‘Fabregas, Silva and Mata taught me midfield mastery… and Mendieta how to take penalties!’ Valencia’s Carlos Soler on loving the Premier League as a kid and how winning the Copa del Rey this weekend will boost his profile well beyond Spain
- Valencia take on Real Betis in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday evening
- Midfielder Carlos Soler helped Valencia lift the trophy against Barcelona in 2019
- Spain international looked up to his compatriots in Premier League as a child
- He studied the penalty technique of ex-Middlesbrough man Gaizka Mendieta
No midfielder in La Liga has scored more goes than Valencia’s Carlos Soler this season and the Spain international admits he had plenty of good role models growing up because he spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons as a kid watching the Premier League on Canal Plus.
‘I loved the atmosphere, the level of intensity and the great players,’ he says as he prepares for Saturday’s Spanish Cup final against Betis.
‘I was watching when Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United tended to be on top. I remember one game in particular, the famous 8-2 against Arsenal.
Valencia’s Carlos Soler (right) says he learned his midfield craft from watching the Premier League growing up, with several Spanish players excelling in England
Wayne Rooney’s brilliance saw Manchester United thrash Arsenal 8-2 in 2011, a match that Soler remembers clearly from his youth
‘Wayne Rooney scores two free-kicks and from one he manages to send the goalkeeper the wrong way.
‘Arsenal had Cesc Fabregas who I loved watching because he was a central midfielder who had been converted almost into a false nine.
‘At that age I was still more a striker than a midfielder. But it was also the era of David Silva at Manchester City and Juan Mata at Chelsea. A lot of Spanish players had gone to the Premier League, [Santi] Cazorla had gone to Arsenal too.
‘It was, and still is a great league to watch. The tempo of some of the games is incredible. Some of the Arsenal v Manchester United and Chelsea v Liverpool matches stand out. Fernando Torres was at Liverpool.
‘Chelsea had Frank Lampard and Liverpool had Steven Gerrard so that was more or less the type of player I became. Obviously they are legends!
Cesc Fabregas, who played for Arsenal and Chelsea in England, was a hero of Soler’s
Soler, a product of the Valencia academy, has played six internationals for Spain
‘But I mean in that in the sense that they were midfielders who had that ability to arrive into the area and score.
‘They could play short passes, long passes and they were organisers too. I paid a lot of attention to them as I was developing.’
Soler’s explosive attacking midfield style was a feature of the last time Valencia reached the Copa del Rey final when they beat Barcelona in 2019.
It was his burst down the right, sprinting past Jordi Alba before picking out Rodrigo Moreno with a perfect cross, which set up his team’s second goal in a 2-1 win.
‘I was looking at it this morning!’ he says. ‘A little bit of extra motivation before the Saturday.
‘This is a big competition in Spain and Valencia has won it eight times which is not bad because it’s hard to win but you see what it means to the fans the way they went out on to the street to celebrate when we reached the final.
David Silva was another Spanish midfield master who thrived in the Premier League with City
‘It doesn’t happen every year and it’s special for me too because I have been at this club since I was a kid, they have looked after me and I have won it once so lets hope it’s two on Saturday.’
There is another Spanish export to English football that left his mark on Soler. He was six when former Valencia midfielder Gaizka Mendieta moved to Middlesbrough.
‘I don’t remember Gaizka quite as much but I did learn how to take penalties watching him! My style is similar to his. It’s about watching the goalkeeper until he starts to move.’
Mendieta famously never looked at the ball when he took a penalty and Soler has perfected the same style to the point where he is now the best spot-kick taker in Spain. He has seven out of seven this season and last season he scored a hat-trick from the spot against Thibaut Courtois.
Gaizka Mendieta, seen here when at Middlesbrough, taught Soler about penalty technique
‘He’s always been considered one of the best in the world but this last two years have been incredible and he’s saved penalties since then.
‘He’s a huge keeper and when he’s in front of you it’s like he fills the whole goal and so it’s not easy. But when I scored the first I was confident about scoring the second and the third.’
He says some keepers look bigger in the goal than others. Is that because of their size or their reputation? ‘No it was his physical size!’ Soler says.
‘He is there in front of you two meters tall with the very long arms and big hands. When he reaches up and touches the crossbar he makes the goal seem a lot smaller.’
Of the head-up style he says: ‘It’s not easy. I’ve been practicing this type of penalty for four or five years and only taking them for the team for a couple of seasons.
Soler (centre) celebrates with his Valencia team-mates after scoring against Real Madrid
‘I missed a lot of penalties [using this style] in training at the start. But with practice you get better.
‘The first one [against Courtois] I sent across him and when I had to retake it I did the same. And then I changed corner for the second and third kicks. But in that match I didn’t know where I was going to put it until the keeper moved. I trust my shot a lot after all those years of practice.’
A big performance from Soler on Saturday will increase his stock beyond Spain. He is at a club which make no secret of the fact that selling stars is part of the business model. He is also someone who has thrived under Valencia coach’s Jose Bordalas’ direct style and under the more finessed approach of Luis Enrique’s Spain team.
He is also clearly someone who shouldn’t be watching Champions League football on the television every season.
‘It’s the best club competition in the world and when I’m watching Villarreal knock out Bayern Munich or Madrid beat Chelsea, you just think: how good would it be to be part of this competition?
Valencia captain Daniel Parejo lifts the Copa del Rey trophy after their 2019 win over Barcelona
‘I dreamed about doing it and I was able to do it for a couple of seasons with Valencia. It’s a bit frustrating that we have not been able to do it in the last two seasons. Hopefully if we win the Copa del Rey we will at least be in the Europa League.’
His contract runs out at the end of next season and although there is huge affection for his home club it’s clear the possibility of emulating the players he watched as a kid on the sofa with his dad is real one.
‘A lot of Spanish players were playing in the Premier when I was watching it as a kid and it’s still that way. And I think they have adapted very well, especially the attacking midfielders like Fabregas, Silva and Mata.
‘That type of player who plays the final pass or arrives into the box they have really adapted well to the English league. Football seems to be more and more physical but I think this type of Spanish player can adapt to that because it’s true that the English league is very physical but for example Pablo Fornals is there at West Ham doing well.’
Soler (left) closes down Lionel Messi during the Argentine’s time with Barcelona in 2020
That may or may not come to pass this summer but for now all that matters is writing his name in the history books at Valencia. He watched them win it first as a fan in 2008.
‘I was 11,’ he says. ‘Valencia was in a difficult situation that year. We won the Copa del Rey but [Ronald] Koeman was sacked shortly afterwards and the cup win was not really celebrated that much.’
So he watched the team win it as a fan, then won it as a player, and now he can repeat the feat.
‘You dream as a kid about playing for your team and once you are there you want to go down in the club’s history,’ he says. ‘Those of us who played two years ago have the chance to win two cups. It will be very, very special.’
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