Today’s Marca, as it scratched around for stories to fill its pages during the winter break which weren’t about Iker Casillas, featured an interesting article about the new cantera for Spanish talent: the English Premier League.
It listed fifteen young talents who left Spain to develop their careers, suggesting “the future of the Spanish seleccion is also being formed in England.” But is that a good idea?
It certainly feels like a young player is likely to get his opportunity earlier in the Premier League. English sides tend to throw youngsters in sooner, although whether that’s totally a positive thing is a moot point. An early debut might not have hurt a phenomenal talent like Xavi, but Sergio Canales might have benefitted from a little less frenzy early in his career.
Also, there’s the matter of style of play. On the one hand if a player is equipped for the hurly-burly of English football then there ought to be no physical shocks in store for him wherever he goes: a rainy January night in Pamplona should hold no fears for him. Whether repelling Stoke’s long balls into the box prepares you for covering the darting runs of Lionel Messi is an altogether different question.
Cesc Fabregas has admitted that, having gone back to Barcelona, he found he required a lengthy process of familiarising himself again with their style of play. To be fair, the Guardiola template is quite rigid, despite the end result being so fluent, so perhaps anyone would have needed time to acclimatise, but the implication was clear: playing in the Premier League was a very different experience.
However, there is certainly something to be said for getting that experience. Standing up to the frantic pace at a young age will no doubt develop character and a swiftness of decision-making. Although Gerard Pique left Old Trafford without a huge amount of first team experience, he undoubtedly benefitted from Sir Alex Ferguson’s finishing school.
So what of the fifteen players named? How are they likely to progress in England, and what sort of players are likely to emerge from the process?
Three are at Arsenal, which one would think is the best English finishing school possible for a Spaniard. Arsene Wenger’s record of preaching a passing game and giving youth its head is an attractive combination.
Seventeen-year-olds Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin are both too young to feature in the first team yet, although the former did put a couple past Athletic in the NextGen series to put the London side through at the Basques’ expense.
The older Ignasi Miquel, meanwhile, has enjoyed first team experience for Arsenal without looking like he’s on the verge of holding down a permanent place.
A regular in cup matches, where Wenger will lean heavily on his reserve squad, he has had a mixed time of it in the league, thumping the ball into Aaron Ramsey to put the ball past his goalkeeper and open the scoring in his league debut, a 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool.
After a shaky beginning to his first team experience, he seems to be making a positive impression though, and the opportunities he’s been given have been a key factor in helping him take responsibility internationally: he was a key part of the side which won the Under-19 European Championship.
There are also three young Spaniards at Manchester City: Jose Pozo, Angel Esmoris and cream of the crop, Denis Suarez. The first two are 16 and 15, but Suarez has already played in the first team and, as Marca says, is well thought of in England.
While there might be a buzz around the precocious talent, that doesn’t mean he’s in the right place. Cash-rich Manchester City hardly seems the best place for young talent to come through: if they have a problem in a particular position, they can throw a fortune at it to bring in an immediate answer rather than patiently bring through a young talent.
Add to that the fact that Roberto Mancini, a manager who tends to think in the short term, is in charge, and one suspects the best thing Suarez could do is get a loan move and impress him from afar.
Having said that, John Guidetti left City for a season at Feyenoord last time round, managed twenty-two goals and nine assists in twenty-four games, but still hasn’t threatened the multi-million pound pecking order at the Ettihad. Suarez would be wise to look for an alternative.
There are plenty of videos floating around of Christian Ceballos, just into his teens, pulling off spectacular stunts with the ball, but none of him in a Spurs shirt because he hasn’t been able to break into the first team. While Andre Villas-Boas is the sort of coach who will take a chance on youth and energy, the fact that he was signed before the Portuguese took the hot seat might be relevant.
His predecessor, Harry Redknap, is a renowned wheeler-dealer: Ceballos, signed after a successful trial as his Barcelona contract wound down, might be one of his unsuccessful punts.
