West Ham United completed the summer signing of 23-year-old Pablo Fornals from Villarreal in a deal reportedly worth 28 million Euros.
The twice-capped Spanish international is a technically minded playmaker who can operate in a variety of midfield areas, giving the Hammers another creative presence alongside the likes of Felipe Andersen and Samir Nasri.
As Manuel Pellegrini enters his second season in East London, the Chilean will no doubt look forward to working with Fornals’ craft and versatility as the Irons aim to break back into the top half of the Premier League.
On the face of it, two goals and three assists in La Liga last season are not hugely impressive numbers for an advanced midfielder who racked up well over 2000 minutes. An analysis of the underlying numbers, however, is a bit kinder, with Understat’s model showing 3.92 xG, and 5.41 xA at 0.34 xG+xA per 90 minutes for the campaign.
Factoring in Villarreal’s disappointing season, where they followed up five consecutive top six La Liga finishes with a drop to 14th place, this was far from a bad return for a player who only turned 23 in February. With Fornals weighing in with three goals and twelve assists in 2017/18, contributing to Villarreal’s fifth-placed finish at 0.43 xG+xA per 90 minutes, the young Spanish playmaker has the potential to be a real danger in the right environment and system.
It is immediately clear when watching Pablo Fornals play that he is an extremely intelligent player. At 5ft 8in (178 cm), and just over 10 stone (67 kg), he is not physically imposing, yet like so many Spanish playmakers before him he has developed excellent awareness, perception and vision where his slight frame and low centre of gravity are used to his advantage.
His awareness of where space is, body orientation, first touch and awareness (especially of third player movements) bear all the hallmarks of a player developed in a very Spanish way with the use of rondos and positional games.
Fornals has been used across the midfield, and in 2018/19 he lined up both as a number ten and in wider starting positions. The principles of his game, however, remain where he looks to receive the ball in advanced positions and create play.
In this example, Fornals has taken up a central position in between the block, where he has attracted the attention of three opponents. Realising he can’t simply play on the turn immediately, he takes the ball safe side with a soft first touch, fakes to pass backwards to fool an opponent and then moves away from immediate pressure.
The orientation and quality of his first touch, and cleverly losing an opponent with by faking to pass backwards has now created an element of separation. With two opponents lost, he has given himself the time and space to be able to deliver an inch-perfect through pass for Samuel Chukwueze, with whom he enjoys a fruitful on-pitch relationship.
On this occasion, Fornals is positioned in a wide left position, and hugging the touchline where he receives a bad pass to his dangerous side, immediately triggering the opponent to press. Fornals recognises this, using his first touch to move the ball safe side and out of reach from the opponent closing in.
If the first touch was purely functional, a small technical detail executed perfectly, what followed demonstrated that bit of magic which could endear him to the West Ham supporters, as he drags the ball back and flicks the ball past the opponent to his team-mate making a supporting run ahead of the ball. This blend between technical proficiency and unpredictability on the ball which could turn him into a Premier League star.
In this situation Fornals is positioned centrally outside of the penalty area, as the ball arrives at his feet he beats the opponent who is closing him down with his first touch, setting up his next action. Because of the manner in which he constantly scans his surroundings, he is aware of a runner in his peripheral vision, which guides the decision making of his first touch.
He is then able to quickly play a chipped through ball on his opposite foot for the runner who is arriving behind the last line of defence in the penalty area. This combination of complete awareness and technical excellence makes this action look simple, but it is anything but. In an economy of movement and touches on the ball, he has unlocked a deep-lying defence with ease. It is moments like these where you can draw comparisons with Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.
Quality of passing
As we know, Fornals is an exceptionally intelligent player, and it is no surprise to see him demonstrate an excellent variety and range in his passing. As ever, it is the small details that matter and Fornals takes care of these which give his ability to pass that extra dimension.
In this situation, Fornals has received the ball on the right wing, with a compact Leganes block between him and the goal. Notice how his head is up as the ball arrives, where he notices Chukwueze making a run on the blindside of his opponent. He could try to thread this pass through immediately as he receives, however by pausing on the ball he draws three Leganes defenders to cover across.
