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1:30 AM UTC Apr 26, 2018
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 By Michael Cox

David Silva and Juan Mata have helped redefine Premier League styles of play

For a league which markets itself as the best in the world, the Premier League is curiously short of genuine superstars at present.

The most renowned footballers now head for Spain, which has been the destination for the last few genuinely top-class players the Premier League has seen: Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez.

In return, England has been blessed with a variety of clever attacking midfielders moving in the opposite direction, seemingly at a rate of one per year. In 2010, we saw David Silva sign for Manchester City, after which Juan Mata joined Chelsea in 2011, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil went to Arsenal in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and Cesc Fabregas moved to Chelsea in 2014.

Though not quite superstars, these are nevertheless among the best players presently in the league. In particular, Silva and Mata, who face each other this weekend in the Manchester derby, don't receive anywhere near enough credit.

These players have helped to revolutionise the Premier League. If that sounds peculiar, think back to a period in English football, just under a decade ago, where there were few truly top-class advanced playmakers in the top flight.

It was after Robert Pires had left Arsenal and Chelsea were relying on midfield strength, while Manchester United's determination to dominate Europe meant they were focused upon playing on the counter-attack and Liverpool's chief playmaker, Xabi Alonso, was in a much deeper position.

Jose Mourinho's success with Chelsea popularised a 4-3-3 formation with a powerful lone striker and flying wingers, which didn't lend itself to roaming, intelligent playmakers who drift into clever positions between the lines. The overall quality of English football was excellent, but there was certainly room for a more cultured form of midfielder.

When Spain triumphed at Euro 2008, their style of football appeared from another world. There was freedom of movement, constant ball retention and drift inside from the flanks rather than haring straight for goal. It was beautiful to watch.

David Silva made his first start since Oct. 3 for Manchester City in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Hull.
David Silva has been a key figure in Manchester City's success since joining the club in 2010.

For England to catch up, it required that Spanish influence, but would such players succeed in the Premier League? When Silva arrived there were plenty of question marks about his suitability: This was a technically-gifted footballer who was, nevertheless, extremely slight and felt almost too delicate for English football. Could he cope with the harder tackles, the boggy pitches and the lack of a winter break?

Inevitably, it took time. Silva's first season in English football was encouraging rather than spectacular, with moments of magic rather than constant decisive passes. He drifted in and out of games, although wasn't helped by then-Man City manager Roberto Mancini's curious 4-3-3 system, in which Carlos Tevez dropped deep and therefore left Silva without a proper target for through balls.

In his second season, 2011-12, Silva was the best attacking midfielder in the league. Playing in the 4-2-3-1 system he'd been accustomed to at Valencia, his ability to find a pocket of space, receive the ball on the half-turn and play a first-time diagonal pass to a teammate was mesmeric.

His form dipped in the second half of the campaign but before Christmas he was truly outstanding, to the extent that some sides -- David Moyes' Everton in particular -- tasked a player with man-marking him all the way across the pitch, such was Silva's ability to find gaps in the opposition.

While Silva took time to settle in English football, Mata was an instant hit. The two had been teammates at Valencia and shared many qualities. Mata was more efficient in the final third but lacked Silva's elegance and evasive ability in tight positions, but his goal and assist figures were outstanding from the outset.

Mata's spell at Chelsea ended badly in 2014, following an unhappy half-season under Jose Mourinho, but it's worth remembering quite how impressive he'd been at Stamford Bridge. He won the club's Player of the Year award in both of his full seasons at the club.

Those were Champions League-winning and Europa League-winning years respectively and, in those finals, he assisted Didier Drogba's last-minute equaliser in Munich and Branislav Ivanovic's last-minute winner in Amsterdam.

Juan Mata moved from Chelsea to Manchester United in 2014.

Since Mata arrived in England in 2011, he has 39 Premier League assists. Only Silva, with 50, has more. Incidentally, Cazorla (33) is fourth on this list having arrived a year later, while last season's leader was Fabregas (18) and this year's is Ozil (18). In an era where the assist has become valued like never before, Mata and Silva set the example for others.

One of the peculiar things about both players is that there have often been demands from supporters for them to be fielded centrally, despite the fact they're perfectly capable drifting inside from wide positions.

Silva was usually fielded from the right during his first few seasons at Man City while Mata drifted in from the left for the majority of his first campaign at Chelsea. Neither is a natural wide player but sometimes drifting into their favoured No. 10 position, rather than playing there permanently, can cause defenders more problems.

Both are exceptional in terms of movement and finding space between opponents. Sometimes, when Silva has come up against an old-school British full-back, he's bamboozled them without even touching the ball.

Playing as a No. 10 often means being marked more tightly and having to drift away from central zones to find space. Nevertheless, the fact both should start centrally this weekend shows they've proved their ability to compete in frenetic midfield zones.

Few would argue with the idea these are two of the best midfielders in the Premier League at the moment, but their historical importance is probably underestimated. English football loves nostalgia and wouldn't dare rank these players over Gianfranco Zola or Eric Cantona, but in reality Silva and Mata are on another level.

They opened and finished the scoring in Spain's 4-0 Euro 2012 final win over Italy, which was the best single performance from the best international side of modern times. They're rated highly across the continent, rather than just in Britain.

Sunday's Manchester derby feels somehow unappealing, with both sides going through the motions and playing uninspiring football under managers seemingly on their way out. But with these two around, there's always the chance of some magic.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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