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Is Manu Morlanes ready for Villarreal’s first team?

A look at the Villarreal player’s 2020/2021 season with Almería.

UD Almeria v Deportivo Alaves - Copa del Rey Photo by Fermin Rodriguez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

As we continue to prepare for next season, one of the biggest overhanging questions concerns the depth and age of our midfield. Manu Morlanes, if he is ready, could be a huge part of the answer to those questions. We asked Charlie Tuley (analyticsLaLiga) if he could help us know just how good a season Morlanes had last campaign.

Manu Morlanes

Club: Villarreal CF (Previously on loan at UD Almería)

Nationality: Spanish

Position(s): Holding Midfield, Central Midfield

Date of Birth (Age): January 12, 1999 (22)

Dominant Foot: Right

Height: 1.78m, 5’10’’

Market Value (via Transfermarkt): €4.6M

Contract Expires: June 30, 2023

Hailing from Zaragoza, Spain, Manu Morlanes has been playing for Villarreal since he was 13. He played for both Villareal’s second and third teams during that period, and made his first team debut in the 2017/2018 season. However, he didn’t get much playing time in La Liga during the most recent seasons of his time at Villarreal, and he was loaned to Segunda Division side UD Almería for the 2020/2021 campaign. Morlanes made 36 appearances in La Liga Smartbank last season for the Andalusian side, and was a key player in their push for promotion to La Liga.

Morlanes is a central midfielder who is at his best in a possession-based side. With Almería last season he played in a double pivot midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, where he handled the distribution and ball-progression responsibilities for Almería’s midfield and defense. He fits the definition of a “regista” pretty perfectly- a deep-lying playmaker who sets the team’s tempo and is the side’s creative threat, but isn’t a good enough defender to play as a more defensive-minded midfielder (a few examples of registas are Andrea Pirlo, Toni Kroos, and Marco Veratti).

I decided to take a different route for this scouting report than I normally would’ve- I usually break a player’s game into different facets (passing, shooting, defending, etc.), and I’d rate the player based on their abilities in each sector. For my report on Manu Morlanes, I decided to organize my thoughts and conclusions in a different way: using the English Football Association’s “Four Corner Model.”

The Four Corner Model breaks down a player’s performances into four separate (but interconnected) areas: the player’s technical and tactical strengths, their technical areas where some improvement is necessary, how the player is physically, and any notes on their mentality whilst on the pitch. The main benefit to the Four Corner Model is that it’s best used for scouting players that there is little data or video footage of, so a scout has very limited time (usually one or two matches) to observe the player and draw conclusions from their performances. Since Morlanes played in the Segunda Division for the 2020/2021 season, there is limited data available on his season, so I tried to just include my observations from Morlanes’ performances (of course there will be little bits of data sprinkled in to emphasize points and such).

I only watched two of Morlanes’ matches before writing this report: the home and away games against Girona from the La Liga Smartbank playoffs. Despite Almería losing 3-0 on aggregate and not making the playoff finals, Morlanes played well in both games and played both of the matches in full.

Technical Strengths

  • Morlanes excels at making one touch passes, especially with his dominant right foot (though he can complete one touch passes with relative ease using each of his different playable body parts).
  • His vision and decision making are also at very high levels for a player of his age. He balances the desire to progress the ball with each touch with the knowledge of how to shift defenses by recycling possession to deeper-lying teammates.
  • Morlanes likes to play short free kicks from anywhere in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch. He heavily prioritizes retaining possession.
  • Morlanes combines very well with his teammates in midifield, they have a great collective understanding of where and how each teammate typically moves. At their best, they are able to play through opposition midfields with ease.
  • Almería’s midfielders often use the below combination of passes to catch their opponents out of position. One midfielder will put his back to the opposition goal and receive a pass from a deeper position, and with one touch, will lay the ball off to a second, slightly deeper midfielder, who will (also with one touch) launch a pass over the opposition defense to a forward who has made a run in behind. An example of this combination in action has been illustrated below, this time with Morlanes performing the “lay-off.”
An example of a combination in midfield that Almería’s players used. The deepest player would play a vertical pass to a more advanced player, who’d lay it off for a third man to try and find a forward with a long pass.
  • Morlanes is aggressive in defense, he has no trouble stepping out of formation to challenge forwards or midfielders that are attempting to take him on. For this reason he also intercepts opposition passes quite often.
  • Morlanes is adept at getting out of tight areas using his quick touches and great range of passing.
  • He often “lures” multiple opposition players to him by holding onto the ball, which creates space and overloads for his teammates. Morlanes will then play a cheeky flick or chipped pass to get out to find one of his teammates in space.

