For a man not accustomed to the limelight, Nacho Monreal may have to get used to it in the coming months.
The unassuming Spaniard has proved a rock-solid signing since his arrival from Malaga in January 2013, quickly acclimatising to the English game and going about his business with a quiet authority typical of the man.
He may be from the small village of Esquiroz on the outskirts of Pamplona, but the left back is thriving in the bright lights of London.
However, the 28-year-old is not one to court the fame and glamour that comes with being a Premier League star.
Studious, softly spoken and naturally reticent, he suffered from chronic shyness in early life – although he has grown tangibly more confident in recent years.
But if this season culminates in the way he dreams of, the unrelenting glare of publicity may soon fall upon him and his team-mates. With Arsenal well placed for a top-four finish in the Premier League and in the final of the FA Cup, a long-awaited trophy is tantalisingly close.
And then there is the small matter of the World Cup, with Spain chasing an incredible fourth successive major trophy after their successes at South Africa 2010 and Euro 2008 and 2012.
It makes for a thrilling, if slightly daunting, prospect but as Nacho tells the Arsenal Magazine, he is excited about the various challenges awaiting him...
When you were growing up in Spain, were you aware of the FA Cup? The Spanish Cup is viewed quite differently, isn’t it?
Yes, the Spanish Cup is very different to here. There are fewer teams, it’s on a two-legged basis, home and away – it’s another competition in another format. I don’t think it’s got the same prestige as here as there are fewer teams. It’s not seen as being important over there, teams don’t treat it like here where everyone gives 100 per cent to win it. In Spain it’s just another competition, for many the league is the main priority, even staying up, so the Spanish Cup hasn’t got the same ring to it or importance as it has here.
Of course the FA Cup is not the only famous cup competition you could be taking part in, there’s also the World Cup this summer. What do you think about Spain’s group with Holland, Chile and Australia? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Holland and Chile are very good sides, so it’s going to be hard, very hard. We’re world champions and European champions of course, we’ve got a good side and we know that we’re going to have to fight to defend our title. We’re going to have to grit our teeth to go through, give 100 per cent in every game but anything is possible really.
Spain could win their fourth title on the trot. Do you players talk among yourselves about making history?
Spain has a great set of talented players, it’s been a golden generation. There’s Xavi, [Iker] Casillas, [Andres] Iniesta, all great players and we’ve all seen what they’ve achieved already. But it’s going to be hard to win it. It’s in Brazil, so Brazil are the favourites as they’re at home and they’ve got a great team. You’ve also got the likes of Germany and Argentina, so it’s going to be very, very hard. We will try our utmost to win it but we’re also aware that we’re on the cusp of history. We’ll have to be at our best to maintain what we’ve already achieved. It won’t be easy, not easy at all, but let’s see what happens.
This could also be the end of an era for Spain, as a number of your biggest players may retire after the World Cup...
Yes, that could be the case. Some of these players such as [Carles] Puyol and Xavi are getting to that age but they have kept to such a great level of performance for so long into their thirties. It will come to an end, but I believe that we’ve also got lots of good youngsters breaking through and there are still lots of good players at 23, 26, 28 years old, who are forming a young side for the future. We’ve still got a bright future and this shows that the system is working.
It could be interesting for you as you are vying for a place with Cesar Azpilicueta, who you were with at Osasuna in the youth team and he’s now at Chelsea. Are you good friends and are you already talking about the game on the March 22?
Yes, that’s right we’re talking about who’s going to get the upper hand already! We know each other well, have done since we were very young and came through the ranks at Osasuna together. We’re really close, he’s a good lad and we get on really well but now we’re going to try to beat each other. But I’m glad that he’s having a good season. I know it’s not easy for him but he’s doing well and having a great year and I’m really pleased for him.
There are lots of good Spanish youngsters here at Arsenal, such as Julio Pleguezuelo, Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin. Do you talk to them much and what do you think of their progress?
Yes, of course, the system here puts great faith in the young players and the Spaniards are a part of that. They are getting experience and playing lots of games, getting to grips with the general philosophy here and I am very happy for them. They are the best of their age group, and there are lots of them with a great future here at Arsenal and at a high level.
You’ve been playing at a high level yourself ever since arriving at the club. Do you think Arsenal fans have seen the best of you yet?