By drawing the three defenders across this creates a pocket of space inside and between defenders, and a direct passing lane into the penalty area where his pass is weighted to perfection.
Fornals is also capable of playing longer, lofted passes (as we saw in an earlier example), and is capable of doing so with either foot. He is strongest on his right foot but also possesses quality with his left.
In this situation he is playing outside of the block and coming from a wide position, but he still demonstrates his playmaking ability as he receives a pass, again using a positive first touch to get the ball out of his feet before clipping another fantastic pass in between both centre-backs for the centre-forward to receive in the penalty area.
Fornals is not just a highly skilled technician, but there is real creativity to his passing that gives him a level of unpredictability.
In this sequence we see him creating space by his own clever movement, which he then exploits himself. Using a high-to-low movement, he draws the defender out of the back-line following him into midfield.
As the ball arrives at Fornals’ feet, with his back to goal and seemingly with no great option, he plays a first time pass around the corner, once again for Chukwueze who is the beneficiary of Fornals’ intelligence and execution, as he races in behind the opponents’ defence.
Needle passing? Fornals has this in his locker too.
In this sequence, Fornals is faced with a deep defence and immediate pressure. Noticing the run in behind, he slips the ball deliberately through the defender’s legs and in behind to create an opportunity to score.
As we have seen, Fornals’ intelligence, awareness and technical execution give him an all-round passing game which will excite West Ham supporters. They may not appreciate the comparison with a rival player, but when you watch Fornals you see shades of Christian Eriksen.
This has been covered in part already, but it is worth covering in detail how Fornals’ movement is key to creating the time and space for himself to play in. Indeed, for a player of slight stature as he is, it is imperative he avoids direct 1v1 duels.
As Villarreal have a throw-in, Fornals uses a double movement to lose his marker and put him on the back foot. By giving one movement for the defender, another for himself, this creates the necessary separation to receive the ball.
Once again he has freed himself to receive and this is where his imagination comes alive, using the space he has created for himself to play a delightful flick into Chukwueze’s path (yet again) whilst eliminating two opponents.
Again Fornals uses a double movement to create separation from his marker, enabling him to create not only the numerical superiority of the 2v1 but a positional superiority. As he sets the ball back, he moves off his marker as well as scanning around to build a picture of what is happening in the penalty area.
His initial clever movement enables him to exploit the 2v1 where he receives the ball, all the while still scanning and plays an inch-perfect whipped delivery into the penalty area for a headed goal. The technical execution is outstanding, but it is his prior movement and constant scanning that enables him to pull off such a technique.
Not only does he have excellent individual movement, but Fornals also boasts a good understanding of collective movement which will stand him in good stead under Manuel Pellegrini.
Once more Fornals demonstrates his superb intelligence, initially using individual movement to drag a defender with him creating space behind in the penalty area.
As soon as the ball is thrown to his team-mate, Fornals spins immediately into the space he has just created in order to receive the ball as the third player inside the penalty area, as he has stolen a yard on his marker.
What next for Fornals?
This is an interesting move for Fornals and something of a coup for West Ham in successfully luring one of Spain’s top talents to the London Stadium. No doubt the pull of working with Manuel Pellegrini – who once managed Villarreal himself – was a key factor in his move to East London.
He will no doubt take a while to adapt to England and the Premier League, where he may face different marking styles including man-marking as opposed to more zonal blocks that he may be used to. As we have seen in this tactical analysis, however, his individual movement skills should be perfect for exploiting this marking style.
Pellegrini had used a variety of systems in his tenure so far, and Fornals’ versatility across the advanced midfield positions means he should slot well into the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 systems the Chilean coach has employed so far. What is an interesting prospect is Fornals playing the ‘interior’ role in Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 system he employed largely at Villareal. With the wide players pinched in, operating in the inside channels and in between the lines, he feels like the ideal fit to play this role and adapt to Pellegrini’s tactics.
Pellegrini is an attack-minded coach, and Fornals will no doubt have license to create in advanced positions for the Hammers. It feels like a nice fit for Fornals, where come May 2020 the transfer fee could well look like a bargain.
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