Technical Areas of Improvement

  • Morlanes often under-hits his long passes; they’re usually accurate, but they don’t have the power to find the target. Morlanes completed his long passes with 51.4% consistency last season, a very low rate for a player in his position.
  • While Morlanes is quick to step out and pressure opponents that are coming at him head-on, he often gives opponents that receive the ball with their back to Almería’s goal too much time and space, giving them time to turn and orient themselves.
  • Morlanes acts as a link from the defense to the more advanced midfielders and attack, and the only real creative threat he brings from deep are his long passes over the opposition back line (I don’t see this as too big of an issue, but some fans who want to see their deep-lying midfielders do more than just distribute the ball might see this as a problem with Morlanes).
  • Morlanes rarely enters the final third of the pitch. He registered 1 goal (from 1.04 xG) and 4 assists (from 3.58 xA) during the 2020/2021 season, a great tally from a player with little to no final third presence.

Physical Notes

  • Morlanes isn’t fast- both his acceleration and sprinting speed are both slow. However, he plays a style (and in a position) that doesn’t require a player to be fast. His vision and passing range are good enough that he can find players quickly in transition, making up for his lack of pace. The only time that his speed really lets him down are defensive transitions, when Almería loses the ball in a poor position and Morlanes has to track back and defend a counter attack.
  • Morlanes is a player who loves to be on the ball- therefore he’s always moving, trying to get into positions where he can receive the ball from his teammates.
  • His body position and posture are as they should be; Morlanes gets his head up to survey the field after receiving the ball, and his body is always open after getting the ball so he is in the most opportune position to make any pass necessary.
  • Morlanes’ small frame provides him with a low centre of gravity, allowing him to make tight turns when on the ball.
  • He isn’t very strong though, a consequence of his smaller body type. This means that he often gets out-physicaled by bigger attackers during 50-50 duels.
  • Morlanes has the stamina to play 90 minutes consistently, and he didn’t show too many signs of fatigue late on in the matches that I viewed.

Mental Notes

  • Morlanes likes to be the sole ball progressor from deep positions for Almería, he’s very comfortable when he’s on the ball in possession.
  • As alluded to earlier, he has very good chemistry with his Almería teammates, they combine and communicate very well on the pitch.
  • Morlanes occasionally likes to split his centre backs in possession, forming a three-at-the-back formation to disrupt the opposition side’s press (he also will drop off to play as the left sided centre back in a back three).
  • Morlanes often isn’t very aggressive when taking part in aerial duels in the middle and final thirds of the pitch (yet he wins his aerial duels in general at a 44.6% rate, which is quite high for a player of his size and style).
  • Morlanes has a good work ethic and works hard to win the ball back. He tracks back hard to get into his defensive position.
  • He’s very patient in possession, and will pass the ball with his centre backs for as long as is necessary. This goes in line with his (generally) good decision making, which prioritizes his team being on the ball, with him being the main manipulator in the side.

Verdict

I don’t envy Unai Emery and Villarreal in this situation. Manu Morlanes is an exceptional talent, someone who could exist in Villarreal’s side for many years to come, but is it better to give him a shot with the first team next season, or should he get another loan, this time with a team in La Liga? On one hand, Villarreal are playing in the Champions League next season, and they’ll need all of the depth that they can to maintain a high level of play in all competitions, and Morlanes would certainly help with this.

On the other hand, would Morlanes really get the playing time he needs to develop properly if he stays with Villarreal next season? While Unai Emery doesn’t play with a double pivot midfield (he did at Arsenal though), Morlanes would surely fit in both his 4-4-2 and his 4-3-3 formations. However, would he be able to gain a key role in Villarreal’s midfield when there are already players like Dani Parejo, Manu Trigueros, Vicente Iborra, and Francis Coquelin vying for those spots? (I didn’t include Etienne Capoue because I don’t think he’s competing with Morlanes due to their different playing styles.) I think that Morlanes would get quite a bit of playing time next season, but I doubt he’d be making 39 appearances in all competitions like he did last season with Almería.

Of course, it also depends on what Villarreal do in the transfer window this summer. If they happen to offload one of their older midfielders (my guess would be either Iborra or Coquelin), then I think it’s nailed-on that Morlanes will be with Villarreal next season.

Like I said, I don’t envy Unai Emery and his coaching staff in regards to this decision. If it were me, I’d give Morlanes a shot with the first team, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to him joining a bottom-half team in La Liga on loan for him to get consistent minutes next season. He’s certainly got the talent to run Villarreal’s midfield for the next 10 or so years, and the Villarreal staff need to make sure that they do everything possible to ensure his development continues on the best track possible.