When news emerged that Alberto Moreno was to leave Liverpool on a free transfer this summer, it seemed inevitable. What seemed equally as inevitable was that a Spanish side would pick up a real bargain. Undoubtedly a gamble given his defensive weaknesses, joining on a free transfer seemed to be an ideal opportunity for the left-back to rebuild his career.
Villarreal were the team to identify that and win the race to sign the former Sevilla defender, returning to Spain having failed to kick on as many had hoped when he moved to Merseyside. Putting pen to paper on a five year deal, he clearly has the backing of his new club and will now look to live up to the high expectations demanded of a European champion as Villarreal themselves look to return to the top half of La Liga after a disappointing 2018/19 campaign.
In this scout report tactical analysis we will consider how the attacking-minded full-back is a gamble for the Yellow Submarine, but one that could pay off. Solving a weak link in the tactics of Javi Calleja’s side last season, he looks likely to be a regular in the side, bringing with him both an attacking threat and defensive liabilities.
If there is one area where Moreno excels, it is in his attacking contribution. Moreno always looks to get forward and provide an option down the flank. Once on the ball, he will often aim to play a quick one-two with the more central advanced midfielder, often Santi Cazorla, as they drift inside with the ball moving into a more advanced position. That gives Moreno the chance to put on the burners and attempt to beat the defender for pace.
This leads into Moreno’s crossing, which is one of the greatest assets that he will bring to Villarreal. Compared with Jaume Costa, the man he is likely to replace as first choice, Moreno makes 3.6 crosses per match, with a 35.5% completion rate, Costa manages just 2.75 with a completion rate of 29.5%. Last season, Costa’s crossing increased up to 3.2 per match as Calleja increasingly relied on an overlapping full-back, but it was evident that if this was to be his long-term approach, he would need a full-back who could do so more naturally and with a far greater accuracy if it were to lead to results. The signing of Moreno does just that.
Forwards like Gerard Moreno and Carlos Bacca will thrive on that kind of service from out wide, both being poachers inside the box who will enjoy playing with so many balls coming into the box from out wide. Mario Gaspar has long done similar on the right flank, but as age catches up with him, his number of crosses has fallen, dropping as low as 1.88 per match last season, with a winger used on the right to compensate in Samuel Chukwueze. Moreno’s arrival will bring this approach back on the left flank instead and allow Mario to be part of the defensive three that provide cover for him as he roams forward.
Freedom down the left
What’s more is that Moreno will not only get forward when on the overlap. As mentioned previously, with Villarreal tending to rely on more centrally focused forward players, rather than out and out wingers, it will leave substantial space open for Moreno down the entirety of the left flank. On the counter in particular, when Moreno can put his pace and speed to work, he can break down the flank without any winger blocking his run. With this being actively encouraged by Calleja, it will also mean that the coach should be preparing his midfield and defence to provide cover for Moreno to do so freely.
Such movement is what he didn’t have at Liverpool, usually operating with Sadio Mane in front of him on the left. At Villarreal, he will become the main man down the left. With Pablo Fornals now having departed, it seems that Calleja is keen to replace him with a change of system, rather than by bringing in a like for like wide midfielder. Instead, Moreno will pick up the slack of making the runs down the flank. Such focus on integrating Moreno into the system as one of the key players is just the kind of confidence boost that he needs to rebuild his reputation.
In the past, Moreno has not been a prolific goalscorer, given that he has registered just six career goals to date. Already however, he has scored his first in pre-season action for Villarreal through this approach. It could be a key way to get the best out of the Spaniard too, given that he performs well in relation to his xG, only underscoring it by 0.15 over the past four seasons – a remarkable figure for a defender. This will add an entirely new skill to Moreno’s portfolio, but could be one factor which makes a substantial difference in his performances over the next season.
Still needs protective cover
However, balancing all of the attacking threat mentioned in this analysis with his defensive responsibilities is a challenge. The same point mentioned above, the lack of presence ahead of him on the left flank, is one which leaves him particularly vulnerable. Far from the most disciplined of defenders, both his positioning and his marking leave much to be desired, even though he often makes up for it with his pace to get back and make recoveries.
At Liverpool, Moreno’s biggest challenge in terms of positioning was that he would get caught out too far forwards. At Villarreal, that will again be a challenge, but he has also encountered issues when being teamed up against already in pre-season. With the likes of Santi Cazorla ahead of him, the offensive minded midfielders used are not as concerned with their defensive duties and tracking runners. This can leave Moreno having to track two men at once, as is the case in the below example against FC Koln in pre-season.
The major concern with Moreno in this situation is not tactics, rather his positioning. Moreno tends to panic in such scenarios and his body positioning can be all over the place. In the above example, he sets himself up to follow the wide runner, seemingly expecting the ball to go wide, and reacts far too slowly to the run inside. Even with his pace, turning his body shape entirely takes time and his only reaction was to reach out and pull down the runner. A deeper-lying midfielder or greater awareness from the central defender will be required to avoid such catastrophes in La Liga.
Moreno remains a player of great potential. Now aged 27, time is running out for him to ever show the kind of talent that people had hoped for when he broke through at Sevilla. A return to Spain should suit his style, giving greater freedom to the full-backs without quite so many defensive responsibilities against sides who are not as quick or threatening on the counter. Moreno will be a valuable attacking asset for Villarreal in the season ahead, but the real test of how he fares on the east coast of Spain will be in how he handles the defensive side of his game. Should Calleja set up his tactics to suit him, as seems to be the case, he will have the perfect opportunity to show what he is capable of.
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