It was at Racing Santander where Canales shot to prominence. A deft double away to Sevilla in January 2010 where he showed composure beyond his years brought him international recognition. The ensuing transfer speculation prompted Johan Cruyff to warn him of the dangers of moving to a top club too soon:
“At 18-years-old, and with only a few games in the Primera Division, joining a big club is attractive, but it carries a risk because the destination is not the youth team,” stated Cruyff.
”At that age you have so much to learn, as a person and as a footballer, so if you leave for a big club too soon your development isn’t complete and you could end up going backwards. So much so that you could end up being ruined. There are exceptions, yes, but that’s what they are, exceptions.”
Following a season largely confined to the Bernabeu bench, where he started just three games, it appeared that Cruyff’s words were about to ring true. Faced with the competition of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Kaka, there was little room to develop the talented Cantabrian. Fortunately this summer Canales recognised the need for first-team football:
“I intend to play as many minutes as possible, and if not at Real Madrid then with another club,” he said.
His resulting loan switch to Valencia came at a perfect time for both him and his new club. The loss of David Silva the previous summer and more recently Juan Mata opened up a vacancy at the head of the midfield. His slippery skills and left-footedness have allowed him to seamlessly replace the previous incumbents as the team’s attacking playmaker. He was at the heart of the comeback against Chelsea in midweek as he glided effortlessly between the Blues’ defence and midfield. On Saturday it was his low 30-yard drive which made the difference and capped an excellent performance for the 20-year-old.
As Canales thrives in Valencia it further reinforces the theory that promising teenagers of his ilk have a better chance of reaching the top should they remain at clubs which offer them the opportunity to develop. Both at Racing and at Valencia, the Spanish Under-21 international has benefited from more time on the pitch in a less pressurised environment.
Analysis of the last 25 Ballon D’Or winners shows that only the two Ronaldos and Lionel Messi were at truly elite clubs prior to the age of 21. The vast majority of the remaining award-winners made that career-defining move at the age of 23-26, having been carefully nurtured at small-to-medium size clubs. Persuading Valencia to take up the €12m option to buy him at the end of his loan deal may be the best move for his long-term development.