Interview: Arsenal loanee Jon Toral on being at Barça and growing up with Bellerin

Arsenal's young Spanish midfielder talks to Paul Wilkes about leaving La Masia, his old friend's rise to prominence and developing his craft at Birmingham...

When Jon Toral joined Arsenal from Barcelona in 2011, the latter's then-president Sandro Rosell described the move as "legal but a little immoral".

Ironically, just three years later Rosell was forced to resign from the Catalan club over the alleged misappropriation of funds when signing Neymar.

Toral wasn't the first player to swap the Camp Nou for North London – Cesc Fabregas, Fran Merida and Ignasi Miquel all made the same journey, while Hector Bellerin joined alongside him – so perhaps Rosell's comments were borne more out of frustration over losing another two young players to Arsenal.

Masia mania

Toral wasn't the first player to swap the Camp Nou for north London, with Cesc Fabregas, Fran Merida and Ignasi Miquel all making the same journey

Those who set the precedent certainly made the arrival easier, although leaving Barcelona wasn't a judgement to be taken lightly. "Obviously it was hard – it's a big decision for a 16-year-old to leave the country where you live, where you're used to everything," Toral explains to FourFourTwo at Birmingham City's Wast Hills training base, where he currently resides after linking up with Gary Rowett's Championship high-fliers in July. As well as current Gunner Bellerin, Toral came through the ranks at La Masia with Barcelona fringe players Sandro Ramirez, Jean-Marie Dongou and Alex Grimaldo. "I'm sure I'm forgetting about someone," he ponders. 

Toral admits he couldn't have wished for a better footballing education: "I enjoyed every minute of playing football at Barcelona; it was just great being a kid and doing something that you really love with some of the best young footballers from across the world. 

"It was great to be have been part of it, I'm really grateful to them for giving me the chance to spend eight years there – to learn football, and to learn to be a good person is what Barcelona are about. They show you both parts, on and off the pitch. I'm really grateful and it's a great honour to have been part of it. So many players come out of there and have great careers in the game."

Xavi and Ronaldinho were big idols and (Zinedine) Zidane, I really liked him and watched him a lot when I was young

- Jon Toral

Growing up, Toral naturally looked to Barcelona for his heroes – and one of their great rivals' star men. "Xavi and Ronaldinho were big idols, and (Zinedine) Zidane – I really liked him and watched him a lot when I was young," the 20-year-old enthuses.

Waiting game

As Arsene Wenger pointed out at the time of Toral's transfer to Arsenal, though, it shouldn't have been a great surprise that the Spaniard arrived – his mother is English and hails from Doncaster.

His friend and compatriot Bellerin has been a first-team regular for 18 months now, but Toral understands that each player has his own set of circumstances. "Every player is different, everyone takes routes in their career," he says. "He (Bellerin) has taken the quick one to the first team at Arsenal and I've had to go on loan. I'm enjoying it and I'm learning a lot to try to get into that first team."

It gives you confidence, every player that comes from the Under 18's and 21's to the first team shows you that it can be done - Bellerin is like a role model

- Jon Toral

It was a sensible approach for Toral to take: while Arsenal had injuries to Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers when Bellerin started to make an impact at the club, Toral currently has Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of him in the pecking order. Breaking into Arsenal's first team as a creative central midfielder is notoriously difficult. 

Hector Bellerin

Bellerin's rise to the first team has inspired young Gunners players

However, Toral is excited and pleased that his long-term companion is excelling. "I'm just very happy for him, it's just great to see him doing as well as I knew he could do," says the 20-year-old.

"I played with him for so many years since I was eight, and when I got to Barcelona he was there. I know him, I know the way he works, how much he wanted it. I know how good he is and I'm sure he will continue for many years to be a very important player for Arsenal."

Bellerin’s progression also gives hope to youngsters like Toral that Wenger is still looking to promote players from within. "It gives you confidence, every player who comes from the under-18s and 21s to the first team shows you that it can be done. He [Bellerin] is like a role model in some ways."

Learning on loan

For now, Toral has to learn his trade on loan, as he did with Brentford last season. "It was very good [at Griffin Park], though I didn't start as many games as I would have liked – as a footballer you always want to start games and play as many minutes as possible. But for a first professional season, having 30-something appearances in the Championship for a 19-year-old is alright.

Obviously at the time I wasn't good enough to get into the first team at Arsenal, but I'm here trying to show everyone what I can do

"Obviously at the time I wasn't good enough to get into the first team at Arsenal, but I'm here trying to show everyone what I can do. I enjoyed it a lot and I'm really grateful to Brentford and the manager Mark Warbuton as they helped me a lot."

At Birmingham, Toral scored the winner on his debut against Reading on the opening day of the season. "It was very, very good start!" he laughs. "I enjoyed it a lot, because obviously goals help you and your confidence. Starting at home in front of the supporters was a great experience."

Toral is facing another fight to regain his first-team spot, having started the last six league games on the bench. Birmingham have had an excellent start to the campaign, though, and the young Spaniard feels that's mainly down to the strategic nous of manager Rowett. "He's a very good manager and I'm learning a lot from him," he says. "I want to keep doing that this season. I learn a lot tactically from him: how to keep the shape, how to help the team defensively when we haven't got the ball and how to be hard to beat."

I learn a lot tactically from Gary Rowett - how to keep the shape, how to help the team defensively when we haven't got the ball and how to be hard to beat

- Jon Toral

So is Toral settled in England and fully adapted to the football? "Yeah, I think I'm used to it now. I've been here since I was 16," the midfielder explains. "There's quite big differences in the football; in Spain you play a more relaxed possession-based style, where everyone wants the ball. Here there are more different teams tactically; some like to have the ball, others to be more direct. It's more competitive in England, and every team can beat each other in each league. In Spain you don't get that as much because the type of game that they want to play means that usually the better players win."

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