There are only three things Julio Pleguezuelo really misses about Spain. Three things that make him long for the land of his birth: his family, the sun and his mum’s cannelloni.
The 17-year-old is loving life in England, but the thought of a bit of home cooking is enough to bring new urgency to the softly-spoken Mallorcan’s voice. His decision to swap countries and cultures as a teenager has made him to grow up quickly, but the look that comes over his face as he describes his favourite meal is a sharp reminder of his youth.
"I really miss my mum’s food, especially her cannelloni," Julio tells the Arsenal Magazine with a smile. "It’s the best I’ve ever tried. I always tell her to cook it when I’m coming home because it’s so good.
“I don’t go back very often, maybe once every two or three months, and I only miss my family really as I like life in London a lot. There are a few differences between living in Barcelona and England - first of all the weather!
I had to think about what chances I would get at Barcelona and what chances I would get at Arsenal
"In Barcelona it is absolutely different to England,” he adds. "It rains in London almost every day... OK, maybe not every day, but there is not much sun! I’m used to it now, but sometimes I miss the sun, I have to say."
A cultured defender blessed with pace, power and a passing range not usually seen in a centre back, ‘Pleggy’ has caught the eye ever since his arrival from La Masia last July. He may be thriving in his new surroundings, but he admits it was not an easy decision to leave Barcelona’s academy.
“I was thinking about it for two months and discussed it with my agents, family and the club. Those two months were very hard for me because I was playing for Barcelona but knew I might leave. I was there for two years and they were unbelievable. I was living in La Masia and everything was perfect – friends, team-mates, school, football.
"I learned so much, but I had to think about what chances I would get at Barcelona and what chances I would get at Arsenal. I had to make sure I did what was best for my career, and I feel like I have made the right decision.
"I also knew Hector [Bellerin] and Jon [Toral] from their time at Barcelona, and it really helped that they were at Arsenal. They told me beforehand that I would learn a lot from playing English football, plus I could see that they were getting on well here, so I thought ‘why not me?’
"Cesc Fabregas is another example. I remember watching him in the Arsenal first team when I was younger and he was absolutely amazing. He was in the first team when he was my age, so he’s a real inspiration."
It is not only his Spanish compatriots who have helped him settle into London life. After moving into digs in Enfield with Glen Kamara and Deyan Iliev upon his arrival in England, he now spends the majority of his time with the Arsenal goalkeeper. Both were keen to pick up the language as quickly as possible, and as this interview (conducted in excellent English) attests, Pleguezuelo is a quick learner.
"I had no English when I came over – it was very bad! The accent in England is quite hard for Spanish people to understand. But then when I talk, sometimes people don’t understand me because of my own accent! But I do two or three lessons a week now and I hope I’m getting better.
"The first few months were quite difficult because you can’t speak a lot, and you can’t understand what is going on around you. After three or four months you start to pick up a bit more. After Christmas, six or seven months in, it was much easier for me but I still have work to do. I’ve made a few embarrassing mistakes I guess, but then again everyone does – that’s how we learn."
Pleguezuelo has come a long way from his early life in Mallorca, where he grew up before moving to the more cosmopolitan Barcelona with his family. It was there that he first came to the attention of the city’s second club, Espanyol, kicking off the start of a career that has taken more twists and turns than the usual teenage footballer.
"When my family moved to Barcelona, I was playing with the club in my town, just friendlies, nothing official, but then the Espanyol scout saw me and gave me a trial. I did well in that and joined the club, and spent six years there. They were really good years and I learned so much,” he says.
"After that I had a chance to go to Atletico Madrid – it was a big club and I thought it would be a good experience. It was, but I missed my family a lot. I was only 14 years old, so I was too young. I had a chance to go back to Barcelona that summer and it was the right move for me.
"After that the chance to join Arsenal came. As I said, it was a tough decision to leave my family, but it has worked out very well so far. It is difficult to move countries, especially when you do it on your own, but I feel like I am improving every day. Without my parents, I have had to do everything for myself and I feel like I am growing up quicker than I would have done in Spain.
"My family are very happy for me because they know I am reliant upon myself and I am doing well. They visit me once a month, and every time they see me they tell me that I’m much bigger – it must be because of the work we do in the gym or something!"
Pleguezuelo comes from good footballing stock. His father – an avid Real Madrid fan despite living in Barcelona – was a semi-professional, while his elder brother was in the Real Mallorca second string before a broken leg ended his hopes of forging a career in the sport.
Now it is Julio’s chance, and he is determined to make the most of it – despite being relatively small for a centre back.
I’m quicker than a lot of strikers, and I may not be bigger but I can jump higher
"Obviously my size is not the biggest but I think I have other qualities. For example, I’m quicker than a lot of strikers, and I may not be bigger but I can jump higher. I’m improving a lot to substitute for the fact that I’m not very tall.
"I can play both centre-back positions, on the right and the left, and even at right back too. Maybe in midfield sometimes too, but not very often. At Barcelona I learned many things on the ball that I can show here and hopefully make the team better.
"I still have to work on my strength and also to think quicker, because you need that in England. Everything here is quick, quick, quick – the pace is very different to Spain. But it is my type of football here.
"I’m very happy because I think I’m gettig on well and I can see in the next few years that I may have a chance of playing in the first team. That is a big motivation for any young player."