Spain and Barcelona’s dominance of international and club football respectively has redefined the way people view the game, especially in Britain, and for the first time in recent memory our management, players, media and fans are thinking “maybe we have been going about things the wrong way after all.”
For years the words you would hear in relation to both the England national team and clubs sides were ‘passion’, ‘grit’ and ‘determination’ and although sides have been lauded for their skill and attacking verve, it seemed almost a bonus that was secondary in importance to the superlatives I have just listed.
But the Spanish have changed all that, now we are all obsessed with 4-3-3’s, high pressing and possession statistics and a team is seen as incomplete if they do not have a 5ft 7in maestro pulling the strings in midfield. There was no better example of this than the top English sides’ summer transfer activity.
Chelsea spend £24 million on Valencia wizard Juan Mata and were also on a relentless pursuit of Tottenham’s Croatian creator Luka Modric, Manchester United couldn’t go a day without being linked with Wesley Sneijder and Manchester City spent £35 million on attacker Sergio Aguero in order to compliment the skills of playmaker David Silva.
But amongst all the extortionate fees it could be Arsene Wenger who has once again got the bargain of the season as he swooped to sign Mikel Arteta on deadline day for a fee of reportedly just under £10m. While the former Everton star had undoubted quality, his talents were downplayed as some fans struggled to get over the loss of captain Cesc Fabregas and cast envious glances at their rivals who boasted more glamorous Spaniards in Mata and Silva.
While Arteta may not be as flashy as some of his fellow countryman, the best signing for a team is not always the most expensive or the biggest name player, and as Arsenal fans are now well aware it is often the players that initially go under the radar that shine brightest in the end (just look at £2.5m signing Robin van Persie!).
Schooled at the famous La Masia training complex in Barcelona, Arteta grew up learning to appreciate the ball and his teammates and as he began to develop he was earmarked for the ‘pivot’ role in defensive midfield that Pep Guardiola had mastered before him. Arteta never got the chance to emulate his hero at first team level though and having spent 5 years in the B-team and 2 years on loan at Paris Saint Germain, it was only in 2002 that he officially left the Nou Camp.
His next destination was slightly unorthodox for a young, technically gifted Spanish midfielder as he moved to Glasgow to play for Rangers. It proved to be a wise decision as he learned the more physical side of the game and got an opportunity to finally play first team football at a team he could call his own. During his 2 years at Ibrox Arteta became a fan favourite as his controlled midfield displays helped the club to a league title in 2003 as well as the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup.
Arteta’s impressive performances in the SPL had attracted attention in his homeland and in 2004 he earned a dream move back to the Basque country where he grew up, as he signed for Real Sociedad. Unfortunately his dream soon turned into a nightmare as his good friend Xabi Alonso left for Liverpool and he himself failed to make an impact on the Erreala first team, making just 15 appearances before being made available for loan in January of 2005.
It was his next move that would define and save his career, as David Moyes offered him a lifeline at Everton with a loan subject to a permanent transfer. At Goodison Arteta would finally fulfil his potential, flourishing in a more advanced midfield role as well as on the flanks and becoming the heartbeat of one of the best Blues teams of the modern era.
Like all great Spanish midfielders he had perfect ball control and dribbling ability, an eye for a killer pass and the skill to find the strikers from almost anywhere on the pitch. But what set Arteta apart was the fact he was slightly taller than a lot of Spanish playmakers (around 5ft 10in) and knew how to take a bit of punishment after his spell in Scotland (at Everton in 2006/07 he was the most fouled player in the Premier League).
Arteta’s grace and beauty coupled with his physical attributes brought him great success during his 7 years on Merseyside but after spells out with injury he struggled to recreate his best form and when Arsenal came in for him this summer, he may have felt it was his last opportunity to play at the very top level.
Back to the present and Arteta has emerged from the shadow of Cesc Fabregas to become one of the Gooners’ most important players, with his experience and calming nature helping Arsenal to become much more assured when they have the lead. Although the team may not be quite as dynamic as they used to be, they now seem to have the ability to kill teams off and grab those scrappy victories that many didn’t previously associate with Arsenal.
An early season blip has now been well and truly forgotten at the Emirates as they look like favourites to make the top four once again and remain one of only two English sides still in the Champions League. While van Persie rightly takes many of the plaudits, Arteta has quietly gone about his business, sitting deeper and allowing Alex Song to get forward more than ever and if Wenger’s team continue their current form then come the end of the season fans may be saying “Cesc who?” as they hail their new Spanish midfield maestro.