Retiring to Spain might not be quite what it used to be but Nacho Monreal and David Silva have no complaints. Silva turns 35 in January and Monreal 35 a month later. Both are on top of La Liga with Real Sociedad while their old clubs back in the Premier League languish in mid-table.
‘I found out from the media,’ says Monreal of the news that his former Spain teammate Silva was joining him. ‘I had heard that the club was working to try to make a big signing but it never crossed my mind that it could be David.
‘One day I was at home looking through the sports news and suddenly there it was: “David Silva signs for Real Sociedad”. I was in shock but very happy. I called him, and he was really happy too.
Nacho Monreal (R) has been joined at Real Sociedad by fellow Spaniard David Silva (C)
‘A guy who had been at Manchester City for ten years, who had done everything in the game, and who it seemed was going to Lazio or outside Europe, decides to come here; that says a lot about this club.’
The speed and surprise of the deal was similar to his own move from Malaga to Arsenal back in January 2013.
Of that life-changing switch he recalls: ‘It all happened in one day. Arsenal had injury problems at full-back and for the first time in a long time they were in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League.
‘I woke up one morning with a missed call from Santi [Cazorla], I spoke to him and he asked me if I wanted to join. That night, I was an Arsenal player.
‘I don’t know if he got a commission or not! I reckon the club said: “speak to Nacho, see what he thinks” and in less than twenty-four hours I was there.
‘[Arsene] Wenger opened the doors to his house – Arsenal was a family. He’s a great coach and a good person. He gave me that chance to enjoy seven years in England.’
A baptism of fire against Tony Pulis’ Stoke side awaited Monreal. ‘A head was split open within a few minutes of the game,’ he recalls of his debut. ‘It was a nice welcome to the Premier League.’
The head was Stoke forward Jonathan Walters’ after a clash with Monreal who was left dazed, if not by the challenge, then certainly by the new world he now inhabited.
‘It is changing as there are ever more foreign coaches but it’s still a different sort of football and lots of Spanish players find the first few months hard.’
He says he finds it difficult to readjust to less permissive refereeing back in La Liga and admits: ‘Sometimes I find myself talking to team mates in English before thinking: what am I saying?’
With the help of Hector Bellerin and Cazorla he fitted in at Arsenal. ‘People loved him because he was different,’ he says of Cazorla. ‘He was unique. No one in the squad could do the things that Santi did.’
But Monreal was popular too. ‘I know what kind of player I am,’ he says. ‘I have never been the star who scores the goals, but every time I pulled on that Arsenal shirt, I tried to give my very best and I always felt appreciated by the fans.’
There was another Spaniard at Arsenal in 2013. And he’s back at the club now albeit with a different role. Was it obvious that Mikel Arteta was destined to coach?
‘Yes, you could see it’ he says with real conviction. ‘He was a leader who expressed himself very well. Whenever there were meetings he spoke.
‘And it’s not just the fact that he spoke; you could see that he knew what he was talking about, and he communicated it very well.
‘We were very aware that he was going to become a manager. Maybe we didn’t expect it to happen so quickly but it’s true that he was with [Pep] Guardiola three or four years and I’m sure he would have learnt a lot in that time. He has been a breath of fresh air to the team.’
Not that Monreal doesn’t have sympathy for Unai Emery. ‘After 22 years, the first post-Wenger coach was always going to have a very difficult role,’ he says.
‘The club was built around him and after so many years there were people who still loved him a lot.
‘I think Unai did a good job in that first year. We reached the final of the Europa League, then we weren’t at the level we needed to be in the final. And then the second year maybe they didn’t give him the time he needed.’
That disappointing Europa League final against Chelsea was Monreal’s last game but there is no shortage of happier memories with three FA Cup final wins.
Do we exaggerate how special the old competition is? ‘No in fact it is even better than people say it is,’ he says.
‘The day of the game, you wake up at the hotel near Wembley and five hours before kick-off there are already people with flags and scarves.
‘The route is lined with supporters cheering you on. And then you get to the ground – and it’s the best in England – and it’s packed, 100,000 people. It was incredible and then on top of that if you win! The memories are marvellous.’
Maybe the pending all-Basque Spanish Cup final should be played there. ‘It would fill for sure,’ he says of Real Sociedad’s meeting with Athletic Bilbao still waiting a date because the neighbouring clubs agreed not to stage it until fans were allowed back into the stadium.
Last season’s cup format in Spain was changed to better resemble the FA Cup with the seeded draw and two-legged ties binned.
‘They [the big teams] probably don’t like it but it’s much more attractive,’ says Monreal.
‘One bad game and you’re sent home. There were surprises with second division Mirandes reaching the semi-final and Madrid and Barcelona knocked out on the same night by ourselves and Athletic.
‘I think people like that. If it’s always the same teams in the final, it gets monotonous. Having that uncertainty makes it much more attractive.’
Which is exactly why most football fans don’t want a European Super League.
‘It’s discriminating,’ he agrees. ‘The biggest clubs want to increase their income to keep growing but if you set up a competition like this all you do is increase the gap between the big clubs and the small ones and you lose the essence of football.’
Real Sociedad will be in the Champions League next season if they maintain current form. Could they even last the pace and win the title as they last did in 1982?
‘Well, who knows,’ he shrugs. ‘Logically, the favourites are Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico but I saw Leicester win the league and in week 30, everyone said: “they’ll slip away, they’ll slip away”, and they never did.
‘Us win it? We’re not thinking long term. We are trying to win all our games and enjoy our football and then tomorrow let’s see where we are. One thing I’m clear about is that we don’t feel inferior to anyone.’
There is a sense that Monreal and Silva have added mental toughness to an already very talented group.
In Silva do Real Sociedad now have the greatest foreign import in the history of the Premier League?
‘He could well be,’ Monreal says. ‘Maybe he hasn’t always had the credit he deserves but the football he has played has been incredible.
‘And he’s tough. He is one of those players who surprise you. You think he’s not very big, he’s not very strong but watch him on the pitch he doesn’t lose a single ball.’
It’s a tenacity that Monreal has too, first honed at Osasuna where he came through with long-serving Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta. ‘We would never have imagined everything that we were going to experience,’ he says.
‘It was hard for me at first at Osasuna because I was playing for the youth team in front of 200 people and then I was playing in the first division in front of 15,000.
‘I was overwhelmed by the pressure in my first year but in the end you learn to create something like an invisible protective cape for yourself. You learn how football works and that means you can enjoy your career.’
He’ll enjoy it if this Silva-lined swansong ends up being silver-lined with a trophy. There’s the Europa League to aim for as well as the league and this year’s and last year’s cup.
The pair’s experience will be invaluable if the team can still be in contention when the honours are decided.
‘Yes, the veterans in a moment like that will have a big role to play,’ he says. ‘I hope that moment arrives; I hope we get to week 25, or 30 and we’re still there fighting. That would be wonderful.’