We not-so-subtly dedicated our most recent podcast to the Premiership’s Spanish-speaking players that dominated last weekend’s headlines. Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has had its fair share of exciting South American players. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I was privileged to watch little Juninho and Emerson at Middlesborough, Faustino Asprilla and Nolberto Solano at Newcastle, and world class talents such as Juan Veron and Hernan Crespo. Since those years, there has been a steady stream of imports from South America into England’s top division, but what we have seen this summer is verging on a tidal wave.
The mass influx of South Americans has spread right across the league. At Arsenal, Ospina and Alexis Sanchez joined the ranks. Not to be out-Sanchezed nor out-Colombianed, Aston Villa added Carlos Sanchez to their midfield. West Ham bought Enner Valencia and brought Mauro Zarate back to the Premier League. Jefferson Montero joined Swansea. The two Argentine centre-back Federicos – Fernandez and Fazio – joined Swansea and Spurs respectively, while after a year on the sidelines, Erik Lamela is now gracing the league with his presence. At Chelsea, Brazilian Felipe Luis replaced Ashley Cole. From Chile via Seria A, Mauricio Isla and Eduardo Vargas bizarrely joined Queens Park
Shambles Rangers, and Hull replaced Shane Long with Uruguay’s Abel Hernandez.
This weekend saw Leicester City line up with two newly recruited Argentinians. Esteban Cambiasso sat at the heart of The Foxes’ midfield, while Leonardo Ulloa continued his wonderful early season form up front. Facing them were compatriots Angel Di Maria and Marcus Rojo for Manchester United, joined by Colombian Radamel Falcao, and Brazilian Rafael Da Silva. For better or worse, these players all lit up the game. Rojo stood out for his lack of discipline and poor positional sense, and Rafael similarly. Cambiasso dictated the play for Leicester and got on the score sheet. At the sharp end, Ulloa was clinical. Falcao provided a wonderful assist for a Van Persie headed finish, and Di Maria scored a goal of deft beauty, lobbing Kasper Schmeichel as if he were flicking a balloon over a baby. It was a strike not just of a player of a higher quality, but of a different wavelength. The Latin Americans dominated this game, bringing to it both flair and chaos. It is a sign of things to come in the Premiership season, and a most welcome one.
As I mentioned, there has always been a smattering of South Americans in the Premiership, but this season the levels are unprecedented. The question is, why?
It might be because in World Cup years, the standout performers from the summer’s international competition tend to get snapped up. Germany may have won the World Cup, but in 2014 it was the South Americans that captured the imagination. Cuadrado, Quintero and of course James for Colombia. Valencia for Ecuador, Alexis for Chile. It was they who provided the individual moments of brilliance, despite Germany’s relentless tactical and technical superiority.
To me, this is where the answer lies. In recent years, European sides have made tactical and technical progress unmatched by the rest of the world. However, players from Europe seem to have lost the imagination and joie de vivre of those in times gone by. The ghosts of Zidane and Henry, of Figo, Rui Costa and Del Piero, of players who could do the remarkable and the unexpected, loom large over a continent full of tidy, competent, tactically astute robot warriors. Even modern top-level European attacking talents such as Hazard, Ozil and Mata cannot conjure up the same excitement as either their predecessors, or their Latin American colleagues. There isn’t the same joy to be derived from watching Hazard predictably cut inside from the left and try to curl a shot into the far post, as there is witnessing Di Maria sprint fifty yards with the ball stuck to his foot like a side-car, dodging defenders like Yoshi dodged green shells. We can all appreciate a clever through-ball from Ozil or a well placed finish from Sturridge, but neither provoke the same leap-from-your-seat, visceral reaction you get from seeing Suarez nutmeg a defender and toe-punt it passed the keeper, or Alexis Sanchez side-footing a volley into the top corner.
South American players simply play with more freedom. More élan. There was no greater example than Ronaldinho. The man pulled off moves never seen before, or since. Maybe this stems from rougher upbringings, rougher conditions that require a more devious style of play. Or, maybe the emphasis in Latin American football is different to that of Europe. In England, fans rise to their feet to clap a crunching challenge, or a 30 yard square ball into space. Though Seria A is now a weekly goalfest, for years Italians have valued defensive prudence above all else. For the last decade the Spanish have been disciples of possession. In Latin America, cheers are more likely to accompany an individual moment of skill and the humiliation of an opponent.
This year, Premier League managers have clearly been on the lookout for players who can make the difference with moments of magic. To their squads of fighters, water carriers and metronomic passers, English clubs have added Latin American illusionists who are here to steal goals, to steal the spotlight, and to steal our hearts. Here at Under The Cosh, we couldn’t be happier about it.