The unfulfilled potential of José Antonio Reyes

In late December 2003 rumour was rife that Arsene Wenger was looking to add a new striker to his Arsenal side during the January transfer window. In the following January, Wenger announced that there was only a 20% chance of Arsenal signing a player that month.

However, when injuries to both Sylvain Wiltord and Jérémie Aliadière ruled them out of action for the reminder of the season, the odds of Arsenal securing a new striker shortened considerably.

Wenger, as always, decided that bringing in a young footballer was the best option; this youngster would get the chance to play and learn alongside Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.

After much speculation throughout the month of January Arsenal signed 20 year-old Spaniard José Antonio Reyes from Sevilla, for a club record fee of £17.5 million.

Handed the No. 9 jersey, Wenger touted him as one for the future stating that Reyes would need six months to adapt to the English game and that people would begin to see the best of him during the 04/05 season.

We know now that Reyes didn’t go on to become an Arsenal legend and failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him during his first few months at Highbury.

But why did he fail to live up to potential, and what did José Antonio Reyes do after he left Arsenal for good?

Reyes endeared himself to Arsenal fans early into his career at Highbury, scoring two goals to help Arsenal come from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1 in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

Doing commentary for that game was John Motson who declared that although Thierry Henry was the King of Highbury, Reyes was the new Prince.

Reyes scored more vital goals for Arsenal during the remainder of his first season, with his goals in two games near the season helping keep Arsenal’s unbeaten run alive. Reyes was rewarded with a Premier League medal at the culmination of the season.

As the 2004/2005 season began Arsene Wenger announced that Reyes would get more chances to start more matches as his form during pre-season had impressed his manager.

During this time Reyes was beginning to make a mark on the Spanish national team, after making his debut in September 2003, Reyes became a regular in the side after missing out on Euro 2004 and was seen by many as a big part in the future success of the Spanish team.

Reyes began the 04/05 season with a bang, scoring five goals in his first five matches, impressing everyone around Highbury with his style of play. Reyes was a man in the form of his life as Arsenal swept aside teams each week.

That was until Arsenal went to Old Trafford in late October 2004 on the cusp of going 50 games unbeaten in the league.

That fateful game at Old Trafford really was the turning point in Reyes Arsenal career. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were determined to prevent Arsenal from going 50 games unbeaten and set out their stall early on.

Reyes was identified as one the players who United could target for physical harassment.

Indeed the Man United players in particular Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers went to town on Reyes that day, with Gary Neville later stating in his autobiography that

I had to get physical, I had to make Reyes lose his confidence.

Early on Reyes got the better of Neville, even going as far to nutmeg him. Neville’s reaction to this was to go all in on Reyes and bring his boot straight down along Reyes left leg.

Reyes was physically outmuscled by Manchester United that day and his lack of physicality showed that he had a lot to work on if he was going to be an Arsenal great. But for many Arsenal fans this game at Old Trafford was the beginning of the end for José Antonio Reyes at Arsenal.

What United done that day to Reyes was soon replicated by other Premier League sides and Reyes bright start to life in England began to falter.

Reyes scored once more for Arsenal in 2004, and wouldn’t score in the Premier League for the Gunners until February. With his form dipping during this time he began being left out of the starting 11 with a young Robin Van Persie taking his place in the side.

During Reyes dip in form he was fooled by a prank phone call from a Spanish radio station pretending to be Real Madrid sporting director Emilio Butragueno.

During the prank call Reyes admitted that he wished he played for Real Madrid and also berated his Arsenal teammates calling some of them “bad people”.

While the prank phone call was not professional, it did show that Reyes had not settled in England and was unhappy at Arsenal. Arsene Wenger dismissed the prank call and said that Reyes was just going through a tough run of form.

Reyes’ endured a disappointing remainder of the season and crowned it by becoming only the second player to be sent off in an FA Cup Final that May as side beat Manchester United on penalties.

During the summer months Reyes ended speculation about his future by signing a new six-year contract at Arsenal, stating that he was committed to the club for the long-term, however question marks remained over his ability to hold his own in the ‘Gunners’ squad.


