THE SPANISH INFLUENCE ON THE PREMIER LEAGUE AND HOW IT HAS HELPED ENGLAND

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The date is 29 June 2008. It’s the final of the European Championships in Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna, Austria. With just under fifteen minutes remaining in the first half of a tense affair between Spain and Germany, La Roja were awarded a free-kick just outside their own penalty area. Forty seconds and twelve passes later, Fernando Torres was delicately lifting the ball over the on-rushing German goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, to score what would turn out to be the decisive goal.

After years of being viewed as underachievers on the international stage, unable to capitalise on the talents of the likes of Fernando Hierro, Kiko and Raúl over the last few generations, Spain had once again achieved success, matching their 1964 triumph in the same competition.

There was a different feeling in the air after this victory – a sense of something special beginning. The Spanish national team would then defend their title in 2012, easily defeating Italy 4-0, while adding the coveted star above their crest after beating Netherlands 1-0 after extra time in the 2010 World Cup Final. Pep Guardiola was appointed as head coach of FC Barcelona on the day following the 2008 final, ushering in a period of prolonged success and implementing a brand of football envied across the footballing world. Under Guardiola’s tutelage, Barcelona won three consecutive Spanish league titles from 2008/09 to 2010/11 and the Champions League in both 2008/09 and 2010/11, alongside nine other titles.

These two sides have been the standard bearers for the new representation of Spanish football, but since 2008 Real Madrid have won four Champions Leagues, Barcelona added another, while Atlético Madrid reached the final on two separate occasions. The Europa League has also been dominated by Spanish sides, triumphing in six of the last ten iterations, split evenly between Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, while Athletic Bilbao also reached a final. The successes achieved by the Spanish on both the international and continental fronts have changed the approach of Premier League clubs towards transfers and infrastructure, leaving their unique mark on the English game.

Early Spanish influences on the Premier League were scarce to say the least. The first signs of the growing presence of the Spaniards arrived in the summer of 2004 in both North London and Merseyside. On the heels of their unbeaten league season, Arsenal began to offer a gradual increase in first team opportunities to two of their young stars, Cesc Fàbregas and José Antonio Reyes, with Fàbregas impressing with his commanding displays in midfield, and Reyes scoring nine goals in his thirty league appearances.

In Merseyside, new Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez brought his own personal Spanish influence alongside his signings of Xabi Alonso, Luis García and Fernando Morientes. Fàbregas impressed enough to earn a move back to Barcelona, Alonso similarly earned himself a move to Real Madrid, and García became a cult figure at Anfield, especially after his goal against Juventus during Liverpool’s run to Champions League success in 2005.

However, the majority of Spanish players struggled to make a notable impact with Morientes, Reyes, and Chelsea’s Asier del Horno all failing to make a similar impression to the one which earned them the move to England in the first place.

Fernando Torres’s arrival at Liverpool began the transformation and the successful model of the Spanish national side ushered in a new period of transfers for the Premier League, with a focus on a creative playmaker, one who would sit deeper in the mould of Xavi or a more advanced, playing between the lines Iniesta type. The arrival from Valencia of both David Silva and Juan Mata, at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, has created a Spanish legacy on the English game, one which may prove permanent.

In the eight seasons that Silva has played in Manchester, he has helped propel City to the league title on three separate occasions, picking up four domestic trophies as well. Juan Mata has won two FA Cups, a Champions League, two Europa Leagues and a Community Shield title during his 7-season spell in England, across spells at Chelsea and Manchester United. Fàbregas, the third Spanish musketeer who has helped shaped the Premier League, managed to win two FA Cups, two Premier Leagues, a League Cup and a Community Shield at Arsenal and Chelsea, with a highly successful stint at Barcelona sandwiched in between.

Since Silva arrived on English shores before the 2010-11 season, he has aided City’s efforts with 75 assists, averaging out at one every 263 minutes of game time. Only Fàbregas (1 every 218), Özil (1 every 241) and De Bruyne (1 every 185 minutes) have managed to post better numbers, although all three have significantly less minutes having played less seasons in the league. Juan Mata also achieved high numbers in his first three seasons with Chelsea, averaging an assist every 218 minutes, but his output has diminished since his move to Manchester United, although this may be due to the external factors of the club’s recent playing style as his passing percentage remains high.

The likes of Silva, Mata and Fàbregas will never fit the mould of traditional English midfielders, lacking the same all-energy dynamism of a Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. Their introduction into the English game has created a new style of midfield partnership, with the technical player often paired with one or sometimes two more dynamic players to provide the legs and defensive work. Silva has worked with Yaya Touré, Fernandinho and James Milner at City, Mata had the aforementioned Lampard, Ramires and Michael Essien, and Fàbregas was partnered with Nemanja Matić, John Obi Mikel and N’Golo Kanté to provide the grunt work in the middle of the pitch.

