Sometimes a certain environment just doesn’t suit a player. Whether it’s the culture, style of play or difficulties in settling off the field, there are many reasons why a foreign footballer might struggle to make an impression in the Premier League.
As the following examples demonstrate, it doesn’t always mean a lack of ability...
Jordan Veretout (Fiorentina)
He may have been on the losing side in one of this season’s most extraordinary games, but Veretout still made a massive contribution to the drama that unfolded. In April 2018, the French midfielder scored a hat-trick for Fiorentina in a 4-3 loss to Lazio, which took his tally for the season to eight.
Many Premier League observers will remember Veretout struggling to make an impression as Aston Villa were meekly relegated from the top flight two years ago (having turned down champions-to-be Leicester that summer, no less). He rediscovered his mojo on loan at Saint-Etienne last season before agreeing a permanent move to Serie A, where the 25-year-old has shown what he's truly capable of.
Villa had hoped for much more from the talented former France youth international. He seemed to struggle with the pace and intensity of English football, but is thriving in Italy and missed just one game (through suspension) all season.
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)
For better or worse, many players are remembered for a single act on a football pitch. Often it will be a memorable goal, a spectacular save or sending-off. Unfortunately for Iago Aspas, the entirety of his Premier League career has been condensed into a poorly taken corner against Chelsea.
Liverpool were chasing an equaliser in their unsuccessful title pursuit of 2013/14, and the Spaniard somehow played his set-piece straight to Willian’s feet on the edge of the box. It cemented his reputation as a joke figure, and the forward was quickly discarded after one abject season at Anfield. Aspas scored once in 15 appearances after his £7m move from Celta Vigo.
After being loaned to Sevilla for a year, Aspas was sold back to Celta in summer 2015. He’s scored 67 goals in 124 games since returning to his hometown club, and even broken into the Spain squad too. The 30-year-old is set to go to the World Cup in great form – and as a very different player to the one who floundered in England.
Memphis Depay (Lyon)
A member of the Netherlands squad that caused such a stir in finishing third at the 2014 World Cup, Depay’s performances were so good that he made the three-man shortlist for the tournament’s best young player. After another excellent season for PSV, he made a £25m move to Old Trafford in 2015 to work with Louis van Gaal once again.
Much was expected of the pacy wideman, but ultimately Depay failed to deliver. He was in and out of the Manchester United team, and his best performances often came in Europe. The Dutchman's days were numbered once Van Gaal was replaced by Jose Mourinho, and he left for Lyon in January 2017.
Ligue 1 might be a less competitive environment in which to play football, but Depay has still shown his quality since moving to France. He’s registered 16 goals and 12 assists in the league this season, as well as scoring in six consecutive games in 2018.
Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich/Hoffenheim)
Gnabry joined Arsenal from Stuttgart as a fresh-faced and highly promising 16-year-old. The winger was explosive in the Gunners' youth teams, which led to a first-team debut just over a year later against Coventry in the League Cup, and enjoyed a run of games at the start of the 2013/14 season.
But then injury hit: a knee problem which ruled him out for months preceded a deeply unfulfilling loan spell at West Brom, where he played just 12 Premier League minutes under Tony Pulis. Keen for more opportunities, he refused to sign a new contract at the Emirates and was sold to Werder Bremen for £5m in August 2016.
An impressive campaign in the Bundesliga earned him a call-up to the Germany squad, and Gnabry scored a hat-trick against San Marino on his debut. Thus followed a transfer to Bayern Munich in 2017. He's currently on loan at high-flying Hoffenheim to continue his development, and the 22-year-old has 10 goals in 22 Bundesliga games this season.
Mario Balotelli (Nice)
Outrageously talented but easily distracted, Balotelli entertained and frustrated in equal measure during his time in England. Mischievous behaviour off the pitch routinely garnered more headlines than his contributions on it.
Despite the support of his former Inter manager Roberto Mancini, Balotelli was used sparingly at Manchester City and caused the club plenty of headaches – Mancini more than most. The Italian contributed to an FA Cup success and league title win, but neither as a mainstay of the team. His spell at Liverpool was hugely disappointing, when he scored just once in 16 league games.
Thankfully for Balotelli, a move to Nice on the final day of the 2016 summer transfer window has revitalised the striker’s career. Focusing on football, he’s been pushing for a recall to the national team and is currently enjoying his most productive season as a professional, with 24 goals in all competitions.