Likewise, one wonders where Gines Guzman or Alex Gorrin might fit in: the former is at West Ham, a club which has a great tradition of bringing youth through, but is currently managed by Sam Allardyce, whose combination of old fashioned values and love of modern technology leaves the observer unsure of just what he stands for. The latter, at Sunderland, finds himself at a club low on confidence and needing points: hardly the environment to blood a youngster.
The remaining six players mentioned by Marca might be the ones with the best chance of progress in the Premier League. Three of them are at Wigan, whose cerebral Spanish manager, Roberto Martinez, is committed to a technical style of football and knows that keeping a small side afloat in such a competitive league means finding good talent cheaply and bringing it through.
Jesjua Angoy, Eduard Campadabal and Guillermo Andres will all have had a grounding in the technical side of the game as the first two have come from Barcelona and the last from Villarreal. Martinez will have brought them in for their ability to play, and is not so foolish as to try to make a player something he’s not.
Last year Martinez, while cautioning against expecting too much of Anjoy, couldn’t help but get carried away about him:
‘He is only a boy. It is going to be two or three years before he has adapted to the physical side of the game.
‘But he has great ability. Tactically, the boy is a joy to watch. I don’t know where he gets it from.’
Might I be so bold as to suggest he gets it from his grandfather, Johan Cruyff?
The other three are at Liverpool, and ironically the club which recently was a graveyard for Spanish talent is now possibly the best English venue to nurture it.
Rafa Benitez started the process of Spanish players arriving en masse in the youth teams of England, but his conversion rate was extremely poor. He might have utilised the likes of Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres in his first team, but they were bought in as first team players: the young Spaniards and South Americans he drafted in made little or no impact before being sent on their way, often with their careers in reverse.
Francis Duran (now at Orihuela in Segunda B), Mikel San Jose (returned to Athletic Club) and Antonio Barragan (now at Valencia) are mentioned by Marca as players who “didn’t find fortune” at Anfield, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. However, the last tranche of players Benitez brought in might have found the man to make the most of their talent.
Brendan Rodgers, erstwhile coach of Swansea and acolyte of the Barcelona style of play, has been brought into Anfield with permission to revolutionise the club’s style of play. He has signed busy little midfielders like Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin, and given youth a chance.
Dani Pacheco, who seemed to be on the way out having failed to make an impression commensurate with his reputation at the age of twenty-one, has been given time on the pitch, although he hasn’t necessarily taken full advantage of it.
A transfer deadline day disaster left Rodgers short of forward options: Liverpool allowed one of their three central strikers, Andy Carroll, to leave, as Clint Dempsey was ear-marked to replace him. However, the board got cold feet and refused to meet Fulham’s surprisingly low valuation of the USA striker, leaving Rodgers with two strikers until January, one of whom then went and broke his foot!
However, Pacheco has failed to fully take advantage of this situation, meaning that when the talismanic Luis Suarez has had to be rested, or succumbed to suspension, Liverpool have moved towards playing a midfielder such as Jonjo Shelvey or Joe Cole in a false nine role rather than play Pacheco. Still, at least Rodgers gave him his opportunity.
19 year old Nacho Ortiz has yet to break through, so the main beneficiary has been Suso. For so long touted as a future star, the gifted playmaker was ignored by Benitez, Roy Hodgson and then Kenny Dalglish. However, Rodgers clearly sees something in him, and has made him a regular feature of his first team squad. he even has his own chant from The Kop already, a joyous reworking of a 70s favourite:
“Oh, oh, oh, he’s magic, you know, Jesus Fernandez Suso!”
Although his tendency to snatch at chances means he has added to Liverpool’s great problem of the last couple of years – an inability to turn opportunities into goals – nonetheless he has caught the eye with his intelligent, progressive movement and passing. He certainly appears the closest player to fruition in the Premiership cantera.
So is the influx of young Spanish players into the English league a good thing or not? The fifteen’s experience (Marca has ignored Oriol Romeu for some reason) probably reflects the obvious conclusion: circumstance and personality matter more than geography. Whether a gifted player flourishes or not is down to more than just what league he plays in. At least in the premier League they’ll be stretched at a high level.