The question, really, is what was going through Nacho Monreal’s mind? Because, when you properly consider it, there can’t have been too many players in the history of Arsenal to have enjoyed an introduction as intense as his.
On a Thursday morning, he was expecting to see out the transfer window and the season as a Malaga player. By the Saturday evening, he was over 1,000 miles away having just endured his first experience of English football against a Stoke City team that are the most extreme exponents of the more physical side of the game in this country.
So, what was he thinking through it all? “Well, the truth is that there wasn’t enough time for anything to register,” Monreal says. And, when he explains it, you properly realise just what a whirlwind 52 hours it was.
“On Thursday I arrive here. At the last minute I’m signing the contract. Friday, I’m training with my teammates for the first time, and then straight to the hotel. The next day I’m playing the game!
“It all went so fast that you don’t really take in what’s happening, but it went well. Ultimately, what I was doing is playing a game of football that I’ve done all my life.”
Monreal does admit, though, that he had never played in a game quite like that. In many ways, Stoke were actually the perfect first opponents to bring him up to speed given their distinctive approach - even if it did only accentuate the chaos of those three days. No matter how much his team-mates explained their style, however, it still couldn’t completely prepare Monreal for the reality of it.
"From when I arrived, the people here were giving me an idea of what the match would be like, that Stoke are a very big team... but, well, one thing is what people say to you and another is the reality"
He still raises his eyebrows when he thinks about the personal culture clash. “From when I arrived two days beforehand, the people here were giving me an idea of what the match would be like, that Stoke are a very big team, that the centre-backs get the ball and always hit it towards the forward... but, well, one thing is what people say to you and another is the reality.
“It was a strange game for me. For every throw-in, the centre backs went up. When you had a free kick close to the box, the whole world went up. I’m not used to that because in Spain it’s not like that, it’s more tactical. Here, the idea is a little more direct, not as much elaboration on the ball or possession. It’s more physical, faster. The players are physically stronger, very big. It’s another way of looking at football and totally respectable. You just have to adapt.”
The most important aspect of it all, though, is that Monreal certainly did adapt. He showed he was quite literally up for the challenge. Shortly before half time in that 1-0 win, the left back jumped for a ball with Jon Walters and appeared to clash heads. When they landed, though, it was only Monreal that was left standing. That’s not to say he came out of it without a war wound. “I had a bump on my head too! But, well, that’s what happens in a game. Like I say, it’s a very physical league. Here, when there’s a ball to be won, everyone goes for it. Nobody shirks a challenge. The ball was in the air, we clashed, head to head.”
Although Monreal's arrival has coincided with a generally fine run of form in the league, that was offset by high-profile defeats to Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich. As a new arrival, Monreal does offer an alternative take on it all. He never saw it as the crisis some outside the club insisted.
“Well, for me, it’s different because there are cups in which you don’t play in Spain. In the league, the reality is we played four games and won three. In that sense, it was very good. The pity is the game we played against our rivals, away to Tottenham. I didn’t think we deserved to lose. We played a good game but there were just two bad moments. They had players of quality who are very quick going forward and scored twice.
"Then, in the Champions League, we drew a very tough team like Bayern. We did have a bad game here [at the Emirates] but, in Munich, we were very close to going through, just one goal. So, in that sense, we have done things well but there are obviously other things we could have done better. We still have matches left to fix the situation and try to meet our objectives.
"It’s logical that people talk because the situation has not been as it should be, but the players and Club in general have to ensure that doesn’t affect us. We have to use our energy for the matches"
"It’s logical that people talk because the situation has not been as it should be, but the players and Club in general have to ensure that doesn’t affect us. We have to use our energy for the matches. If you’re thinking of what people are saying, you’re wasting that energy. You have to concentrate on the next match. Every fixture now is a final we have to win. That has to be our mentality. I’m sure we’ll put it right."
