Marcelo Moreno Martins: can ‘El Matador’ guide Bolivia to their first Copa America win since 2015? – scout report
Marcelo Moreno Martins is one of the most legendary South American strikers of the last decades but most fans outside the continent, especially the younger ones, probably don’t know him. The top-ever topscorer for Bolivia (25 goals in 78 caps) and third-highest scorer still active in the South America World Cup Qualifiers with 17 goals (only behind Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi) has had a very long career since leaving Bolivia aged just 17.
Now aged 34 and having played in the EPL, the Bundesliga, Asia, Ukraine and mostly in the Brazilian Serie A, Moreno is still a relevant figure in the continent. He’s the top scorer of the current WC qualifiers and the best player in Bolivia.
Moreno missed the first two games of the 2021 Copa América because of COVID and Bolivia lost both of them, extending a winless run in this competition that started in 2015. With their captain and best player back for their third match against Uruguay, we’ll see in this tactical analysis what he bring to Bolivia’s tactics and why he’s their main hope if they want to end their negative streak.
Moreno is the leader of Bolivia’s attack. He usually waits between the centre-backs and inside the box but is very vocal and guides his teammates on the pitch, letting them know where to play to and helping them make the best decisions.
He can drop deep or drift wide if needed to receive and hold the ball while his teammates advance while also pinning the centre-backs by getting between them and challenging with runs in behind even if he doesn’t have the pace to be a real threat running into space.
His impressive work rate means he can sacrifice for his team and Bolivia relies on him to buildup and advance as he’s the only player who can receive between the lines and is calm enough to make good decisions there and keep the attacks ticking
In the heatmap below from his matches with Bolivia, we can see how Moreno intervenes very deep in the field and despite being a striker that excels in the box, he understands he needs to have a much more complete role if Bolivia want to develop their full potential.
It’s especially interesting to note some differences Moreno experiences when playing for club and country. For his club, he intervenes more in the game, averaging 16.13 passes and 11.31 aerials per 90 in 2020 for only 13.99 passes and 7.59 aerials with Bolivia in all matches with available stats. His service is also much better at club level and he touches the ball in the box 3.96 times per 90 with Cruzeiro and only 2.29 per 90 with Bolivia.
However, he’s one of those players who has better performances at the international level and despite having better service for Cruzeiro (0.25 xG per 90 in 2020; 0.21 xG per 90 with Bolivia), he scores at a much higher rate with the national team (0.37 goals per 90 with Bolivia and just 0.14 with Cruzeiro in 2020). This legendary aura also influences his teammates, who see him as a leader and know he’ll score if he has the chance.
Role as the target man to progress and attack
Playing for a national team that’s usually the underdog in every competition isn’t an easy task for a centre-forward. Instead of staying upfront and waiting for his teammates to service him in the box, Moreno needs to expand his area of influence and become the leader of his country’s attacks.
When Bolivia defends deep, which is most of the time, Moreno is a good option to progress as he tries to offer passing lanes to receive the ball with his back to the goal and hold the ball while his team advances. Morenos is a strong player with a big frame and also has quality in his first touch, so he feels comfortable playing with his back to the goal and also has the vision to be an important part in counterattacks by choosing the correct passes and accelerating the attacks.
In the picture below, we see how Bolivia transitions into attack. Starting from a very deep defending position, Bolivia clears the ball away and Moreno is in a good position to bring the ball down and protect it in his own half. While shielding the ball from the Chilean defender, Moreno raises his head, spots his teammate who is running through the centre and puts the ball in his way with a nice backheel pass.
In the above example, Moreno shows a good number of his qualities: work rate and intuition to defend and be in a good position to receive the clearance; physicality and first touch to bring the ball down and protect it; and vision and quality to play the backheel pass and continue the transition.
In positional attacks, Moreno also tries to be a passing option and helps his team with quick one-twos so midfielders can progress and break lines. Bolivia usually lacks the creativity to break down low blocks so Moreno’s presence between the lines as an easy option to progress with combinations is key for them to reach the final third.
In the next example, Moreno comes to the right half-space and offers himself as a passing option with his back to the goal. His teammate passes the ball and runs forward, breaking the rival midfield line and getting the ball back in a great position to run at the defensive line. This play isn’t technically difficult but requires Moreno to understand the opportunity is there and also enough technical ability to play a first-touch pass into the run of his teammate.
Another movement Moreno often makes to offer a solution to Bolivia is running diagonally to the flanks to receive long passes, hold the ball and wait until the wing players advance. After that, he usually makes a simple pass and returns to the box looking to receive a cross, which is how he threatens the goal the most as we’ll see later in this scout report.
Again, as we see below, the movement itself isn’t a difficult one and doesn’t require outstanding conditions. It’s more about Moreno’s willingness to work for the team, offer solutions and sacrifice so Bolivia finds a way of playing through the rival defence. This time, he runs to the right flank to receive a long pass and despite being isolated and lacking the pace to create anything by himself from there, he manages to retain possession and establish Bolivia in the opposition half.
Continuing the analysis of Moreno’s excellent ability to play with his back to the goal, we now focus on how he uses it to assist his teammates when in and around the box. In the next section of the analysis, we’ll see that Moreno likes to shoot whenever he has the chance but sometimes it’s impossible and then his quality to assist his teammates appears.
