Roque Mesa, the Canarian Xavi

Words By Euan McTear
June 30, 2017
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There may be two full months remaining of the summer window, but it’s unlikely that any Premier League team will complete a transfer as intriguing as Swansea’s capture of Roque Mesa. While better players with bigger names and more Twitter followers will make the move across the Channel, none will fascinate quite like the 28-year-old midfielder from the Canary Islands.

He may not have played his first minute of top-flight football until the age of 26, but Mesa quickly became one of LaLiga’s best midfielders as soon as he did, orchestrating Quique Setién’s possession-loving Las Palmas side. He may never reach the performance or talent level of Xavi, and few would expect him to, but it isn’t hard to see the similarities between Mesa and the man who tiki-taka-ed his way to glory with Barcelona and Spain. When Xavi moved on from the Blaugrana at the end of the 2014/15 season, few Spanish football fans expected to see anything like him for years. However, just a few weeks later Mesa scored as Las Palmas conquered Real Zaragoza in the promotion play-offs and LaLiga finally welcomed the next little – he stands at five foot, seven – passing master.

It had taken Mesa a long time to reach this point, as he was the ultimate later bloomer. After joining Levante’s youth academy at the age of 14, where he was 1,200 miles from home, he returned to the Canary Islands four years later, at which point his footballing future looked bleakly non-existent. He did eventually find a new club, but he similarly struggled to establish himself at Tenerife and by the time he joined hometown team UD Las Palmas, he was already 21 and nowhere near the starting lineup. A few more years of lower level football followed, but then Paco Herrera took over as coach ahead of the 2014/15 season and the then-25-year-old was promoted from the B team. He started to shine in midfield, helping Los Amarillos win promotion to LaLiga.

The team struggled to cope with the step up to the top division and Setién was brought in after just eight matches of the 2015/16 season, at which point a footballing romance kindled between him and Mesa, two men born to the sound of short passes being tapped across a football pitch.

“We try to move the ball from side to side, with the aim of opening up gaps,” Mesa told El País when discussing the style of the Las Palmas team, one which boasted the second most possession – behind Barcelona – of the 2016/17 LaLiga season. “We don’t feel rushed into finishing a play, as we pause and maintain calm.” By “we”, Mesa really means “I”, given that he was the focal point of everything Las Palmas did. From his position in front of the defence, Mesa took the ball and passed the ball, took the ball and passed the ball, took the ball and … you get the idea. Only Sevilla’s Steven N’Zonzi played more successful passes than Mesa and his 2,185 – with a 91% pass accuracy – in 2016/17, while only six players had played more the previous campaign.

Mesa is best known for his passing ability, but there is more to his game than that, as was also the case with Xavi. To focus solely on the way he can spread the ball around is to miss out on his deceptive pace, his dribbling skills, his expert positioning and his tackling ability. With 40 interceptions, 34 tackles and six blocked shots, Mesa also did his fair share when it came to winning the ball back last season. That made him the perfect ‘pivote’ in Las Palmas’ 4-1-4-1 system, as he could protect his back line and could then start the play from deep once possession was re-won, before inching up the field to re-join the attacking play for a second, third, fourth or nth time. He was so important to everything Las Palmas did that some teams started to sacrifice one of their own players by man-marking Mesa for the whole game, treating him with the kind of reverence usually reserved for a Lionel Messi.

It was fascinating to see the way a top-flight football team essentially revolved around one player, especially with that player situated right in the centre of the park, and it will be just as interesting to see how he adjusts to life in the Premier League and to being surrounded by more talent than he was used to at the Estadio de Gran Canaria. The frenetic pace of top-flight English football means that Mesa won’t have quite as much time on the ball to keep a patient move going, but maybe the quick rhythm of the Premier League is exactly why this is such a great signing for Swansea. Mesa’s passing numbers will surely fall a little as he aims to adapt, but he’ll still provide Paul Clement with plenty of moments of ‘pausa’ and that could give the Welsh side a huge advantage over their rivals.

Whatever happens he’ll be fun to watch and he will add a touch, and then another touch and another touch, of class to the Premier League, while he’ll also stand out for his tucked-in shorts, slicked-back hair and 1950s moustache. “I am proud to represent the players of old,” he once said of his appearance. He’ll now be representing them in modern football’s melting pot. The Liberty Stadium is about to witness something special, the Canarian Xavi.

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