The 2005/2006 season arrived and Reyes played regularly for Arsenal, however, his performances had now dipped well below what had been expected of him.

To perhaps accommodate his transfer fee and new contract he ended up playing more as a left winger than a striker, contributing to him only scoring six goals in all competitions.

Prior to the 2006/2007 season getting underway Reyes asked to be left out of Arsenal’s Champions League qualifier to avoid being cup-tied for Real Madrid with a deal expected to be done before the close of the transfer window.

Reyes returned to Spain on a one year loan deal that sent ex-Sevilla teammate Julio Baptista to Arsenal. Reyes struggled to get into the Madrid side, which contained players like Robinho and Raúl.

Reyes’ biggest contribution during his time at Real was in his final game for the club, he scored two goals that secured the league title for Los Blancos.

Reyes returned to Arsenal at the end of his loan spell, with Arsene Wenger confirming he would be sold before the start of the season. Reyes was sold to Real’s neighbours Atlético in July 2007 for a fee of €12 million, only one month after helping their fierce rivals secure the league title.

Reyes departed Arsenal after making over 100 appearances and scoring 23 goals for the Gunners. The next phase of his career would see him return to Spain as a 23 year-old who many thought would finally fulfil his potential.

Reyes first year at Atlético was a disaster as he struggled to break into the starting 11 due to the form of Diego Forlan, the emergence of a young Sergio Agüero up front and the duo of Maxi Rodríguez and Simão on the flanks.

The lack of opportunities, coupled with the fact that Atleti’s fans didn’t warm to him due to his connections with Real Madrid, impacted Reyes greatly and he failed to score once in his first year at Atlético.

After the failure of his first season at Atlético, Reyes was loaned out to Benfica in Portugal. Reyes found some of his old form in Portugal thanks to his manager Quique Sánchez Flores.

Following a successful year on loan Reyes returned to Atlético where Sánchez Flores would soon become the manager.

He would go on to have his best season in Spain during the 09/10 season, picking up numerous man of the match performances, including against Barcelona.

After helping Atlético win the Europa League, things finally seemed to be going right for the Spanish international.

Atlético won the UEFA Super Cup at the start of the following season with Reyes putting in another stellar performance, and went on to have his best goal scoring season for Atlético.

However, as the 2011/2012 season began, a falling out with new manager Gregorio Manzano ensured that Reyes would see little action and he was eventually sold in the January transfer window.

After eight years away Reyes returned to his hometown club of Sevilla and back into the adoring arms of the supporters who had thrown themselves in front of his car in order to stop him moving to Arsenal all those years ago.

During his time with Sevilla he won three Europa League titles and, although never profilic in front of goal, his contribution was enough to ensure his second spell at Los Rojiblancos would be considered a success.

After spending four years at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, Reyes left his hometown club for a second time, as he once again teamed up with Quique Sánchez Flores this time at Espanyol. Reyes made 23 appearances for Espanyol scoring four times in his only season with Espanyol.

After his contract ended in July 2016, the 34 year-old is currently without a club, however it now seems likely that Reyes will be another player joining the Chinese Super League, with Shanghai Shenhua heavily rumoured to be the destination.

While many believed that he could go on to become a one of Europe’s premium attacking talents, it seems that a lack of physicality in his game and his unwillingness to do anything to change this was ultimately his downfall.

When he first arrived at Arsenal Reyes looked like a player that could go on and become a club great and carry the team for years to come.

Unfortunately for Reyes after defenders realised that he couldn’t handle the physical side of the game his career slowly started to unravel and he ultimately ended up becoming an inconsistent player, who still managed to have a career which was littered with trophies, including five Europa League successes.

Reyes will go down as one of those players that fans will remember in years to come and wonder how he never amounted to more than one who only too briefly showed flashes of what he could have been.

Even if he didn’t become anything more than a Prince at Highbury, one thing is for certain about the career of José Antonio Reyes – he certainly was the King of the Europa League.

Maybe Arsenal could do with him now.

The Author

Evan Coughlan

I bloody love football

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