As a young hopeful at Arsenal, he used to sit beside Robin van Persie in the dressing room after training and seek out his advice on the centre-forward’s art.
There were few opportunities to put those lessons into practice in north London, but as Carlos Vela prepares to face his one-time mentor in the Champions League on Wednesday, when his Real Sociedad side visit Manchester United, Van Persie’s generosity is something the Mexican striker has not forgotten.
“I learned a lot from him,” said Vela, now in his third season in Spain with La Real. “For me, he’s the best striker in the world and it was a pleasure to be able to share moments in training with him.
“We used to sit next to each other in the dressing room and talk. I used to ask him about his movement, what was going through his mind when he did certain things, and he would explain. If I was missing something in my game he’d speak to me and give me advice and I’m grateful for that.”
The Vela who flies into Manchester today is a more confident figure than the one who left English football in 2011 for a fresh start in San Sebastian. He claimed 14 La Liga goals last season, 12 the year before, and, at 24, looks to be fulfilling the potential that persuaded Arsène Wenger to sign him after his top-scorer exploits in Mexico’s 2005 Under-17 World Cup triumph.
He told The Independent: “I’ve grown a lot. The fact I didn’t get so many minutes at Arsenal meant I never had the continuity you need to be able to develop. Here I have the confidence and the time on the pitch.
“I’ve grown in every way and am a much better player than I was at Arsenal. When you’re playing week in, week out, your confidence, your motivation is different and that’s when you’re prepared to risk trying new things and I’ve managed to get the best out of myself.”
It was a different story at the Emirates. After loan spells at Celta Vigo, Salamanca and Osasuna, he began his Arsenal career proper in 2008 aged 19. Over the next two and a half years he struck 11 goals, three of them in the Premier League where his 29 appearances included just three starts. “Although I didn’t play a lot, I was with some incredible players,” remembered Vela, who eventually ended up loaned to West Bromwich Albion. “I learned about movement, how to finish when you’re in front of the goalkeeper, things I saw from my team-mates who were better and older than me. I’m very grateful to [Wenger] and Arsenal because they gave me a chance to make a name for myself in Europe.”
His only Arsenal appearance against United was a substitute outing – replacing Van Persie – in their 2009 Champions League semi-final second-leg defeat. That alone makes him the most experienced player in a Real squad heavy on homegrown talent, who will be cheered on by 6,000 travelling fans at Old Trafford. “For the club and the fans it’s a special, historic moment,” said Vela.
Playing a fast counter-attacking game, they finished fourth in Spain last term – their highest placing for a decade – and then swept past Lyons in the Champions League play-offs, Vela getting both goals in the 2-0 home victory that sealed a 4-0 aggregate success. “It was a very important night not just for me but the whole city,” he said. “After 10 years, to get back into the Champions League was a great moment.”
They have found the going tough since, with Saturday’s 2-1 victory in Valencia their first win since August. “I don’t think it’s an excuse to say there are some clubs who are prepared for [the Champions League] and others who aren’t. You can have a good season like we did but it is hard to keep it going in two competitions.”
In their opening Group A home defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk they lost Esteban Granero, their sole summer signing who joined from Queen’s Park Rangers on loan, to a long-term injury. Then at Bayer Leverkusen, they fell to a last-minute goal, just when Vela’s equaliser seemed to have secured a point. “We deserved at least one point from those matches,” he reflected.
Now for United and a reunion for Vela with not just Van Persie but Javier Hernandez too. Vela texted his compatriot a playful warning after the Champions League draw, promising: “We’re going to beat you.”
He added: “We’ve played together since we were 14, 15 and shared a lot of moments in the national team and in Chivas where we played before coming to Europe. He’s a good player but the competition he’s got at United is very difficult, having Van Persie and [Wayne] Rooney in front of him. However, he’s a player and a person who doesn’t give up and makes the most of any opportunity he gets.” Vela left England for his opportunity and has not looked back since.
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