Moreno is capable of holding the ball inside the box against the centre-backs as comfortably as he does it in midfield. His physicality and intelligence to use his body grant him time to think what’s the best move and he makes very good decisions to put his teammates arriving from the second line into play and creating shooting opportunities.
Let’s see the next play as a perfect example of what’s just been mentioned. We see Moreno receiving a throw to his chest with an Ecuadorian defender marking him very tightly. Moreno is calm to bring the ball down and raise his head before passing the ball back to the edge of the box, where his teammate appears and scores with a first touch shot. The key aspect of this kind of plays is how Martins creates time for him to decide the best play and for his teammates to move into the correct spaces. After that, the execution is perfect and he manages to create a chance (and a goal this time) from a throw-in.
Apart from all these aspects of Moreno’s role as a target man to open spaces for his teammates and help them advance, he’s also very good in the air. With his size and physicality, he wins lots of aerial duels and when he doesn’t he prevents the rivals from clearing the ball away comfortably, helping Bolivia win the second ball.
Here we’ve seen Moreno’s willingness to leave the box and sacrifice himself to help his team establish in the final third and improve their attacks. In the next section of this tactical analysis, we’ll see how he behaves in the box and manages to score so many goals for a team that rarely attacks.
Dominating the box
For sure Moreno is a great target man when it comes to receiving the ball deeper and putting his teammates into play but he has always stood out as a great goalscorer. Bolivia’s all-time top scorer is a very intelligent player in the box who knows how to create space and separation, lose his mark and get into great scoring positions. His strength and jumping reach help him defend the positions he wins and overcome rivals in aerial duels.
The first thing we should note is that Moreno knows his chances of shooting when playing for Bolivia will be few, so he doesn’t miss any of them and tries to shoot with either foot whenever he has the chance. He can shoot with a lot of power with right and left and even if he doesn’t score too much from distance, he still creates trouble and can win corners with his attempts from far.
Looking at his shots with Bolivia in the last 18 months below, we see that most of them are from around the penalty area but there’s a good number of more speculative attempts too.
If we look at all his Bolivia matches with available stats, Moreno has scored 0.37 goals from 2.11 shots and 0.21 xG per 90. Overperforming his expected goals over time, Moreno proves he’s a great finisher. Looking at the location of the shots he took in the last 18 months with Bolviai below, we notice most of them are well placed, with the few central ones being close to the crossbar. Despite not receiving much service, Moreno has earned the nickname of ‘El Matador’ (‘The Killer’) for his effectiveness.
Let’s now see how Moreno gets into scoring positions and his intelligence to get away from defenders. We know Moreno isn’t a quick player, at least not now that he’s 34, but he has found ways of creating space for himself in the box without the need of being explosive. He times his runs very well, especially when slowing them down so defenders get away from him. By doing this, he uses the defenders’ movements to his own advantage and doesn’t need to be quicker than them to get good chances.
Let’s look at the example below. With the defenders running toward their goal just before the cross, Moreno stops his run and lets them get away from him. Just by slowing down, space appears for the winger to put the ball in Moreno’s head. A crucial part of this movement is choosing when to stop and Moreno is very intelligent to do it right after the defender checks his shoulder and sees him running so he believes Moreno is still running forward and when he checks again a moment later it’s already too late to react.
The next example is even clearer. Moreno runs towards the goal but right after the cross he slows down and moves towards the ball. Again, the timing is key and by changing his run exactly when the cross is hit he creates the time advantage he couldn’t have created with his pace.
Anyway, pace isn’t the only thing a striker needs to anticipate inside the box. With the right timing, which Moreno has, and good strength to hold defenders and prevent them from recovering their position, a striker can still attack the near post and get into good positions. Moreno does that with great determination.
In the image below, we see Moreno running to the near post and holding the defender with his arm to get at the end of a cross. Of course, once he chooses which zone he’ll attack, he doesn’t have the mobility and change of pace to correct and go for the ball if it goes the other way but if it goes to the zone he chooses, then he will always have the advantage as he has already won the position.
One last aspect in which Moreno excels and that’s of extreme importance for a team that struggles to create like Bolivia is in set-pieces. He times his movements very well and is very powerful in the air. His headers from dead ball situations are one of Bolivia’s main weapons and goal threats.
The following sequence is just one example of how Moreno imposes his power in set pieces. In the first picture, we see how Bolivia effectively blocks the Chilean defenders and Moreno runs from the far post into the penalty spot zone.
In the second one, we see the moment Moreno heads the ball into the top corner after jumping above his rivals. When he can have three or four steps before jumping, he’s almost unbeatable in the air.
Some could argue a team like Bolivia that is forced to defend in a low block would benefit from having a quick player upfront. But Moreno proves that knowing what to do at every moment and being lethal in the box can be as effective even if he can’t take advantage of big spaces or run deep. His contribution is beyond all doubt and his scoring record makes him one of the most respected forwards in South American football.
Bolivia weren’t expected to accomplish a lot in the 2021 Copa América but losing Moreno for their first two matches was still a huge blow. However, in a group where four out of five teams go through to the knockout stage, any positive results against Uruguay and Argentina could see them becoming an unexpected guest among the best South American teams, and Moreno will be a key player if that happens.
Without a Copa América win since 2015, Bolivia will need all their players to perform at a top-level to get something positive from their remaining matches. Moreno is on a hot streak having scored seven goals in his last seven international appearances and after recovering from COVID-19 he’s ready to give everything to attempt the heroics of going through in the group stage or at least get a win they haven’t had in six years.