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The underrated Gerard Moreno

Villarreal’s Zarra winner is so much more than just a goalscorer

Atletico de Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Gerard Moreno got a lot of attention last year when he won the Zarra trophy, given to the Spaniard with the most goals in La Liga. This is of course very justified, Gerard had 17 open play goals last year, only three less than Lionel Messi and more than Karim Benzema, the only two men with more goals than him last season.

As those of us who watch Villarreal week to week know, however, he’s so much more than just a goalscorer. Take the Atletico match, for example. Shifting over to the right wing to accommodate both a three man midfield and also allow Paco Alcacer to start up top, Gerard had 69 touches of the ball. The only people with more touches were the two fullbacks and Dani Parejo. He attempted the fifth most ball pressures on the team, won three tackles and an interception, and blocked a shot. He also carried the ball for 109 yards of progressive distance and completed 42 passes for 188 yards more.

All this activity made him a focal point of Atletico’s defense on that side. This allowed Mario to work his way forward and have another excellent game. This is the sort of support Gaspar doesn’t have when Chukwueze is on the pitch, for example, and it makes it much easier for the fullback to be pinned into his own half.

Here is a map of all his on field actions at the right wing position last season:

Look at how many actions are taking place in the defensive half. If you were to compare this to a similar map for Samu, you would notice two things. First, that Samu doesn’t have the same volume of activities tracking back as Gerard has, and second, what activities he does have in the defensive end are more focused on dribbling than passing, ie he’s trying to go it alone more than he is contributing to link up passing.

Bring Gerard centrally, and he’s arguably even more impressive. Look at the sheer range of area he covers as a center forward:

A lot of times, when a striker doesn’t get his goals, his defenders will start talking a lot more about what he does away from the ball. I think Rodrigo at Leeds is a great example of this. He can’t shoot worth anything so people want to talk about the other things he does to justify his being on the field for club and country. With Gerard, you end up having to draw attention to everything else he does for the exact opposite reason. The goals are there, people see them, so they associate his gameplay with those goals when really it is the goals and then so much more besides.

A question that I don’t think gets enough attention is which of these two positions is Gerard actually best at? He’s clearly excellent at both and that’s a testament to how well rounded he is as a footballer, but I want to take a look at how he compares to other general league standards at both positions.

Smarterscout, who gives us the two activity maps we see above, also grades players on a wide variety of areas in relation to each other at a unique benchmark that can be set for any league. My benchmark, naturally is set for Spain’s Primera Division. Smarterscout also divides his minutes into those played at each position, so that you can compare them. What’s interesting to me is that when you see Gerard as a CF, he’s stylistically well rounded, doing a little bit of everything but nothing other than passing towards goal at a rate above the 60th percentile. When you start judging his output qualitatively, he’s in the 60th percentile in ball retention and 70th in amount of defending he does. but his overall attacking output is relatively low, just in the 43rd percentile.

At the right wing, his relative ball retention drops, but his attacking output goes through the roof, up to the 77th percentile. Stylistically he’s more active in the air than most wingers, his passing towards goal, receiving in the box, and tendency to recovering the ball all shoot up to really high levels as well. He’s great at ground duels in possession and non-headed shots from open play at either position.

I think what the numbers boil down to is this: regardless of where you put Gerard, he plays fundamentally the same way. His attitude is about serving the team even if that means him dropping away from goal or putting in a shift defensively. He’s an excellent finisher, but he can do so much more than that. When you put him at CF, especially when he’s up top by himself, you make it harder for him to do the full range of things that he is good at. I think there’s a common perception that when you put Gerard on the right you pull him away from goal and make him less effective, but I think actually the opposite is true. He certainly scores more goals as a CF, most players do, but his involvements in moves that end in a goal or shot both go up when he’s playing on the right, which suggests to me that the offense as a whole performs better when he’s in a position to do more things. With an elite finisher like Paco Alcacer to play up top as a single striker now, I think that’s more true than ever.

Gerard is an absolute joy to watch, and he’s just as much fun to watch away from the ball or getting himself into a buildup move as he is when he’s running towards goal ready to shoot. He’s one of the very best players in La Liga and no attacker we have is more important to Villarreal having a successful season.