How forgotten Newcastle striker Joselu became an unexpected star for Spain and Real Madrid

From scoring seven times in 50 games for Newcastle, 33-year-old Joselu is now scoring at will for Real Madrid - so how did that happen?
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When José Luis Sanmartín – better known to the footballing world as Joselu – rocked up at St. James’ Park back in 2017, he was joining his eighth club in eight years at the age of 27. A journeyman striker with a modest track record, his career seemed to be going nowhere fast – and it certainly didn’t speed up any at Newcastle United. Yet, last night, a footballer once seen as a write-off scored two goals in the Champions League for Real Madrid, well into his thirties. Joselu has become one of football’s great late bloomers.

Newcastle fans soon found out why he’d cycled through sides so quickly in the earlier stages of his career. He had mediocre technique, was relatively slow and didn’t seem to have much of an eye for goal – and managed just seven goals in 50 games for the Magpies before moving on. Few will have waved him goodbye with a tear in their eye.

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A career that had started at Celta Vigo took him to Real Madrid, where played seven whole minutes in La Liga before being shipped off to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover 96 followed, where he played respectably well, before less inspiring stints at Stoke City and Deportivo la Coruña. At no stage did he look like he would play at the Bernabeu again, save perhaps as a late substitute for some lesser La Liga side.

So how is it that a player with such limited natural talent ended up as an important member of Carlo Ancelotti’s star-studded squad at the age of 33? How did one of the less-fondly remembered players of a pretty dismal period in Newcastle’s history end up playing alongside Jude Bellingham and Luka Modrić? The answer is a testament to the benefits of experience and persistence.

After Newcastle, Joselu moved to Alavés, where he finally found a settled home. In his first season, he cracked double figures for the first time in his career, scoring 11 – a feat he repeated the following year before cranking it up to 14 in his third season despite the club falling to rock bottom in the league. With Alavés out of La Liga, he moved to Espanyol only to be relegated yet again, but not without scoring 16 times, a total topped only by Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema. That was enough for Real to offer him an unexpected return on loan, more than 12 years after those seven minutes he played in the famous white shirt. It is one football’s least likely full circle moments.

"The more the seasons pass, the better I feel, both mentally and physically," he said after scoring the first penalty for Spain as they won the 2023 Nations League, beating Croatia in the final. Joselu, who made his national debut at the grand age of 32, had already scored the winner in the semi-final against Italy. "This has a big impact on your on-the-pitch performance. It's been proven that the best in the world have performed better and have got better stats after the age of 30. That's true of me and I'm really enjoying myself. I feel really young and alive. This is a special point of my career and I don't want it to end."

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It hasn’t ended yet. He’s already scored eight goals for Real Madrid despite starting just ten games. Initially signed largely as a back-up, with Vinícius Junior injured he has gone from being an impact sub to a free-scoring first-team regular. But is it just about feeling better, mentally and physically? There’s more to his improbable renaissance than that, as much as good mental health and better physical fitness probably help.

Watching Joselu against Union Berlin on Tuesday night – or indeed in any of his games for Real – it immediately strikes you that his touch, close control and physicality are all some way below the standards you usually expect from a player at one of the world’s most storied clubs. He never became much better at bringing the ball under his spell than he was at Newcastle all those years ago nor, for all that he says he feels better physically, is he appreciably faster or stronger. His renewed quality is all in his mind and his reading of the game.

Joselu doesn’t score spectacular goals, and nor does he send defenders for a loop with deft first touches. Almost all of his strikes are from close range, most of them headers, few of them high up the xG scale. But what strikes you is how many he scores when he seems to be completely unmarked, adrift in an ocean of space, ready to knock an easy goal home.

His positioning and off-ball movement are almost unmatched. For the second goal against Real, he sprinted forward for a counter attack, marked by a centre-half, then quietly detached himself from his man at precisely the right moment to drop between the two lines of defence, giving him all the time in the world to nod a none-too-graceful header into the net. He does this time and again – peeling off defenders at precisely the right moment, timing every run to perfection, and keeping everything simple in the meantime.

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Joselu at Real Madrid is what substantial experience looks like when it’s properly learned from. Every mistake he’s made, every fluffed line in front of goal, every frustrating blank drawn has been studied and understood. He knows he will never be a technically exceptional footballer, and doesn’t try anything complex or tricky. He keeps his passes simple, keeps his work unfussy. He just moves it on and waits to find another pocket of space to score a tap-in. Rinse, repeat, a man who knows exactly what he can and can’t do and maximises every inch of it, using every scrap of his understanding of the game.

All those disappointing nights at Newcastle and Stoke led to a moment in which he knows precisely what he’s doing when he makes his runs, knows just how to trick his marker into going the wrong way. Then he heads it in from a few yards out. It’s so utterly simple and, when framed by the technical mastery of the players around him, incredibly effective.

Joselu won’t be at Real forever. This may well be a one-season deal, a bridge between Benzema and Kylian Mbappé or some other superstar striker who will take his place once the loan has expired. But for Joselu, it’s a deserved reward for years of hard and often thankless graft, learning his craft and learning not to overstep his abilities. It may still cause a few Geordies to scratch their heads, of course, but he clearly understands that – as he said recently, “I can’t explain it. I’ll die and I still won’t have been able to explain it.” But as inexplicable as it may be, it's no less beautiful for it.

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