By Emma Whitney.
Think of the players who have lit up the Premier League this season, and you’ll probably think of the likes of David Silva, Cesc Fàbregas, Juan Mata and Santi Carzola. Maybe, depending on your allegiance, your mind will rush to Bojan, Ayoze Pérez and of course, Diego Costa. Warming to the theme yet? The link couldn’t be any more obvious if I started flamenco dancing with a Pamplona bull around a table laden with paella, tortilla and rioja.
Embed from Getty Images
The Premier League is a brilliant melting pot of players, nationalities and fans, but there’s one country in recent years that English football owes a hell of a lot to. Let’s take a look at the Spanish influence on the Premier League, and why fans of the beautiful game the world over should be agradecido for such influence.
Martin Keown, writing for The Daily Mail last September, noted how the Premier League ‘…is gradually becoming more like La Liga…the emphasis moving from building a solid team from the back to throwing men forward to outscore your opponents.’ Of course, Spain doesn’t have the copyright on attacking play, but Barcelona, Real Madrid, the national team La Roja themselves and most other La Liga sides have played the passing game so well over the years that this might as well be the case. Tika-taka, total football – call it what you will, but playing out from the back, and indulging in free-flowing, sumptuous possession-based football is de rigueur for most Premier League clubs these days.
Not just the big boys
Teams like Swansea, Southampton and even West Ham this season actually ‘play the game’ — going into matches aiming to out-think, out-trick and out-pass their opponents, rather than turning up with a damage —limitation mindset. Often, such an approach has been met with resounding success.
Not many would have expected Saints to be vying for a Champions League place in February after last summer’s fire-sale; likewise, Swansea’s almost effortless switch from Premier League new boys to obvious Europa League contenders has a lot to do with their ethos, forged by Garry Monk’s predecessors; Messrs Martinez, Rodgers and Laudrup, who all, of course, have strong links to Iberia.
Such football, with its capacity for excitement, imagination and drama, proves thrilling for fans and neutrals alike. And whilst so many different players and nationalities have had an impact upon the Premier League in its 22 years of existence, it’s hard not to argue that Spain has had more impact than most.
A list of the greatest Premier League players ever would surely include names already mentioned above; players like Fàbregas and Silva would go down in English footballing history, even if they stopped playing tomorrow. The likes of Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta and cult-hero Ivan Campo should also get a mention; players who have given real, decent service to the league over a number of seasons. The job Arteta did at a defensive-minded Everton during his heyday was phenomenal, and should not be overlooked.
Embed from Getty Images
By the números
The first Spaniard to play in the Premier League was also the first Spaniard to score; Spurs’ midfielder Nayim faced Middlesbrough on 17 October 1992 and found the net against Liverpool on Halloween of that year. Since then, 95 of his fellow countrymen have appeared in England’s elite division, totalling 4,088 appearances and scoring 431 BPL goals.
Reina tops the appearance charts, having stood between the sticks 285 times for Liverpool, whilst Arteta and Fàbregas make up the top three, with 275 and 233 appearances respectively. Current Premier League stars José Enrique and Silva sit sixth and seventh in the Top Ten list, on 161 and 148 appearances each. Clocking up such numbers, whilst gratifying for the statisticians among us, does not always indicate the true impact a player has made on his team or the league, however. Consider Àlvaro Negredo as Exhibit A. Although the striker only has 32 Premier League appearances to his name, gained during his sole season with Manchester City, it will take a good few years for memories of the Beast to fade from the Etihad.
Goals, then, might be a more fruitful area when looking to prove the impact and worth of Spanish players. Whisper it around Stamford Bridge, but Fernando Torres, as well as being the most expensive Spanish player in history, is also the Premier League’s top Iberian scorer, having netted 85 times during his stint in England. The top three are made up once more by Arteta and Fàbregas, on 42 and 37 apiece, though Mata and Silva are starting to breath down their necks, with both playmakers on 28 Premier League goals, sitting joint fourth in the Top Ten.
Carzola also makes an appearance here, in fifth position on 22 BPL goals, though one man has raced into the Top Ten already, despite only being halfway through his debut season. Diego Costa might owe as much to the mean streets of Brazil as Madrid, but the pugnacious Chelsea striker honed his talents in Spain, plays for La Roja, and with his prolific goal-scoring prowess, looks every inch a Premier League legend in the making.
Nevertheless, for me, one man rises head and shoulders above the rest. I may be guilty of putting on the blue-tinted specs here, but anybody who has seen David Silva play can’t fail to be mesmerised by the man’s skill. His intelligence, creativity and composure set him apart, and for me he’s not just the most talented Spaniard the Premier League has ever seen, but one of the most talented players ever, full stop. Special mentions have to go to Fàbregas and Xabi Alonso, too. All three are wonderfully gifted players, and English football fans should be blessed that such stars have plied their trade and continue to do so on our shores.
Embed from Getty Images
One perplexing aspect of Spanish influence in the Premier League is how it hasn’t quite permeated the managerial ranks yet. Only one Spanish manager has really stood out in England, a man who was worshipped at Anfield yet achieved pariah-like status in West London (funny how that pattern repeats itself, eh?). Although Rafa Benítez never won the league with Liverpool, he did see his side win perhaps the best Champions League final ever in 2005, and the FA Cup a season later.
Benítez ‘s compatriot Roberto Martínez may be enduring a disappointing season at Merseyside rivals Everton, but it is the former Swansea man’s time at Wigan that will forever go down in the annals of Premier League history. Winning the FA Cup in 2013 was an undoubted high point, but seemingly saving the Pie-Eaters’ necks from near-certain relegation year after year was nothing short of miraculous. After an encouraging honeymoon season, it remains to be seen if Martínez can achieve success at Goodison Park with his particular brand of attacking, possession-based football.
520 BPL matches have been managed by a total of four Spanish managers (the others of course being Tottenham’s Juande Ramos and West Brom’s Pepe Mel). Yet countless managers this season owe a debt to the Spanish style of play, and La Liga itself. Mourinho may revel in representing the antithesis to tika-taka, but his side’s free-flowing football this season belies such comparisons. What is certain is that Manuel Pellegrini, Mauricio Pochettino and Louis van Gaal were all moulded by their time in Spain, a fact easy to see when the likes of Pablo Zabaleta, Danny Rose and Antonio Valencia tear up the touchlines, wobbly back 3s or no.
A Spanish future
A thought sure to whet the appetites of football purists and hipsters alike is the possibility of Silva, Fàbregas, Costa et al returning to the Premier League in a decade or two’s time, ready to manage. The lure of home, the romance of La Liga and the thought of not having to put up with uncivilised temperatures may have prevented other Spanish managers from coming to England, but with a bit of luck, the lure of the Premier League will prove stronger.
For all the praise given to Spanish football, the World Cup last year proved two things; no team is infallible, and no system is complete. Whether it’s Atléti and Chelsea’s more defensively-minded approach, or the unstoppable juggernaut of Die Nationalmannschaft, football has moved on from the glory days of Pep’s Barcelona and La Roja’s passing dominance. Fans of Spanish football and Spanish players need not worry, however. From Gerard Deulofeu to José Ángel Pozo, the conveyer belts of La Masia and La Fábrica, and increasingly the academies of England, keep on producing young Spanish talent.
The game will grow and develop, but composure on the ball and intelligence without it will always play a part. After a weekend where an Englishman created a hurricane of headlines, and in an age where British players, managers and coaching staff show baffling reluctance to work abroad, we should be thankful that such players have helped make the Premier League the best league in the world. Gracias a mis amigos indeed.
All stats courtesy of Premier League.com and transfermarkt.co.uk