by Tim Palmer
This is increasingly how it is at big European clubs – if you are old, needing repairs and steadily declining in usefulness, you are effectively spare parts; traded in for a newer, younger model.
That was how David Villa came to Barcelona, as the replacement for a declining Thierry Henry, and now Villa himself is the sacrifice for the exciting new arrival, this time the Brazilian Neymar.
Villa’s move to Atletico Madrid resonates with his oft-repeated intention of staying in his homeland. Spain is where the heart is for Villa and Madrid will become the fifth club of his career, rebutting interest from Tottenham Hotspur.
It is not all that surprising Villa rebuffed a move to foreign shores considering how much loyalty and identity ties into his personal story. Villa grew up in the tiny town of Tuilla in Langreo of Spain’s northern region, amongst the mountains and mines in a place so intrinsically linked to Villa’s story that he wore the scarf of Club Deportivo Tuilla wrapped around his head in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 World Cup final.
The same blue and white flag was sewn into his boots, the same footwear that carried Spain through the tournament and towards their greatest triumph.
Humble to his roots
The sense of belonging carries strong in Villa’s story, so much so when he returned to Sporting Gijon with Valencia in a La Liga match in 2010, the fans gave him a remarkably rousing reception that seemed unbefitting for a player who never appeared in the top flight for the club. Yet Sporting coach Manolo Preciado even went as far as suggesting “if he comes near me during the game I might bite him, but before and after it, I’m going to give him a hug.”
That is because Sporting is where the story started, where Villa shook off the nagging self-doubt about whether he could make it as a professional. It was, in a way, remarkable that Villa had ever even made it to Sporting, considering that his childhood was blighted by a serious break in his right femur so extensive that amputation was a possibility.
Instead, the family insisted Villa preserve with the injury, and the story of what followed has become common lore:
“My father [Jose Manuel] would make me kick it over and over with my left leg when the right was in plaster,” Villa recalls. “I was four. I can barely remember a single training session when my dad wasn’t there.”
As well as instilling a keen ambidexterity Jose Manuel also drilled a mentality and desire to succeed into his young charge, although it is not quite a story of ‘like father like son’. Instead, “there was no way I was going to be a miner,” says Villa, “unless I was dying of starvation. I remember the hours my mother spent in the hospital waiting for my dad.”
But it was not easy. Villa was initially turned back by Real Oviedo due to his slender build and height and the rejection was almost enough to drive him away from the game.
“In those days I was a nobody, not earning a penny and after being made to sit on the bench all season. I just wanted to get away and play with my friends.”
Instead the chance came at Sporting Gijón, although this too was a tale of persistence over the three years it took Villa to break into the team. His integration into the first team was a slow trajectory, partly due to a lack of stamina, but 38 goals in 78 games in the Second Division summed up his instant impact once given a chance.
The way in which the crowd chanted “Illa, illa, illa, Villa maravilla!“ and Villa broke down in tears – “was an unforgettable weekend, the hardest game of my life.” It speaks volumes about the impression he left on Sporting.
But a €3m move to Real Zaragoza in 2003 was almost inevitable given Gijon’s financial problems, and for Villa the move upwards to La Liga was a natural progression.
39 goals in two years, including a remarkable four goal haul against Sevilla, and once more Villa was on the move, his natural flair for goalscoring enough to prompt Valencia into exchanging €12million for his services. Again, Villa’s transfer was triggered by financial trouble.
He became their best ever debutant with 25 goals in his first season, then equalled the club record held by Mario Kempes in 2008/9, with 28. His goalscoring – 107 goals in 166 games – was almost as consistent as the incessant rumours linking him with bigger and better things both in Spain and abroad. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United amongst others were always in the hunt for his much-vaunted services.
“I am obsessed to the point of sickness about scoring goals,” says Villa. “There are some people around me who feel perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so obsessed but there is no chance of me changing.”
Villa mixes talent with an insatiable work ethic. At one point he was considered the finest striker in the world, an argument certainly exemplified by his incredible statistics, but that claim is best corroborated by watching him in action. Seeing him flit across the forward line is an experience in itself, his movement highly intelligent as he searches for the space to strike.