"Football is a job where you have to give your best and only the best make it, but giving 100 per cent and working hard is very important"
Well, I think that I’m getting there gradually. I’ve had to settle in and have had to learn steadily, but I’m giving 100 per cent. I’ve had general problems like missing a few games prior to Christmas. Last year there was the Confederations Cup and not being able to get in the team at the start of the season. So with all of this, people may have started to wonder a bit, which is not great for me. But I’ve kept going and adapted better to the physical demands and become more confident too.
You’ve had to fight for your place since you joined. How much of a challenge has this been for you?
It was always going to be a great challenge with all the players we’ve got here. But it’s going very well at the moment. We’ve got great competition here, which is very good for all of us. It’s not great when you’re left out, but this spurs you on to fight for your place and show that you deserve to play. You have to look at the positive side of this competition for places.
At the start of the year you looked like you’d established yourself as the first choice left back and then you got injured. What is the latest with the problem with your foot?
Well I got back training but it flared up again and it was quite painful, but after a bit of extra rest, a couple weeks more, I’m back in training again. It’s a lot better and I hope to be properly match fit soon.
Lots of players miss games through injury during the season. Is this just down to the physical nature of the Premier League?
Yes, of course. The Premier League is quite hard in terms of the physicality, as everyone is completely fit and up for it. You can’t compare it to the Spanish league, which is more technical, not as physical. The Premier League is the most physical league in Europe, so of course injuries will follow. But it’s a case of being professional and working hard.
Do you enjoy the greater pace and physicality here in England?
The pace of the game, yes I’m fine with that. It’s a lot different to anything I’ve experienced in Spain but I think I’ve taken to it and adapted my game. I was comfortable playing at Malaga and for Spain, but when the opportunity arose to come here to Arsenal, I didn’t think twice. Arsenal are one of the top clubs in the country, the world even, and I’m very happy to be here.
There is the theory that as the Premier League is so competitive, English teams are too fatigued once the Champions League knockout stages come around. What do you think?
No, I don’t think that’s the case. The Premier League is such a big show and draw. There isn’t that much difference between the various sides down the bottom or at the top, on their day anyone can beat anyone and there have been five, six or seven teams challenging for the title this season and this shows how competitive it is. I don’t really think that this has a big effect on the teams in the Champions League as the clubs are so well prepared physically for the games and everyone gives 100 per cent, be it in the Premier League or the Champions League.
You’ve said before that people from your region of Spain are naturally hard-working. Has hard work been instrumental to success in your career?
Yes, of course. Football is a job where you have to give your best and only the best make it, but giving 100 per cent and working hard is very important. This is a characteristic of the north of Spain, where the people are very hard-working, very efficient and very reliable. I think that these are important qualities in football – you don’t win anything without hard work, something you associate with us and I’m happy and proud of this.
Speaking of Pamplona, you are from Esquiroz, a small village that is very different to London. What have you found to be the most challenging aspects about leaving Spain and coming to London?
It was a case of growing up in a village of 300 people to ending up in London, with I don’t know how many people here. It was a massive change, very big, but you do it for football – that’s just the way it is. I consider myself to be an easy-going and flexible lad, so I got used to it without too much of a problem. I settled in well, immersing myself in the place, getting to know the city, getting to know London and a different culture, too. But I’m here to play football, to give 100 per cent for Arsenal and I think that it's gone quite well really.
What do you and your girlfriend like particularly about being in London?
I think that you have the opportunity to do anything, see anything. It’s so big you can do anything whenever you like. If you want something it’s there, there are good restaurants, you can go for lovely walks, you’ve got the parks and there are loads of things here, all for the better.
You’ve also mentioned previously that football has helped you to overcome a chronic shyness. Could you explain how playing has helped you?
Read the full interview with Nacho and more in our latest edition
When I was younger, I was rather shy. I didn’t have too much to say for myself, but because of football, I was able to shed this virtually overnight. Going from being a bit shy to playing in front of 30,000, 40,000 people, this toughened me up mentally. I went from being a shy kid, not having much to say, into a man playing in front of so many people. I had to take responsibility, pull on the shirt, give 100 per cent for the team and my team-mates. Football really helped me in that respect and helped me improve as a person.
Would you say you’re still a shy person? How do you cope with being recognised on the street and the various media duties that come along?
Well, it’s no big deal really. Here the people in the street are much more respectful and don’t really bother me when I’m out in town, which is good. But it’s really part and parcel of the job, being a footballer and I’m only too happy to deal with it.
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