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Scout Report: Maximiliano Moralez

After almost a decade in South America and Europe, 2017 saw New York City Football Club acquire Maximilliano Moralez from Mexican Club León on a free transfer. What an incredible deal it would turn out to be for NYCFC. Since his arrival into Major League Soccer in 2017, Moralez has played almost every minute available for the club and has become pivotal to the team’s success, racking up 100 appearances for the club by the end of the 2019 season. 

During this tactical analysis scout report of Maxi Moralez, we’ll take a dive into what makes the Argentine so important to NYCFC and what tactics he employed that led him to have the MLS highest number of assists in the 2019 campaign. 

Positioning & Areas of influence

What’s interesting to observe with Maxi Moralez’s general positioning, is even though he typically plays in a number 10 position, he shows ability to operate across the full width of the pitch and can be incredibly dangerous in wide areas. He is often looking to take up positions behind the opponents’ midfield line of pressure with an aim to get on the ball facing the opposition’s goal. From these higher positions on the field, Moralez is able to pull strings in the game and unlock defences. From the heatmap below of the MLS 2019 season, it can also be seen that Moralez is comfortable dropping deeper in order to pick up the ball which helps NYCFC in the build-up phase. 

Maxi Moralez heatmap for the 2019 MLS season shows large influence in the left half-space.

Notice in the image below how Moralez is able to position himself behind the midfield structure of Columbus Crew. With a direct pass from centre-back to centre-forward and some well-timed movement to support underneath the ball, Moralez and NYCFC are now able to exploit space and get in-behind.

Moralez getting on the ball between the lines allows NYCFC forwards to make promising runs in pursuit of scoring chances.

Key Passes

When analyzing Moralez’ key passes in the 2019 MLS season, it’s clear to see that he can be dangerous from almost any position in the attacking half of the pitch. One factor that does influence Moralez’ ability to be so dangerous is the relationship he holds with Valentin Castellanos. The pair have an understanding that when Moralez picks up the ball, Castellanos runs which is incredibly simple, yet effective for both players and the overall team function. With well-timed and well-shaped runs, this certainly helps Moralez in his ability to pull strings and create key opportunities for NYCFC to score goals.

Maxi Moralez key passes in 2019 show how dangerous he can be from a variety of positions on the pitch.

Finding runners behind the backline

In the world of coaching getting in behind the opposition, in theory, is relatively simple. Play through the opposition, around them, or over them. Where the theory becomes challenging is application to the game moment.

First, a player must perceive their environment, taking in critical information, before choosing the best option. Then timing becomes essential. The timing, angle and shape of a teammates run to get in behind, along with the timing and quality of technical execution from the ball carrier, add complexity to successfully getting players in behind.

Through countless hours and years of experience, Maxi Moralez has mastered the art of timing, execution and deception, which has enabled him to gain more assists in Major League Soccer than any other player in 2019.

The following images illustrate Moralez’ ability to play through, around or over his opponents which are all executed with exceptional levels of deception, speed, timing and trajectory (when playing over). 

In this first image below, Moralez’ has timed his pass to perfection. While carrying the ball towards goal, Moralez observes both the run of his teammate, as well as the momentum of the left-back who is his immediate opponent at the time. When the left-back hesitates for a brief second and ‘freezes’, momentum is able to shift which is when Moralez is able to slip the ball down the outside of the full-back. At this point in time, there is no chance the full-back can recover in time and NYCFC are able to play around the defensive block.

Moralez’ timing of release allows NYCFC to get in-behind by playing around the defensive block.

In this next image, Moralez helps NYCFC get in-behind the backline of Columbus Crew by playing through the defensive block. As he takes the ball in his stride moving forwards, Moralez slips the ball through pressure by splitting two defenders and playing the pass off the front-foot. This allows him to apply disguise to his pass and ultimately thread the ball through the eye of a needle. 

An excellently timed run and perfectly threaded pass allowed NYCFC to get in-behind Columbus.

During this tactical analysis scout report, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Moralez’ game to observe is his ability to clip a ball in behind an organized defence and unlock the door for NYCFC. Castellanos is always a willing runner which helps Moralez significantly, however, being able to get the trajectory of the pass to be correct, along with applying disguise, is no easy task. Having this ability is something that very few players in the game possess, which is what makes players like Maxi Moralez exciting to watch. 

