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Pablo Fornals: Why West Ham’s summer transfer proves they’re scouting smarter and could crack the top six

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With the transfer window giving us plenty of exciting signings this summer Total Football Analysis are helping talkSPORT.com run the rule over the best of the bunch.

One of the themes of modern football in recent seasons has been certain teams, seemingly, become ‘smarter’ in the transfer market.

Increased focus on recruitment at the likes of Liverpool, in the wake of their Champions League triumph, has led to even greater scrutiny on how and why clubs make their decisions to acquire players.

It appears West Ham are changing their approach to transfers
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Recently this has even spread to an interest in the people who make up the departments which track and identify players to target.

While certain teams have recruited in a coherent manner, signing players who fix weaknesses in their squads and succession planning for when players inevitably move on, others still seemed to adopt something of a scattergun approach.

Of all the teams in this latter group, the term ‘scattergun’ probably could best be applied to West Ham United in the Premier League.

Under their current ownership there did not appear to be a clear strategy, even after the appointment of an established Premier League calibre coach in the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini.

That was, however, until the start of the current transfer window when the London club moved quickly to sign Spanish attacking midfielder Pablo Fornals.

The 23-year-old Spaniard was extremely highly regarded both by more traditional football minds and those who adopt a statistical approach to player identification.


Fornals impressed playing for Villarreal
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A product of the Villarreal youth academy, Formals made the move to Malaga while still playing for the youth team. After making the breakthrough and debuting in LaLiga we then saw the midfielder head back to his boyhood club, re-signing with Villarreal in 2017.

The 2018/19 season was a breakout campaign for Fornals as he played across the attacking midfield positions of the pitch.

Predominantly right-footed, Formals is comfortable playing on the right, as an orthodox winger, or on the left where he can cut inside and threaten the opposition goal.

More tellingly for West Ham fans, though, Fornals can also play in the traditional ‘10’ role, a position that West Ham may try to use more often as they move into the 2019/20 season.

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Formations West Ham used last season[/caption]

For the most part, last season we saw West Ham line up in either a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 system and in either of these Fornals would fit in well in either wide midfield role.

Towards the latter stages of the season, though, we saw a shift to a 4-2-3-1 and in this structure we could well see Fornals flourish in the English Premier League.

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Where Fornals took his touches for Villarreal last season[/caption]

As you can see from the heat map of Fornals last season, he played predominantly from the left-hand side but also spent time out on the right and in the centre. With the Brazilian Felipe Anderson firmly embedded on the left for West Ham we expect to see Fornals play predominantly from the right or the centre.

In this tactical analysis, we will examine Fornals in more detail in order to show West Ham fans what they can expect going into the new season.

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Intelligent Passing

Given that Fornals is a Spanish attacking midfielder you would be forgiven for expecting a diminutive figure who has the capacity for breaking through the lines of the opposition defence with his passing.

Well, the latter is certainly true but Fornals stands at just under 6ft tall and certainly has the physicality he will need to stand up to defenders in the Premier League.

In terms of his passing, Fornals is creative in using passing lanes and angles to release teammates through beyond the defensive line of the opposition. Although, as discussed above, Formals is predominantly right-footed it is not unusual to see him receive and play from his left side.

With the Spaniard comfortable on each foot it means he is incredibly press resistant, so when in possession he is not dispossessed by the opposition easily, this also means though that when in the final third Fornals is able to take advantage of passing angles other players, who are one-footed, may not be able to.

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Without breaking stride he reverses the through pass slightly and plays through the gap between the left-back and left-sided central defender. Whilst moving across the pitch in this position the Spaniard had seemed intent on playing out to the wide area. The through pass catches the opposition off guard and off-balance because he had not even looked at the runner of the space.

This type of spatial and tactical awareness makes if very difficult for opposing defences to account for Fornals.

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This time he is in a central position and is faced by one defensive player who has a teammate covering him at an angle. This is traditionally a strong defensive structure.

As he collects possession, Fornals can see a teammate making eye contact on the edge of the box. This is a cue between the two of them that a run is going to be made.

In order to play the ball through, though, a passing lane has to be created. To do this this we see Fornals initially shift quickly to his right before cutting back and moving left. As he does this he unbalances the first defender. This shifting of balance gives him the space to play through a line to the left of the first defender and the right of the second defender. A goalscoring opportunity is then created.

Fornals could prove to be one of the signings of the summer
@WestHamUtd on Twitter

1vs1 Ability

As well as being a dangerous passer of the ball in advanced areas of the pitch, Fornals is also capable of beating a player through dribbling in 1v1 situations. This is of particular significance if Fornals is played centrally going into next season.

From this position, being able to beat a man and move past them automatically throws the defensive organisation of the opposition into chaos.

This movement forces another opposition player to move towards the ball to engage the ball carrier, this, in turn, creates space that can be exploited further up the field.

Last season, in 4,703 minutes we saw Fornals attempt a total of 176 dribbles with a success rate of 60.8 per cent. This shows just how effective the Spaniard was when driving at opposition players and taking them on.

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In the space of a few seconds, he has driven past three close defensive players and is able to burst into the opposition half.

Thanks to this, Villarreal immediately find themselves in a favourable position as they attack.

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A similar situation here but this time in a more advanced area of the pitch.

We see Fornals in possession of the ball on the left and, although he has a player positioned outside, his first thought is still to drive forward.

In order to do so, we see him move past the first defender before finding two covering players closing him down.

Fornals, though, has the confidence and quality to take on both the men, beating them and moving his team into a hugely advantageous position.

Intelligent defending

As well as being extremely effective in the attacking phase we also see Fornals contribute well in the defensive one.

He presses well and also tracks back, covering for his teammates as they look to engage the ball.

In short, with Fornals you get creative passing in the final third combined with a prodigious work rate and defensive understanding.

He also reads the game well and gains a lot of interceptions as he cuts out passing lanes at the last minute.

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As the Portuguese side were looking to build up from the back and advance the ball forward, the central defender was being put under pressure.

This act of applying pressure was a sign for Fornals to move higher in order to deny the man on the ball the opportunity to escape pressure with a simple pass out to the wide area.

As the defensive player looks to play the pass we see Fornals jump the ball in order to win it back and start an attack for his team.

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We see a similar situation here as the opposition are looking to progress the ball forward.

As the initial pass is made successfully into the opposing player in a central position we see Fornals read the game in order to win the ball back cleanly.

The first pass finds a player facing his own goal. As the opponent receives the ball there is a Villarreal player looking to apply pressure and the receiving player looks to play first time out to the wide area. This pass is read by Fornals as the Spaniard moves to cut out the ball successfully.

Conclusion

There is little to not be positive about regarding the decision from West Ham to sign Pablo Fornals.

The Spaniard offers the creativity and work rate of two different players and his versatility makes him a very useful player to have in the squad.

He can fill three distinct roles within the attacking third and in each one he offers something slightly different.

So, West Ham are recruiting in an intelligent manner. Does this mean that they will be able to threaten the top six going into the 2019/20 season? That remains to be seen but finding out will be interesting.

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July’s Total Football Analysis magazine
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