There were plenty of jokes at Paulinho’s expense when he was unveiled at the Camp Nou back in August 2017. His failure to perform more than a handful of keepy-uppies saw him mocked on social media – but then fancy footwork has never been his remit.
A forceful, driving presence in midfield, Paulinho's move to Barcelona has been a success. Yet when the Brazilian left Tottenham in 2015 after an unconvincing season-and-a-half in England, his decision to move to China prompted questions about whether his career at the top level was over. He’s decisively proved the doubters wrong as a key component of Ernesto Valverde’s side.
While Paulinho doesn’t always start amid some tough competition for midfield places, he’s been regularly involved throughout the campaign. The 29-year-old has played 49 times on the way to a domestic league and cup double, and chipped in with nine goals for good measure.
Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord)
Throughout their three years in the Premier League, continuity has never been Watford’s strong point (indeed, nor was it throughout their rise from the Championship). Managers and players have come and gone with alarming regularity, but the Hornets continue to stay clear of relegation trouble.
Steven Berghuis’s spell at Vicarage Road was so brief as to be almost immediately forgotten about: the Dutch winger made just 11 appearances in his one full season before being loaned out to Feyenoord. He impressed sufficiently to make the move permanent last summer and has been in excellent form since.
While Feyenoord have failed to retain the Eredivisie title, it hasn’t been for want of trying on Berghuis's part. He’s been a menace to opposition defences all season, racking up 23 goals and 17 assists in all competitions. His pass also set up Robin van Persie for the second goal in a crushing 3-0 defeat of AZ Alkmaar to secure the Dutch Cup.
Benjamin Stambouli (Schalke)
French utility man Stambouli arrived at White Hart Lane in 2014 as part of a busy first transfer window for Mauricio Pochettino. There were plenty of incomings and outgoings as the Argentine set about reshaping his Tottenham squad to compete at the top end of the division.
Stambouli was the last of six arrivals, joining from Montpellier for £4.7m. This was no Poch success story, however, and he made more appearances in cup competitions than the Premier League during his single season as a Spurs player.
Stambouli was surprisingly moved on to PSG for a slight profit, and won five trophies in just over a year back in France. He then joined Schalke, where his versatility has helped him to become a vital member of Domenico Tedesco’s exciting team. They are set to finish second in the Bundesliga behind runaway leaders Bayern Munich – their highest finish since 2009/10.
Florian Thauvin (Marseille)
Newcastle scout Graham Carr was briefly celebrated for his ability to tap into the French market and discover undervalued talent. Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko were held up as prime examples of his eye for a player... but there were fewer hits in later years.
Thauvin was one who promised much but flattered to deceive. He was a quick and tricky winger who had impressed with Marseille and was regarded as a great prospect for the future, so a £15m fee was seen as a steal in 2015. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, his most memorable moment on Tyneside was turning up to a game in a tuxedo.
After 16 forgettable games and just one goal, Thauvin was loaned back to Marseille before his move was made permanent last year. This season, though, he’s hit career-best form and scored 20 league goals. Together with Dimitri Payet, Thauvin’s skill and creativity have helped carry Rudi Garcia’s men to the Europa League final.
Luis Alberto (Lazio)
Liverpool supporters barely got a glimpse of Alberto, even though he was at the club for three years in total. He was signed from Sevilla for £6.8m, but the youngster was given limited opportunities to impress by Brendan Rodgers. The Spaniard made nine league appearances, all brief cameos as a substitute, before twice being sent on loan to his homeland.
Alberto played more frequently during year-long spells at Malaga and Deportivo, but was eventually sold to Lazio at a loss in August 2016. After a difficult first season of injury and uncertainty, this campaign has been the making of him.
Routinely playing just behind the prolific Ciro Immobile, Alberto has chipped in with 12 goals and 21 assists. His fine form was also rewarded with a debut for the Spanish national team in November 2017.
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Sean Cole is a freelance journalist. He has written for FourFourTwo, BBC Sport and When Saturday Comes among others. A Birmingham City supporter and staunch Nikola Zigic advocate, he once scored a hat-trick at St. Andrew’s (in a half-time game). He also has far too many football shirts and spends far too much time reading the Wikipedia pages of obscure players.
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