Increasingly we are seeing the more creative types being pushed into more advanced roles, in an effort to allow them a greater opportunity to showcase their talents and having a lessened role in defensive duties, often staying near the halfway line to help launch counter-attacks. Another switch has seen teams copy the role Andrés Iniesta played for much of his Barcelona career, and have their star creator drifting into wider areas, allowing them the chance to either cut in and shoot, or open up space in central areas by taking the marker with them.

Both David and Bernando Silva have operated in this role for City, and the likes of Coutinho, Hazard, and Sigurdsson have joined them for Liverpool, Chelsea and Swansea/Everton respectively. Even the concept of the false nine became popular during Barcelona and Spain’s reign with Lionel Messi and Fàbregas being employed in those roles, again designed at creating space for late arriving midfielders and wide players. Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton have all attempted to use that concept, with Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and Wayne Rooney filling the role in various guises and with varying degrees of success.

Away from the pitch, the dominance of the Spanish game, particularly between 2008 and 2012, has created a transfer ideology that has permeated throughout many Premier League sides. Barcelona’s success was directed by Guardiola who implemented the tiki-taka style of football that they became revered for. Guardiola, as a product of Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, was ingrained in the culture of Barcelona’s play style, one which is directly descended from Johan Cruyff’s playing and managerial Total Football style.

The team Guardiola used to assert Barcelona’s dominance at the top of European football was largely made up of players who had come through this same system. Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Gerard Piqué (with a brief stint at Manchester United) all were key members of the much-adored Barcelona team, and each one is a product of the youth system. The successful graduates from La Masia have left a legacy on the English game from a far, one which can be measured twofold.

Firstly, there has been a rise of players who have either been released or failed to make a significant impression at Barcelona entering the league, usually at mid to lower table sides. In an effort to sign the next great product out of Barcelona’s famed academy, many players have been drafted into Premier League squads.

Adama Traoré was signed by Aston Villa for a reported £7 million, Arsenal brought Héctor Bellerín into their youth setup and have seen him being extensively linked with a return to the Nou Camp, and Everton offered Gerard Deulofeu the chance to prove himself, an opportunity which earned him a return to Barcelona, albeit for him to be loaned out to Watford the next transfer window, a permanent deal being struck in the summer following. Stoke City has proved a popular landing destination, with both Marc Muniesa and Bojan, who, for a long time was considered to be the brightest prospect in Barca’s youth setup, choosing to leave the sunny Catalonian capital to prove that they could indeed do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Stoke.

Secondly, due to the successes that Barcelona have managed to achieve by relying heavily on their youth academy, many of the top premier league sides have increased their investments into youth facilities. Manchester United have always been a club which is willing to give a chance to youngsters, the Class of ‘92 being a prime example, and so the likes of Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay being offered first-team opportunities, even under Jose Mourinho, should be of little surprise.

However, even the clubs who have been notoriously labelled as big spenders have invested heavily in their youth academies. Manchester City have begun an extensive refurbishment of their setup, and their hope for Aleix García, Brahim Díaz and especially Phil Foden is a testament to that change. Liverpool have also been a side who offers youth a chance, but there is a different sense at seeing one of their own come through now, as can be attested by the reaction to Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first team successes. Barcelona’s home-grown inspired dominance has enabled a culture in which players who have been through the club’s youth system are desirable, an impact which can hopefully greatly impact the standing of young English players.

Whilst individual clubs are attempting to copy Barcelona’s success to aid themselves in searching for trophies, the English FA has begun the same process that began in Spain in 1995 and Germany in 2000 and is attempting a full overhaul of its setup. The opening chapter of Graham Hunter’s Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble describes the poisoned relationship between Spain and its supporters in the build-up to Euro 2008: “Xavi will later admit that, during these darkest days, he and some team-mates accept call-ups to Spain largely because of their admiration for Aragonés. Otherwise, they are sickened by the stark difference in enjoyment, appreciation and success they have at club level compared to their experiences with La Roja.”

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The recent comments from the “golden generation” of English players paints a similar picture. Rio Ferdinand has since admitted that “he realised that playing for England was only going to result in negativity” and Michael Carrick’s recent comments about asking the FA to not select him as England trips were causing him depression serve to highlight the similarly negative circumstances that have surrounded the England set-up.

Aragonés eventually managed to win his critics over, a tournament success certainly makes that job easier, but it was a process that took time. His dropping of Spanish hero Raúl was a contentious issue and created a rift between the Spanish national team and their fans. Aragonés had to make the hard choice; appease the fans and pick Raúl or stick to his belief in the new, emerging talent. His decision was proven to be correct.