In the subsequent two images, Moralez unlocks the door for NYCFC to get in-behind Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers respectively. In both situations, Moralez shows his exceptional technical competence as a two-footed player, playing both balls in-behind left-footed. A nuance here is that before clipping the ball over the backline, Moralez is moving laterally across the field which enables him to play what seems like almost a reversed pass. This adds complexity to the technical execution which makes it even more impressive to observe. In addition, also notice how both teams are relatively high in terms of the depth of the backline which also helps Moralez.

Moralez is given time and space on the ball to pick out a pass that unlocks Columbus.
Again, Moralez unlocks an organized defence as he is given space on the ball facing forwards with Castellanos eager to run in-behind.

Influencing play from wide areas

An area of Maxi Moralez game that is somewhat non-traditional of a number 10 is how much to analyze how much influence he has in wide areas. Typically attacking midfielders would place more emphasis on getting in the box and looking to add to the scoresheet. Moralez, on the other hand, seems more interested in delivering stunning balls into the box and adding to his impressive assists numbers. 

With the ability to deliver high-quality crosses into the box with either foot, Moralez has become one of the leagues most dangerous players from wide areas. With the tendency to drift into the channels in search of crossing opportunities, Moralez also helps NYCFC to create numerical advantages in wide areas while also pulling opponents out of areas they are comfortable operating in. 

 

Maxi Moralez crosses during the 2019 MLS season.

Putting the ball into ‘an area’ is the main focus when delivering crosses for many players. Maxi Moralez, on the other hand, is much more deliberate than that. A part of how he has become so influential in wide areas lies in his ability to pick out key players or key areas which help him to eliminate multiple defenders.

In the image below, Moralez identifies an area with three NYCFC teammates inside of the box as Sporting Kansas City are caught out of balance and puts in a fantastic cross that eliminates five opponents. 

An out-swinging right-footed cross proves difficult to deal with for defending players and Sporting KC’s goalkeeper alike.

The next image illustrates a different phase of play as NYCFC develops an attack in open play. Again Moralez has had his head up and is able to identify space and the late-arriving teammate on the top of the box. As Los Angeles Football Club are retreating to protect their goal, this cut-back cross helps to use the defending players’ momentum against them as they’re unable to change direction and attack the ball before a shot is taken. The area that Moralez puts the ball makes for another excellent scoring chance for NYCFC.

A cut-back cross to the top of the box makes for an excellent scoring chance from an xG perspective.

This next image focuses on vision. The black radar shows how Moralez again plays with his head up before looking to cross the ball into the box. A perfectly executed cross leads to another high-quality scoring chance for NYCFC.

Moralez again picks out a teammate with an out-swinging cross against Columbus Crew.

Defensive channelling

It won’t be too much of a surprise to see that where Moralez is not particularly strong is in defensive actions. Traditionally, creative attacking midfielders are not particularly strong in defensive actions, however, the game continues to evolve and the demand on players in all phases of the game continues to increase. For the Argentine, he wins only 12.7% of 1v1 defending situations and 19.2% of defensive duels based on his 2019 WyScout report. 

What Moralez does do, however, is help NYCFC to direct play by preventing opponents from playing through key players in the middle of the pitch. Since Moralez’ defensive statistics are not particularly strong, a tactic that could be employed against NYCFC is to give the ball to whoever Moralez is pressing and trust that players’ ability to be press resistant in order to help carry the ball out from the back. 

Notice in the below image how Moralez arrives late to put pressure on the opponents’ defensive midfielder. Teams who play into these areas quickly may have an opportunity to build out against Moralez with little pressure. Even if Moralez was tighter, if teams can trust players to take the ball in these situations against Moralez, a successful duel would leave plenty of space behind to exploit and could take multiple NYCFC players out of the game. 

Moralez arrives late to put pressure on the defensive midfielder but is still successful in deflecting play as the ball rotates back through the goalkeeper before playing long.

Conclusion

Although his size and brute strength may not be qualities that Maxi Moralez possesses, what the Argentine has been able to do in Major League soccer is to prove his dominance in very different ways. From his positional play and game intelligence to the technical mastery and ability to find the killer pass, Moralez has all the qualities needed to take NYCFC on another successful season. 

As with all players who perform at a high level in the game, a constant challenge for Moralez lies in continuing to find ways to be effective in the game. Knowing that teams will place a larger emphasis on preventing him from getting on the ball, there is always a possibility of NYCFC adapting their system to create advantages in different areas of the field.

After being knocked out of the MLS Cup to Toronto in the 2019 post-season, the challenge for Moralez and head coach Ronny Deila is to take NYCFC all the way in 2020. With some key additions to the squad in the off-season, 2020 looks to be another exciting campaign.