After emerging as one of La Liga most effective and stylish midfielders over the last two seasons, it now looks as if Las Palmas midfielder Roque Mesa is set to step up to a bigger club next summer.
The latest rumours in the English and Spanish press have Liverpool, Spurs and Everton all considering making a move for the diminutive playmaker with the strong personality. Mesa has also been linked with Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Leicester in the recent past. It is a long way from a player who for most of his career was little known to many people outside of his home island of Gran Canaria.
At 15 Mesa left home to join Levante’s youth system, spending four seasons at the Valencia-based club, but then returning home and bouncing around a few teams in the Canaries. At one point it looked like he would not make it as a pro, until his father persuaded him to keep going.
“It was tough when pre-season started and everyone had a club except you,” Mesa has recalled. “I thought football was over for me, I told my parents I was going back to study. But my dad refused. I kept working at it, and in the end it paid off.”
There followed spells at semi-pro fourth tier side Huracan, and elsewhere in the Canaries at Tenerife. Even after joining hometown club Las Palmas first team squad in 2010 he struggled to establish himself. It took until 2014/15 for things to really take off, when coach Paco Herrera gave the until then bit-player the reins of the team in midfield, and they surprisingly went up - with Mesa netting a rare goal in the promotion play-off second leg victory at home to Zaragoza.
Things really clicked when Quique Setien took over early in 2015/16, and the former Atletico Madrid and Racing Santander midfielder instigated an even more passing-based style in the team. This suited Mesa perfectly, and he was even more constantly involved in the game, giving the ball and getting it back, organising his team’s attacks while maintaining possession.
As Setien’s pío-pío side played some of the best football in Europe, comparisons with former Spain and Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez were not really so far-fetched. Xavi holds the current record for most passes made in a La Liga game , with Mesa just behind him in the all-time rankings following the 122 balls that found a teammate during a 2-0 win at Osasuna earlier this season.
Like Xavi, Mesa is happy to talk about the philosophy behind Setien's very attractive side. “We play happy football,” he told El Pais last autumn. “I would call it 'associative football'. There are plenty of one-twos in the middle of the pitch. We try and take the ball from one side to the other, until a gap appears. We don't hurry, just remain relaxed with the ball. When a teammate has the ball, we must offer a solution, then he decides whether to pass it or not. We need to create moves to bring the ball out from the back. It is important to have the personality required to want the ball.”
Also like Xavi, Mesa stands just 5’7” tall. But he is a much more physical presence than the Catalan when the other team have the ball. He usually sits deeper on the pitch, and often gets around to break up opposition attacks. 10 yellow cards in 24 La Liga games this season tell their own story. The best comparison could be to 1960s midfielders of the Johnny Giles type - small, hard guys who could play a bit but mix it too. Mesa’s current matinee idol look including slicked back hair and moustache also adds to the old-style feel.
Recognition of Mesa’s arrival as a top player came last summer, when Sevilla almost completed an €8 million transfer last summer, when the Andalusians’ sporting director Monchi had fixed on him as a perfect replacement for departing schemer Ever Banega. Following last week’s events at Leicester, rojiblanco fans might be wondering around now what would have happened had the deal not fell through, and the less reliable Samir Nasri arrived at the Sanchez Pizjuan instead.
Mesa’s form has continued into the current season, when he has made the second most passes per game [75.2] in La Liga. He’s also fourth in the passes completed percentage, with 91.5% of his passes finding their target. Such stats helped push him towards the Spain national team, and La Roja coach Julen Lopetegui said last week he had been close to calling him up for the first time.
Rumours of interest from England have unsurprisingly grown louder through recent months, while Bayern Munich reportedly see him as a potential replacement for Xabi Alonso, and Sevilla [again], Atletico Madrid and Valencia have all been mentioned as likely suitors this summer.
The 27-year-old has a €30 million release clause in his current contract, and the Las Palmas board will not be keen to sell. A figure of around €10 - €15 million could get a deal done though, and Mesa might feel the time is right to move on, especially with Setien looking likely to leave at the end of the summer.
The one worry would be that some La Liga players, especially those who are star performers at smaller regional clubs, can struggle when joining the top Premier League outfits and having to battle for a regular place. Iago Aspas’ move from Celta Vigo to Liverpool did not work so well, while ex-Deportivo La Coruna forward Lucas Perez is currently stuck on the Arsenal bench.
Mesa has only really done well at one club so far in his career, but he has clearly earned the right to prove himself on a bigger stage. Having come up the hard way, he now has the personality and ability to be a really good signing for almost any team. Just, please, Roque, don’t shave off the moustache.