By Jacob Steinberg
On one flank at the Bernabeu stood Cristiano Ronaldo. Opposite him stood Jose Antonio Reyes. Ronaldo was wearing the white of Real Madrid. Reyes donned the red and white stripes of Atletico, but as the Madrid derby progressed on Sunday night, it became increasingly difficult to shake off the feeling that he also should have been decked out in Real’s colours. Although both Ronaldo and Reyes were once regarded as two of the brightest young talents in English football, their careers have veered off wildly in opposite directions.
The descent of Reyes from arguably the best player at Arsenal and in the country, for a limited time only admittedly, to an occasionally gripping performer for a middling club is one of the more puzzling and troubling tales of recent times. For a brief, carefree few months at the start of the 2004-05 season, Reyes was awesome. He was unplayable. He was unique. A giddy frisson was palpable in the air whenever he took to the pitch. The only player who attracted as much praise was Wayne Rooney, and anyway he was out with a broken foot.
Reyes joined Arsenal in 2004. He was hyped by everyone, including Zinedine Zidane
Some even suggested he eclipsed Thierry Henry. Maybe. He was certainly far superior to Ronaldo, and doesn’t that sound ridiculous now? Strange as it was, Ronaldo was regarded as a bit of a show pony, all style and no substance. Reyes was the real deal, the one with the end product, emerging as the star man in the best side in the country, Arsenal, who had won the league without losing a game in the previous season.
Ronaldo’s Manchester United finished an astonishing 15 points behind them, and there appeared to be more chance of a sophisticated evening at the opera with Andy Carroll than of them closing the gap. And we all know what’s happened since then: United won three league titles in a row and the Champions League, with Ronaldo being named the best player in the world in 2008 and earning an £80m move to Real Madrid in 2009. In the meantime, Reyes became the forgotten man.
In an article for the Guardian , published in September 2004, Rob Smyth wrote: “At their best they [Arsenal] have an extraordinary, unprecedented fluidity, and in the remarkable Jose Reyes they have acquired a man with the ability to play each game in a bubble; regardless of their significance, he can take them to another level, because he appears unafflicted by the choking pressure that does for Henry.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dissect that line with surgical precision, but that would do both Reyes and Smyth a disservice. At the time of writing, no one would have disagreed with those sentiments; not me, not you … ok, maybe Thierry Henry.
Reyes had arrived at Arsenal in January 2004 armed with an intimidating reputation. Signed for a fee that potentially could have reached £17m – a record for Arsenal – he had first caught the eye with an evisceration of Real Madrid while at Sevilla. His pace and skill compelled Zinedine Zidane to ask him if he was “playing on an invisible motorcycle”. Praise doesn’t come much higher than that. Arsene Wenger was surely on to a winner here. Reyes made his debut for Arsenal as a late substitute against Manchester City. He missed a couple of decent chances but his big day was ultimately overshadowed by a wonderful winner from Henry, a theme that would eventually come to define Reyes’s career in north London.
Fittingly enough, Reyes’s first decisive contribution in an Arsenal shirt came in the absence of Henry. In February 2004, Arsenal hosted their title rivals, Chelsea, in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Adrian Mutu had given Chelsea the lead, one they held with relative ease until Reyes popped up in the second half. First he cut inside from the right flank and hammered a ferocious shot into Carlo Cudicini’s top corner. Moments later a piercing pass from Patrick Vieira sliced open the Chelsea defence, and Reyes beat Cudicini with a first-time shot.
He had truly arrived, although his role in Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ vintage was miniscule, mainly due to the immense quality and experience of a squad that was already firmly established. As both a newcomer to the country and a youngster, Reyes was mostly kept in the wings.
Patiently he waited for a proper opportunity and at the start of the 2004-05 season he was named in the side ahead of Robert Pires. Having been given a chance by Wenger, Reyes began the season with a remarkable intensity, scoring six goals in Arsenal’s first six games, and creating many more. He was perfectly suited to a wonderful Arsenal side: capable