A thoughtful individual, Monreal is amicable and clearly very intelligent. He doesn’t have too much English yet, though, beyond a base he learned in school. Most of that education, of course, came while a youth player at Osasuna. And, when Monreal explains his background in the game and the infrastructure he progressed through, you get an understanding of why exactly it is that Spain are producing so many players as talented and grounded as him.
“The idea of the cantera [the youth academies] is very important. The clubs work hard from when the players are small. They copy the first team’s style so that, as they go advancing, there isn’t that much difference and they’ve been playing that way all their life. When you start, you play futbito – five on five, small pitch, small goals. It’s about enjoying the game.
"Later, you progress to sevens, the pitches and goals are a little bigger, and then at around 11 you start to play on a big pitch. The first obligation at every club, though, is your studies, that the kids perform well in school. After that, they play football. At the same time, the economic situation of the game in Spain is not great and the teams are now using more players from the cantera.”
That, though, is at least one positive from the financial problems Spanish clubs have faced: they’re forced to properly develop talent. “Yeah, there are more possibilities for young players. In that sense, things are being done well. It demonstrates the infrastructure of the clubs is very good.”
The infrastructure at Monreal’s first club and first football love arguably goes beyond that. To a certain degree, Osasuna could be described as Spain’s version of Stoke. Although never the most fashionable or illustrious club, their Pamplona stadium is notoriously difficult to go to and they have a history of getting good results against the big sides. They’ve also had more British and Irish players than any other Spanish club beyond Barca and Real Madrid, with the likes of Michael Robinson and Jamie Pollock having pulled on their red and navy.
"Osasuna is in a small city that doesn’t have a big population and doesn’t have too many affiliated clubs compared to the bigger teams. It’s to their credit they always maintain their status"
More importantly, though, they are a model for many other sides in terms of properly managing their resources. Despite their small size, they’ve maintained a steady production line of quality players as well as that regular place in the top division. Monreal is effusive in his praise for the club he has supported all his life.
“Osasuna is in a small city that doesn’t have a big population and doesn’t have too many affiliated clubs compared to the bigger teams. In that sense, it’s to their credit they always maintain their status. Every year they produce a lot of players that go to the first team and demonstrate they’re worth in it. They’re not just promoted for the sake of it.”
"I always see it. I get up at eight in the morning to watch it on TV, or watch it from a balcony in Pamplona. But I haven’t run in front of a bull – not yet!"
Monreal is the proof of that. He made his debut as a 20-year-old in the 2006/07 season, when Osasuna reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. By 2008 he was the first-choice left back, by 2009 he was called up to the Spanish national squad and by 2011 he had moved to Malaga for £6m where he would eventually link up with Santi Cazorla.
The playmaker, as well as Mikel Arteta, has done a lot to help Monreal settle now that he’s made one of the biggest moves of his career. “In terms of the language, I’m lucky to share a dressing room with Santi, who I played with at Malaga, and Mikel, another Spaniard. From the first moment, though, the squad opened their doors to me. I’m very, very happy here, to be a part of this club, one of the greats in England.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to get to know London yet, though. I’ve been four or five times in the centre to get to know it, the streets, the ambience. I’ve had to sort things out like where to live, with my girlfriend, but the few days I’ve had off I’ve got to get to know the streets.
“It’s one of the most important cities in the world and you live very well in London. The only problem is the weather! I’m sure everyone says it. And I came in January, from Malaga, where it’s sunny every day. That’s the only thing missing.”
Read the interview with Nacho and more in the latest edition
It isn’t, however, the only thing Monreal himself will miss. There’s also his home city’s famous San Fermin festival in early July. That, of course, brings up the obvious question: has he ever run with the bulls?
“No! The clubs forbid you from anything risky. You can’t ski, can’t go on a motorbike. You’re not allowed. But I always see it. I get up at eight in the morning to watch it on TV, or watch it from a balcony in Pamplona. But I haven’t run in front of a bull – not yet!”
Rapid adjustment to a new challenge and not blinking in the face of physical adversity - Monreal’s impressive opening months in the Premier League should stand him in good stead, should he ever does decide take on Pamplona’s unique bovine challenge.
Copyright 2021 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.