Celta Vigo’s exciting attacking starlet, Theo Bongonda, who signed from Zulte Waregem in January, was made to wait patiently for his first La Liga start by manager Eduardo Berizzo. Despite making sporadic appearances for the club since his arrival, a starting debut had so far been something that eluded him.
Bongonda completely understood it wasn’t going to be easy to replace the likes of Nolito and Fabian Orellana to force his way into the starting line-up, though.
“This season I was expecting to feature more prominently, but the coach is the one who decides. I have two players who are very good in front of me, Orellana and Nolito, and that competition means I have to do more in training,” he said.
However, in matchday six of this La Liga campaign, his exhaustive wait ended. All his hard work in training had finally paid off handsomely, as Berizzo granted him his wish by naming him in the starting line-up against Eibar.
Despite a slow opening to the contest from the Belgian, Bongonda worked his way into the match nicely from his station out on the left, in a game where he duly repayed his manager’s faith.
“I struggled to adapt to the rhythm of my teammates but with the passing of minutes I felt much better,” he said on the match.
After his initial period of adaptation, he began to showcase so many of the attributes that make him such a special talent. Blessed with searing pace, whenever afforded time and space to run at Eibar, he was a massive threat. In tandem with his lightning sharp change of direction, incredible strength, and excellent dribbling ability, Bongonda proved a real handful for Eibar (especially for David Junca, Eibar’s left back).
One moment in particular, on 16 minutes, encapsulated his individual brilliance and penchant to change a game as a result of this. Here, after an in-dispute ball bounced in the middle of the pitch, he leapt up dynamically and beat one half of Eibar’s central defensive pairing, Aleksandar Pantic, and cheekily knocked the ball beyond him. Then, he showed off his explosive pace to latch onto his header and beat the other half of Eibar’s central defensive duo, Mauro Dos Santos, to the ball. Santos tried in vein to stop him from breaking through, but Bongonda comprehensively outmuscled him, sending him crashing to the ground in the process. The rampaging Celta number 17 now only had Eibar’s keeper, Asier Riesgo, between him and scoring one of the goals of the season. Unfortunately for him, though, his side footed attempt was superbly saved.
As a consequence of his wonderful skillset, Bongonda unsurprisingly was a huge weapon for Celta in counter attacking situations too. In such scenarios, where his unpredictability on the dribble sees him equally comfortable beating his opponents by cutting inside or by going around the outside, he presented an extremely tough proposition for Eibar to manage.
It was also important to note that his movement without the ball saw him add an additional layer of danger, particularly in terms of space creation for teammates, but also by way of giving himself a good chance to make an impact in the final third.
He’d often look to make outside-to-in runs, which would effectively drag his opponent, Junca, infield with him. By doing so, oceans of space now became available for Celta’s left back, Jonny, to maraud into, while Bongonda, courtesy of his neatly executed runs, also got into excellent positions to receive balls over the top or in behind.
His enthralling duel with Junca got even more interesting when he undertook his defensive duties. He’d track back vigorously, press purposefully and impose himself physically on his adversary by flying fearlessly into tackles and throwing his weight around at every opportunity. Exuding a touch of rashness and overzealousness in his stopping efforts could have easily gotten him into trouble. But this wouldn’t have necessarily been viewed as a bad thing by his manager, for Berizzo would’ve unquestionably appreciated Bongonda’s intent to win the ball back.
So after an evening in which he covered an impressive 8.9km, the Belgian U21 international deserved plenty of praise for his encouraging body of work.
Even though his starting debut was overwhelmingly positive, there’s still plenty to work on for the gifted youngster. There’s still a sense of rawness attached to his play, which can see him momentarily lose concentration and commit errors. At just 19, and working under the thorough and expert tutelage of Berizzo, Bongonda will be given every chance to develop into the finished article. And the club will be fully expecting him to do just that.
“I am happy to play football in Spain and pleased with my progress. I have taken great steps not only tactically but also technically. Everything goes much faster. In Spain, every detail counts, and the difference with Belgium is huge,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws.
“The season is long and see what happens in the future. I feel I am important in the team and can play a key role. The coach told me to trust him long term. I have learned a lot since I got here. I learn a lot with my colleagues because the league level is higher.”
He’s a player who undoubtedly adds another dimension to Celta, who can be deployed on either flank, and this should see him earn many more minutes as the season rolls on.
For the forseeable future, though, it’s most likely he’ll have to be content predominantly featuring as an impact player off the bench. But what a great weapon he’ll be to throw on against tiring defences, who’ll find him a colossal handful.
In a fascinating side story, he’s actually great mates with Manchester City’s fine young defender, Jason Denayer, who’s currently on loan at Galatasaray. The pair have retained their strong friendship from their days at the Jean-Marc Guillou academy and are in regular contact with one another about life and football.
“I know him (Denayer) from childhood. In the academy we became close friends. We hear each day about all kinds of things,” he explained.
“We’re more than just football friends.”
He then went on to explain the sort of sacrifices he’s needed to make to reach the professional level.
“At 12, I entered the JMG academy and it was no joke. We were locked in, no friends, no family, we only had a few days of vacation per year,” he recalled.
Hearing the phrase “family always comes last” from Bongonda, who sadly even had to miss his sister’s wedding in August due to his preseason exertions with Celta, gives an insight into the harsh realities that are inherent in the life of a footballer.
Even though it must be hard for him sometimes, it’s clear to see how dedicated and driven he is to make it as a top level professional. It’s refreshing to see that despite the fame and riches that come with being a pro, Bongonda remains humble and supports his family with his earnings. He also makes sure he prays everyday – something his father instilled in him from an early age.
In a footballing and a human sense, Bongonda is unquestionably an excellent acquisition by the Galician club, who staggeringly only cost the club around £1 million. There’s every reason to suggest with his brilliant attitude and keen willingness to learn that he should progress into something very special.
You know Bongonda, who’s one of only three Belgians in La Liga (alongside Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Thomas Vermaelen) will do everything in his power to reach the upper echelons of the sport. He’s already sacrificed so much to get where he is today.
Expect a similar trend to continue in his quest for stardom – his tremendous dedication to his craft will see to it.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.