Football Features

Ex-Premier League players you might not have realised are now La Liga regulars

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 15:44, 27 January 2022

Pleasure probably isn’t quite the word. Yet the sensation that accompanies recalling a footballer who has long since departed your thoughts is probably closer to that than satisfaction.

Whatever it should be called, here are six former Premier League footballers who left your English football’s radar and returned to Spain to make a success of themselves.

Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad)

‘The best player in Spain.’

It was quite the statement from Real Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil. Not many subscribed to the idea, but the very fact that it inspired neither ridicule, nor memes, nor derision is a great indication of just how good Mikel Merino has been in recent seasons.

After two seasons at Borussia Dortmund then Newcastle United, Merino has settled on the north coast of Spain at Real Sociedad. In England particularly, he has spoken about going to war, to battle, to fight – doubtless he grew from the experience. Even if he was already six foot two (188cm).

Merino could always play, but that shift in attitude has made him a hellish opponent. Merino was forged a little differently from Spain’s cultivated culture of midfielders – still, he retains all of their craft. Ranking in the top 10 both this season and last for progressive passes, he was also third for tackles won and eighth for pressures last year. That goes some way to explaining the well-rounded warrior he is. Perhaps the best statistic to justify his quality would be the five La Liga losses Real Sociedad have suffered, as Merino was absent for three of them.


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Alberto Moreno (Villarreal)

With characters like Alberto Moreno, his outsized personality makes him both a provider of fun for his fans and figure of fun for detractors. It’s easy to forget that the motorised left-back that never quite made it at Liverpool has endured a torrid time with injuries.

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To his credit, that hasn’t become his defining feature. In fact, he has shown a tremendous ability for reinvention. Initially a striker, then a winger, before becoming a full-back, his Villarreal career is spent mostly in midfield again. Former Arsenal manager Unai Emery has fashioned him into a very effective left-sided presence, where his bursting runs and natural width complement a team of quality central midfielders, as was evident when he raced through the Atlético Madrid defence to finish past Jan Oblak recently (one of six goals and three assists Moreno holds to his name).

Despite tearing his ACL and missing much of last season, he did feature for Emery in both the semi-final victory against Arsenal and the final win over Manchester United in the Europa League. After a tricky spell on Merseyside, helping to bring a first European trophy to Villarreal is a satisfying comeback for the sevillano. Or at least it seemed that way as he once again laughed joyously at the Red Devils’ disappointment last summer.

Roberto Soldado (Levante)

The former Tottenham striker’s name literally translates to ‘Bobby Soldier’ and in recent years he has been making long strides to live up to that name.

Originally more of a sniper than a brawler, Soldado starred for Valencia with 81 goals in 141 games across all competitions prior to his move to Tottenham. He resumed his career post-Spurs with a two-year spell at Villarreal before moving, for another two years, to Fenerbahce, in Turkey. On his return to Spain, he joined newly-promoted Granada, whom he helped lead to Europe for the first time in their history (seventh, and spot in the Europa League), with seven goals and four assists in La Liga.

Now playing for Levante, he offers exactly the type of grit and determination that’s needed in a relegation struggle.

The 36-year-old is entering his 17th professional season but still boasts a large appetite for battle – which he does physically, verbally and effectively. In both seasons at Granada he hit double figures for goals, putting him in the top 10 for goals per 90 minutes last season.

Meanwhile, in 2020, he ranked fourth in La Liga in yellow cards, with 14. He’s tempered his temper a bit since, though only a bit, as he has still racked up another 14 yellow cards (and a pair of sending-offs) in the past season-and-a half. Soldado’s sharp instincts, combined with his unique taste for the combative side of a target man’s game have kept him relevant in La Liga despite his age.

Joselu

After graduating from Celta de Vigo’s academy, at age 19, Joselu was swooped up by Real Madrid B, for whom he scored 40 times in 73 games. Promoted to Real Madrid’s seniors in 2010, Joselu’s first two games – one league, one Copa del Rey – each saw the young Galician find the net. Strangely (or maybe not, because Jose Mourinho was the manager), those were the only first team appearances he made for Madrid in two years.

After an itinerant period in Germany, Stoke City came calling with a £6m fee in 2015. They finished ninth in the Premier League, but Joselu’s season in Stoke involved 27 appearances, four goals, an Achilles injury, and a loan back to Galicia, with Deportivo La Coruña. Newcastle eventually took a second bite at the cherry, costing them £5m, with similar results (seven in 52 across comps).

This gave way to another return to northern Spain, with Alavés, since which Joselu’s career has stabilised. He has scored double figures for Alaves in each of his previous seasons and is one of only six La Liga players to score double figures this season so far (he has 10 in 22 games).

Joselu might not have fulfilled the potential that his performance at Real Madrid B had hinted at but, like others on this list, Joselu battled through, found a footballing home, and is carving out a nice career for himself.

Suso (Sevilla)

A highly-regarded prospect at Anfield, spoken about often and seriously, it seems incongruous that he only spent one season with the seniors at Liverpool. Like a mythical creature, Liverpool fans heard much more of what Suso might be, what he would become and what he could do without much more than a glimpse of it in person.

It was Milan who, in 2015, would take this magic bean off their hands and reap a very profitable harvest. The Italian giants would wind up reaping a healthy profit. After a loan spell with Genoa in 2015-16, Suso rejoined the Rossoneri and became one of the better creative forces in Serie A. From 2016-17 through 2018-19, Suso played 104 league matches for Milan, during which he scored 20 goals, and assisted on another 25. In January 2020, he was loaned out again, this time for 18 months, to Sevilla. It didn’t take long for the right-sided creator to assert himself into manager Julen Lopetegui’s plans. Just six months into that spell, Sevilla opted to make the move permanent, for a not-insignificant fee of €24 million.

Suso has since shown enough graft to fit into Sevilla’s mechanically-organised approach and make a living of his left foot, which he uses to cut in and feed the stampede into the box. Though he’s been hampered by injury for much of this season, Suso has previously ranked in La Liga’s top ten in both  shot-creating actions per match and crosses into the box. Of course, in between all of those beautifully shaped services into the box, Suso does enjoy launching the occasional rocket, which has netted him six goals in all competitions for Sevilla.


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Juanmi (Real Betis)

Juanmi’s singular season at Southampton is pub quiz territory for many. Registering just an assist in his 15 appearances on the south coast, more often than not he was a substitute without a great deal of impact.

Of course, that he was there at all is a testament to his excellent play as a youngster. At 17, Juanmi became the youngest player in La Liga to score a brace for boyhood club, Málaga.

Since departing Southampton, he’s once again found a home in La Liga. In 113 games over three seasons with Real Sociedad, Juanmi scored 31 goals and assisted another four. Following the 2018-19 season, he returned to southern Spain with Real Betis.

His first two seasons on the green half of Sevilla yielded just three goals in 24 league matches. This season, however, Juanmi has spectacularly found his stride, with a whopping 12 goals (tied for second in the league) in 19 outings. That he is outperforming his xG by 4.9 suggests his form may return to Earth a bit, though his output has already served to set Real Betis on course for Champions League qualification.

Neat, tidy, accomplished but not gifted, there were doubts about his best position and more bluntly, his standout attributes. Yet he has always had an appreciation of space, a knack for the timely apparition. Never a player to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, he has turned that patience into his greatest virtue. Put to use in the box, that virtue has become the genesis of many of the goals propelling Real Betis to third place.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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