“Whenever I pick up the ball in a match the first thing I have on my mind is what the quickest route to getting within shooting distance is,” he once said, something defenders would surely agree with.
“I wouldn’t like to have play against myself,” Villa says. “I know that whenever I play against friends in La Liga they always tell me what a pain in the arse it is to try and mark me. I like hearing that.”
Another remarkable thing about Villa is his ability to play in a variety of roles. Whether it’s up front on his own, alongside a partner or wide on the left, Villa is able to mould and change to whatever it is the team demands.
“Villa has a wider repertoire,” Valencia’s assistant coach Juan Carlos Carcedo once said. “He drops to the wing, opens the game and for others, is quick and incisive and has an eye for a pass.”
That versatility was certainly crucial in Barcelona’s decision to spend €40 million on him in the summer of 2010, just before the World Cup in which Villa’s five goals might have otherwise attracted attention from elsewhere. Again, Villa’s sale helped a club resolve some of their financial trouble, a curiously recurring trend throughout his career.
Villa at Barcelona – mixed fortunes
With all the tactical terminology – ‘false nine,’ ‘inverted winger’ - that Barcelona’s philosophy seems to determine as necessary to describe the intricacy of their play, it is easy to forget a player’s individual style. It was true when Johan Cruyff, Barcelona legend, said:
“Villa is not only there to finish plays – he is synonymous with depth. It means always being ready to open passing lanes, to draw defenders and thus freeing space for others.”
Villa provided Barcelona an additional goal-scoring threat, be it from the left or through the middle. It is questionable whether his best form came before or after the Barcelona chapter and it is a strange paradox that he, like Fernando Torres, won more club trophies at a time when his individual contribution was at its lowest.
There was always the suspicion that Villa didn’t quite fit into Barcelona, especially with the club’s extraordinary commitment to home-grown players and an in-house philosophy.
“Sometimes in training, you can tell which players didn’t come through La Masia,” said Pedro, shortly after Villa’s arrival, hinting at dissatisfaction in the dressing room.
The simmering rift between Villa and Lionel Messi is another line of argument where it was suggested that the former wasn’t happy with being fielded in a wide position – although Messi was quick to praise Villa after the latter’s central deployment against AC Milan created space for Messi to score two important goals, an example of “freeing of space for others” Cruyff discussed.
Besides, Villa has hardly suffered – a Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey and most significantly, the World Cup, all came during his time in Barcelona – as well as the experience of playing in one of the greatest teams of all time alongside one of the greatest players.
Villa at Atleti – a new challenge
For now, a new challenge beckons. As always seems to be the case with Villa, there is a new club ready for him as each chapter rolls into its natural conclusion, although this is not the forward step he is accustomed to.
It is a sad indictment of Spanish football’s current predicament when Barcelona can afford to sell a player at a cut-rate price to the 3rd placed side, but that might be more illustrative of Villa’s sizeable wage demands and the value Barcelona place on his quality, a year out with a broken leg having raised questions of whether Villa can return to his best.
Indeed, since returning from that horrible injury there has been less of the old zest. Less of the slipperiness that makes him so difficult to track, less of the incisiveness that makes him so threatening.
But the plaudits remain. “Villa is,” said Spain team-mate Xabi Alonso, “a born goalscorer: quick, clever and strong, superb with both feet.” He is not physically blessed and that may work in his favour as age saps away at his body, but it remains to be seen how he will succeed in a new environment in the Spanish capital.
Pepe Acebal, the coach who gave him his debut for Sporting as a teenager, will be pleased, as Atletico will surely field Villa through the middle.
“I like him best between the two centre backs because that gives him the greatest options when it comes to making runs” – of their 4-4-2 formation, replacing Falcao, Acebal elaborates, “it doesn’t matter to him – he can move from all areas and to all areas.”
It’s not just on the football pitch where this is applicable. From Tuilla to Gijon, from Valencia to Madrid via Barcelona, Villa’s journey has shown that he is incisive no matter where he plays. The next chapter with Atletico will prove a fascinating subplot in the layered drama that is Spanish football.
(Lead photo credit: Vavel Espana via Flickr)