

But he will not be remembered for much in a few years time, just as he never played an important role for Liverpool the year before. Once again, he was forced to play second-fiddle to better-quality first-choice forwards, this time Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro as opposed to SAS.

Bizarrely, despite the fact Aspas made pretty meagre contributions to Sevilla's success last year, they decided to exercise the buy-out option in Liverpool's loan clause - giving the Reds £5 million for the striker.

That, in itself, may not sound bizarre - but it is when you consider the fact that Sevilla, only a few days later, announced that they had made an agreement to sell Aspas straight back to Celta, for a fee unknown. 

Back to where it began

"One of the most exciting arrivals of recent seasons" was the way in which they greeted him, and Aspas will sure be glad to find himself back "home" after a tumultuous two years away.

He'll be happy to be amongst more familiar surroundings and even happier to be playing in front of fans who still hold him in high esteem.

For the timebeing at least, Aspas' new five-year deal at Celta Vigo means he will add more quality to a side who only missed out on European football by four points last season - but his time on Merseyside might always be a question of "what could have been?"

Aspas, had he not been loaned out to Sevilla in 2014-15, or had he made more of an impact early on in his Liverpool career, might not be in the position where he finds himself now.

He was a victim of his own pre-season success, and his contributions certainly weren't helped by a lack of playing time beyond the first few games of the season - meaning Aspas was always going to struggle adapting.

But hindsight is a beautiful thing, and whilst Aspas will probably regret not making the most of his opportunity in the Premier League - his permanent return to Spain is one that suits all parties.

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