In every “golden generation” that a national side produces, there is the need for a leader to emerge. A manager willing to upset the applecart and introduce those exciting prospects. Spain had Aragonés. Germany had Joachim Löw. England now have Gareth Southgate. Upon being promoted from the under-21s manager, Southgate began the process of integrating the youngsters he knew well into the senior set-up.

England’s most capped outfielder Wayne Rooney was dropped in March 2017, with Rooney later rejecting a call-up and announcing his retirement, with the players the manager knew well being called up instead. Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, both of Southampton, had been integral parts of Southgate’s under-21s, and both were afforded opportunities in the senior set-up, chances which seemed unlikely previously.

Southgate represents more than the simple FA yes-man that one feared when he took charge. He is the first in, hopefully, a succession of successful English coaches who have been ingrained in the English DNA. Southgate was in charge at the under-21 level when the FA announced their new philosophy, and so Southgate is the ideal man to lead the new English way forward.

The new model for the English DNA can be seen in the average age of the squads England have selected for the last three versions of the World Cup. Fabio Capello’s final 23-man squad had an average age of 28.4, with Aaron Lennon and Joe Hart representing the youngest players at the age of 23. Capello’s group struggled to get through a group containing Algeria, the United States and Slovenia, and were comfortably beaten 4-1 by Germany in the first knockout round.

In Brazil 2014, the first signs of this new model were visible with Roy Hodgson’s squad averaging at just over 26 years old and containing six players younger than the youngest member of the previous squad (Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, and Luke Shaw). An extremely poor showing, with defeats against Italy and Uruguay compounded by a draw to Costa Rica encapsulating the poor experience for the English side.

Southgate has continued this trend at the 2018 World Cup, bringing the average age down slightly, with the squad only containing three players over the age of 30 (seven in 2010 and five in 2014). Only six of the squad had more than thirty caps prior to the tournament beginning, with seven of the squad handed debuts since Southgate had taken charge.

The new English DNA that is to be instilled into the up and coming English talent is aimed at creating tactically aware players who will be able to adapt into situations during games. England could call on Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes in 2006, all three of whom can be considered amongst the best central midfielders of their generation. Unwilling or unable to divert from English tradition, Scholes was played as a left-sided midfielder in a standard 4-4-2, a position unlikely to make the most of his talents.

Contrast this to 2018 where Kyle Walker was transformed into a central defender to make room for both himself and Kieran Trippier, with the latter being widely regarded as England’s star performed. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were asked to cover in deeper central areas than they do for their clubs, and Fabien Delph and Ashley Young have both become respectable left backs in recent seasons. The aim is to find the best players and create a formation that enables them to thrive and also be adaptable to the ever-changing game situation.

This model has been threatened by the FA on many occasions, but with successes coming on the international stage at youth football, English football appears to be learning from the Spanish model. Since the English footballing revolution began in December 2014, the young Lions have achieved success at varying levels. The under-21 age group have won the last three iterations of the prestigious Toulon Tournament, won the under-20 World Cup, under-19 European Championships, and impressed heavily in the under-17 World Cup, defeating Spain 5-2 in the final. That victory over the Spanish can be considered a symbolic moment for the new England – the moment that they their vision of emulating the Spanish model became increasingly present rather than future.

The age groups are being nurtured in the same training complex and using the same methods as the senior side. The bright young hopefuls, the likes of Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, and Lewis Cook, are all being indoctrinated into the English style of play, with a key difference.

Whereas a talent like Glenn Hoddle or Paul Gascoigne had previously been a flash in the pan, a talent who was a luxury rather than a necessity, the new English model aims to encourage players to hone their technical skills. The FA aims to implement a pathway for these youngsters that produces English senior players that are capable of taking a game and changing it with a killer pass, the way in which Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta had done for Spain for many years.

Although the Spanish national teams and the club sides to have emerged since 2008 have helped to shape the way football is played on the pitch, it is also having a lasting impact on the decisions being made at an executive level.

The history books and average fan will likely never forget the silky passing of Barcelona or Spain or be able to remove the memory of the Spanish national team passing through Italy at will, or Barcelona’s masterclass in the 2011 Champions League Final against Manchester United, but their legacy is ingrained even deeper. The Spanish successes from 2008-2012 have paved the way for a focus on finding home-grown players, both to help the club on the pitch and on the financial reports, and, hopefully, as more English footballers are given opportunities to prove themselves at a higher level, the true legacy of those Spanish teams will bear true.

BY MICHAEL GALLWEY

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