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Pablo Fornals – David Moyes’s Trump card

When Pablo Fornals signed for West Ham, no one bothered or even cared because he was just another player from La Liga who was signed for West Ham with a hope to bolster their attack. It didn’t help him much in his first season where he was subbed 17 times, the most of any West Ham player, and made a further 12 appearances from the bench. It was impossible for the then Premier League rookie to find his flow – and it showed in his attacking output.
It was practically impossible for anyone to know what this guy could be in a year’s time. He had 2 goals and 5 assists in 2019/2020 season while couple of years back he led La Liga in assists (12), ranked fourth in division for expected assists (12 xA), and placed eighth for goal-creating actions (18) and progressive passes (45). In other words, the boy from Castellon had emerged as a ball-playing tour deforce – a midfielder already capable of being his team’s creative focal point. Year 2020/21 was a turnaround year for Fornals and numbers wont do justice for his performance as
he racked up 5 goals and 4 assists but his overall impact in West Ham’s process of qualification for Europa League cant be undermined.

Fornals has always been deployed as a Left winger or left sided midfielder who can play centrally and he is often one of those players who is looking to make a late movement from one channel to another. When compared to AM’s and wingers from Europe’s top 5 leagues, the hammers midfielder ranks in top 10 for defensive actions. He makes an average of 20.5 pressures per 90 and is in the 91st percentile for interceptions and blocks for players of his position.

This is a different Pablo Fornals when compared to the one in Spain, where he was the attacking focal for Malaga and Villareal. But under Moyes, instead of making those flashy runs in final third, he is given the job of working hard and tracking back and making sure that there is enough support for fullbacks while overlapping or for the midfielders to find an extra man when under pressure.

Fornal’s position during Possession
Pablo Fornals is a delight to watch when he has the ball. Just like every Spaniard, when he gets the ball there is magic waiting to happen and he often delivers it. As a dribbler, he has completed 53.8% of his 1.75 dribbles per 90 this season – an impressive percentage. Whilst with his passing, he has been averaging 11.03 forward passes per 90, completing 73.2% of these.

Half a decent winger can attack when there is space or half a chance but what makes Fornals special is that he is excellent when there is pressure or when he is surrounded by 3-4 men. Fornals uses the technique of misdirection with a quick change of pace to create enough space to get away from the defender in a flash.

Fornals exhibits a zeal for having the ball with a defender on his back. In the next image, he uses a similar misdirection, this time feigning a pass out wide, before cutting the ball between the two defenders, beating them with the dribble and directing a cross into the box. It is this type of ingenuity in possession that make Fornals such a difficult and unpredictable player for defenders to face

Performance in Final third
Fornals started the season in red-hot form, scoring two and notching one assist in his first three games. He has since gone dry but has nevertheless continued to influence West Ham’s attacks in an important way.

Just as noted before, Fornals knows where his next pass is going before receiving the ball, and once again his awareness of defenders looking to press him and the space around him can lead to him creating in the final third. In attacking situations where he has a limited time to play a forward pass, Fornals will have scanned well before receiving the ball and will anticipate the player behind him or around him hitting the open space. He did this for an assist against Newcastle. Receiving the flat pass he took a touch, drawing the highlighted defender towards him. On his second touch, he played in Cresswell on his outside, with the left-back slotting home in space.

Fornals was able to score against Crystal Palace, playing a cute one-two with Antonio inside the area, finding a new space inside the box to receive the pass back and score from close range, despite having to navigate a crowded Palace box.

Fornals makes his decisions in possession quickly as we know, and this is no different with his crossing. He will scan before receiving and can quickly angle a cross/through pass with his second touch, showing outstanding vision to sometimes pick out a less obvious but nevertheless dangerous attacking option.

Fornals is an offensive chameleon for West Ham. Although he hasn’t grown into the kind of playmaker he might have expected, he has surpassed his dreams in other ways. He isn’t a luxury player how Payet was, who at West ham impressed everyone with his tricks, flicks and free kicks. He will always be regarded as an utility player and above all a team player. He isn’t special, nor is he a unicorn who isn’t impossible to replicate.

But, remember Fornals is a chameleon whose biggest strength is adaptation and ready to run the length of the pitch for his team and that’s exactly why he is such an important player for David Moyes’s West Ham.

You can berate him or underrate him at your own Peril.

-Prashanth Nair

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