How three poor spells in England (and one very good one) have helped to shape the Sevilla squad that is currently on course for an exciting second half to the 2018/19 season under Pablo Machín.
“But can he do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?” Never has a phrase been more stereotypically English in judging the true ability of a player. For over a decade now imports to the Premier League have had their skill measured against this highly unquantifiable metric; a right of passage the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar may never experience preventing them from ever being truly considered amongst the world’s elite. There is something in it though. Not the crude imagery or the mythical levels of difficulty a midweek night at the Britannia should bring but that, for some players, a step away from the place they call home can be a step too far.
That doesn’t mean that these players aren’t talented, far from it, and a quick look at the team who have been occupying the top four in La Liga for a number of months now, Sevilla, shows a squad peppered with players with Iberian roots that have had far from happy spells in the English Premier League. After a slow start the Andalusians, under the guidance of former Girona manager Pablo Machín, have impressed with their progressive approach but a look at some of his most trusted performers this season could lead to some confusion in the heads of those who view the Premier League as the only place to be.
At the back Daniel Carriço has evolved into one of the defensive rocks of this new Machín inspired side. Rewind to the start of the 2013/14 season and the then 25-year-old Carriço was unveiled as a signing for Premier League Reading, a relative bargain at just £609,000, he appeared to be a player on the brink of breaking into the Portuguese national side after spending his formative years as captain of Sporting Clube de Portugal. It wasn’t to be though as he ended the season having completed only 87 minutes for the Royals across three games. A loan, and then permanent move, to Sevilla followed and after establishing himself in the side over the following two seasons, he moved to the fringes as Sevilla went through a spell of chopping and changing. The arrival of Machín though soon changed things and the centre back has been one of this sides constants forming both a strong partnership or, dependent on formation, two-thirds of a defensive three alongside another former not-so-good Premier League defender in the shape of Simon Kjaer. Now aged 30, the Portuguese defender now seems set fair for a sustained period of success with the Seville side, something that those who frequented the Madjeski Stadium would perhaps struggle to comprehend.
Further up the pitch another Premier League misfit has again started leaving his mark on Spanish football once again. When Roque Mesa moved to Swansea City at the start of the 2017/18 season, slicked back hair and pencil moustache a mere glint in his stylistic eye, there were two schools of thought in relation to the potential impact he could make.
The first, that Mesa would excel in a Swansea team that up until the point of his signing had played the kind of intricate passing football he had made his trademark as one of the driving forces of UD Las Palmas over the previous seasons. With the 4th highest pass completion rate in the preceding season he swaggered his way around many a Spanish ground in the trademark blue and yellow kit of his hometown side. The hope was that these skills would become easily transferable to the Liberty Stadium. The second school theorised that this gifted player would struggle with some of the demands of English football and that the boy from Gran Canaria would struggle outside the bubble of island life, a concern amplified as his fellow islander Jesé Rodriguez continued to waste his undoubted talents just 175 miles up the road at Stoke City.
His manager at the time, Paul Clement, clearly had faith in the £11m signing though and he started the opening game of the season, a 0-4 defeat to Manchester United. Sadly, this was a sign of things to come and the start of a decline for the South Wales side. A mere six months after signing on the midfielder was on his way back to Spain, joining Sevilla on loan in January 2018 before signing permanently in the summer. Whilst his 2017/18 was rewarded with just seven appearance as he seemed to struggle to regain the confidence that had first earned him move to the Premier League, he much like his Portuguese team-mate Carriço, has gone through somewhat of a re-birth this season becoming one of the key figures in midfield adding bite to his drive and ability. There is still a feeling that perhaps Los Rojiblancos may eventually upgrade their midfield terrier but for now he seems a world away from the player that left Wales the shadow of the player he once was.
What was clear in the cases of both Carriço and Mesa is that a return to form on the Iberian Peninsula was not instantaneous and sometimes the rehabilitation can be slow. A player currently going through the same process as the two previously mentioned players, albeit a year or so behind on the timeline, is former Celta de Vigo striker Nolito. One of Pep Guardiola’s first signings as manager at Manchester City the striker who had scored at a rate of better than one in three in Galicia never really settled in the north west of England and he soon took the well travelled path from the UK down towards the southern Spanish coast. His impact since arriving in Seville has perhaps not been what was hoped and he has, even under Machín, become a peripheral figure.
It’s important to stress though that there are players that have competed and succeeded in both of these two, very different, football environments. One of the most prominent examples of recent times can once again be found residing in this current Sevilla side in the shape of Jesús Navas.
The winger has long had a love affair with Los Rojiblancos starting his career there and winning two UEFA Cups, two Copa Del Reys, a European Super Cup and a Supercopa de España during his first spell. His form earned him a move to Manchester City as their sheikh funded revolution gathered pace and he went on to make 123 appearances, winning one Premier League title and two English League Cups along the way. Whilst there was some suspicions that his final pass could sometimes leave a lot to be desired, his ability to stretch the play was key in contributing to the success of the Eastlands side. The significance of his impact was perhaps underrated but come the time of his departure in 2017 there was no doubting the affection in which he would be continued to be held in by City fans.
This success is even more noteworthy given the very public battle he had with chronic homesickness during the early part of his career with walk outs from Spain squads and refusals to travel a regular occurence. He eventually overcame these anxieties though to the betterment of his long-term prospects. He returned to Sevilla and under Machín his role has evolved from winger to wingback and he continues to contribute both on and off the pitch, adored by his fans and with the captains armband now firmly wrapped around his arm.
Seville is officially the hottest city in Europe and whilst some of these players may indeed have struggled during those cold wet midweek nights in The Potteries there is no doubting they have become key in their sides excellent start to the 2018/19 season. It’s easy, and quite frankly lazy, to dismiss a player who falters in one league as not being good enough for another and I’d be willing to wager that those that thrive in the grey of the north would struggle just as much come summertime near the Andalusian coast. The fact that these players have even dared to make this journey should be commended, handling not just the change in climate but a cultural shift that some players will forever remain scared to make. For three of the four players covered here their time in England may not be laden with trophies and glory but maybe, just maybe, it helped to shape the players that they were to become.