He’s been one of the best players in La Liga this season, Gerard Moreno. He’s currently tied for second place in La Liga’s top goalscorer’s table with Karim Benzema on 21 goals, already beating his tally of 18 from last season. With four more goals this season, he’ll become Villarreal’s all-time leading goalscorer (he currently has 79), despite only having played three seasons at the club. He also only needs one more La Liga goal to become Villarreal’s all-time top scorer in La Liga, a record he’ll be expected to break within the next match or two.
A number of factors have contributed to Moreno’s rise this season, with the biggest being the addition of Unai Emery as manager last summer. The former Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain, and Arsenal manager has improved this Villarreal side, and his most notable accomplishment thus far has been leading his side to the Europa League Final and a chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League with a win.
Emery has implemented a much more direct system into Villarreal’s play, utilizing both the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations. In these systems, the centre backs and the central midfielders tend to handle the majority of the team’s ball progression, while the fullbacks tend to press high up the field and join the attacks, pushing the wingers/wide midfielders inside to crowd the space outside of the penalty area.
The biggest asset in this direct system has been Dani Parejo, the free transfer from Valencia last summer. The 32 year old Spain international has proven to be one of the best signings of last summer’s transfer window, he’s made quite an impact on the Villarreal squad. His immense ball progression and stability in possession allow Emery to play the way he likes, using his central midfielders to dictate possession and handle the majority of the ball progression.
Another impact of Dani Parejo’s presence in Villarreal’s lineup has been the increased amount of freedom offered to Manu Trigueros. Trigueros, who most often partners Parejo in midfield (or the two are joined by a holding midfielder in a three-man-midfield formation), is the midfielder responsible for most of the creative work done in the final third. Since he and Parejo can share the weight of progressing the ball for Villarreal (and opposition players have to worry about two dangerous midfielders rather than one), he has more freedom to create chances high up the pitch. The combination of the increase in the directness of Villarreal’s attack and the enhanced freedom provided to Trigueros have both heavily contributed to Gerard Moreno’s excellent 2020/2021 La Liga campaign.
As stated earlier, Villarreal have mainly used two different formations this season: the 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3. In the 4-4-2 formation Gerard Moreno operates as one of the two strikers (usually alongside Paco Alcacer), acting as a ‘false 9’ who drops off to link the midfielders to other players in the final third, while Alcacer fills the role of ‘target man.’ In the 4-3-3 Moreno typically plays on the right wing, moving inside to play an interior role when Villarreal is on the ball in the final third.
Moreno seems to be more productive when playing on the wing, proven by his goal creation and scoring records there. In the 10 matches that he’s played on the wing (from his 27 total La Liga appearances), he’s scored 7 non-penalty goals and assisted 1. From the striker position he’s scored 4 non-penalty goals this season and assisted 4 in 17 appearances. While he has assisted his teammates more when playing up front, he’s scored more (in less games) while playing out wide.
As can be seen from the above heatmaps, Moreno’s positioning has changed very little from last season, where he also split time playing centrally and on the right. The only noticeable difference is that Moreno has spent a bit more time in his opponents’ penalty area this season and in his own defensive half.
The increase in time spent in the middle third of the pitch is most likely due to Unai Emery’s pressing scheme. We’ve seen Moreno’s pressures/90 in the final third increase this season (from 3.87 to 4.72), since Emery likes his team to press their opponents high up the pitch to try and recover the ball in dangerous areas. However, if their opponents get the ball to the middle third of the pitch, Villarreal will ease their press a bit and instead focus on guarding passing lanes, allowing their opponents to play the ball amongst their defenders. This is most likely why Moreno has spent more time in his own half this season (and it also explains why Moreno has doubled his interceptions/90 tally this season).
Unai Emery seems to have gotten the best out of Gerard Moreno this season in almost every way. He’s attempting more passes each match (37.2, up from 33.7 last season), and while he completes his passes at a slightly lower rate, it’s excusable due to the increase in high-risk passes. This season 27.7% of Moreno’s passes this season have moved the ball forward, up from 20% last season (via Wyscout.com). He’s also seen a major increase in his progressive passes, which have increased from 2.92 per match to 3.83 (for reference, passes are considered ‘progressive’ if they travel forward more than 10 yards).
Another indication of Emery’s style, Moreno has played almost a whole line-breaking through ball more than he did last season (from 1.6 to 2.58, via Wyscout.com). Along with this, we’ve seen his passes into the final third/90 and passes into the penalty area/90 also increase substantially, proving that Moreno is responsible for much more than just typical striker duties under Emery.
Another interesting bit to look at is how Moreno’s pass reception numbers have changed since Emery arrived. On average, Moreno has received 4 more passes each match than he did last season, up to 58 from 54. He’s gotten on the ball quite a bit more this season, proof of his importance to this Villarreal side. This increase in passes received has to be chalked up to the Dani Parejo-Manu Trigueros midfield, as the two excel at getting the ball to their forwards’ feet. It’s also interesting to note that the amount of progressive passes Moreno has received each match has fallen this season (from 11.5 to 8.51), proving that he’s receiving the ball in deeper areas before progressing it himself.
Moreno’s dribbling has also been enhanced under Emery. He’s moving the ball himself more, attempting 39.4 carries each match (which has increased from the 34.1 carries he averaged last season). Interestingly enough, his progressive carrying numbers haven’t changed from last season, which can be explained by Moreno carrying the ball horizontally more, as he cuts in from the right wing to move the ball to more dangerous areas in the final third.
All that really needs to be said here is that Gerard Moreno has managed to keep pace with two of the best strikers of the past decade, Luis Saurez and Karim Benzema. Moreno is currently tied with Benzema for second place in the Pichichi Trophy standings with 21 goals (it’s also worth noting that Moreno has played about two less matches than Benzema this season). The Spaniard has scored 11 non-penalty goals this season from 10.9 expected goals- he’s scored as many goals as he statistically should have.
He’s also taking more shots each match than he did last season, but his overall chances seem to be worse. While the vast majority of his shots have come in the penalty area this season (77.5%), his average shot distance has risen by 2 yards since last season (from 13.9 to 15.9). As a result of this, he’s also averaging a lower expected goals per shot value than he registered last season. It’s incredible that his shot selection has been worse than last season and he’s still having an incredible year in front of goal.
Overall, however, his xG per match has risen due to his increased number of shots/90. As can be seen in the visualization below, Moreno is having his best season ever for Villarreal in terms of chances created (even with his minor injury struggles at the beginning of the season).
The Penalty Factor
While I don’t want to spend too much time on this, it does have to be mentioned. Gerard Moreno has taken 10 penalties this season in La Liga, and they’ve accounted for almost half of his goals. However, taking penalties requires quite a bit of skill, skill that Moreno possesses in leaps and bounds. He’s made every single penalty he’s taken this season, and the majority of them gave the goalkeeper very little chance of saving them. The graphic below details all of the positions of Moreno’s penalties this season, proving how effective of a spot-kick taker he really is.
It’s inarguable that Gerard Moreno has been one of the best players in La Liga this season, and his contributions to Villarreal have to be recognized. Moreno is so much more than just a goalscorer, he’s a creator and a leader on the pitch as well. It doesn’t matter if Villarreal win the Europa League or not, Moreno’s season has to go down in history as one of the best ever for the Yellow Submarine.