With his baby face and boyish charm, you would be forgiven for still thinking of Alberto Moreno as Liverpool’s promising, exciting young prospect from Sevilla. In reality, he is twenty-five: gone are the days when he could be legitimately thought of in those terms. There is no exact science to when a player enters their prime, of course, but give or take a couple of years Moreno should be approaching his peak. It is therefore a pivotal time for him, both in terms of his place in the Liverpool squad and his career as a whole – he has the raw attributes to be one of the best, but the clock is ticking in his quest to achieve that goal.
The Spanish left-back was born and bred in Seville – he lived there throughout his childhood, much of which was spent in Sevilla’s academy. He was picked up following victory with Spain in the Danone Nations Cup, an international tournament for children aged ten to twelve. It is unsurprising that the La Liga side looked to nurture the talent in Moreno: he is blessed with blistering pace and surprising strength, meaning he was always going to be a good bet to make it as a full-back. Sure enough, he graduated to Sevilla Atletico – the reserve side – while still a teenager. It did not prove too big a step up for the local boy: he netted an impressive four times from thirty games in his debut season, a highly respectable return that firmly established him as a marauding kind of defender. Indeed, coach Ramon Tejada sometimes utilised Moreno as an attacker to harness and hone his clear prowess going forward. He also looked generally good defensively, although there were a few question marks surrounding his disciplinary record.
Nonetheless, his form was enough to earn him an opportunity with the first team before too long. Still only 19, he made his debut in 2012, coming on as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao. He made fifteen further appearances in the 2012/13 season, twelve of which were starts – given that the fire sale at Sevilla was not until the following summer, it was highly impressive that Moreno was able to secure a spot in the senior side so rapidly. He was no doubt helped by Antonio Luna’s loan move away in the second half of the campaign, but this should not detract from the quality of his performances: he impressed enough to make Spain’s squad for the u21 European Championships.
It was here that he truly exploded into the continent’s footballing consciousness. He played all but one game in Israel as Spain defended their title, only missing a meaningless match against The Netherlands after qualification from the group had already been secured. His performances earned him a place in the Team of the Tournament: he was a genuine stand-out player, which is no mean feat considering he was playing alongside a host of future stars such as Alvaro Morata, David De Gea, Dani Carvajal, Koke, Thiago and Isco. The score-line of 4-2 in the final against Italy perhaps hinted at some weaknesses in his defensive game, but he did contribute to a respectable three clean sheets; one of these came against a strong Germany side, featuring Moreno’s future teammate Emre Can. Such was the level of his performances, he was named in the provisional 30-man squad for the 2014 World Cup – Carvajal and Koke were the only other two outfielders from the u21s to make it to this list.
Despite making his first senior international appearance in the final qualifier against Georgia, Moreno did not make it to the final 23-man squad for the tournament in Brazil. This, however, was not a comment on his club progression but on the level of competition for places in the Spain squad. The 2013/14 season was a breakthrough one at Sevilla: Moreno was the undisputed first-choice at left-back, and continued to put in eye-catching performances on the way to a Europa League triumph.
It was on the back of this that Moreno, then 22, got his move to Anfield. Liverpool had just come agonisingly close to glory of their own, falling excruciatingly short of their first Premier League title. A clear weakness in the title push was left-back, a slot which had been filled by Aly Cissokho: the Moreno transfer was therefore met with excitement and enthusiasm amongst fans. His start did nothing to dampen these expectations; his debut came in a 3-1 loss to Manchester City, but he followed this up with an exceptional individual effort during a 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham. It was the kind of run that evidenced his occasional outings as an attacker at youth level – following a strong challenge to dispossess Andros Townsend he powered up the pitch, leaving the winger for dead and finishing unerringly into the corner before Kaboul could get across to cover.
As was almost inevitable for a young player upon whom the fans had placed so much expectation, things did not continue in such excellent fashion. The obvious attacking talent remained clear for all to see, but the old defensive frailties increasingly began to frustrate the Liverpool faithful. In particular, his positioning came under a fair amount of scrutiny. He was far from the only one leaving the fans feeling flat, however: the whole team underperformed, only managing a sixth-place finish.
Despite the setback, Moreno entered the 2015/16 season as the clear first choice. This in itself was an achievement of sorts for a young man still learning his trade – nonetheless, the campaign ended in the nadir of the Spaniard’s Liverpool career. Things on the domestic front were worse than ever: Liverpool limped to a catastrophic eigth-placed finish. They had the chance for redemption, however, in the form of the Europa League final. It offered the tantalising prospect of a return to the Champions League, and a first trophy for new boss Jurgen Klopp. Who were the only team standing in their way? Sevilla. This was the kind of irresistible personal narrative that football so often seems to create, and on this occasion the story did not end well for Moreno. All was going to plan in the first half, with a lovely strike from Daniel Sturridge giving Liverpool the lead, but the second half saw the English outfit collapse to a 3-1 defeat. Moreno played a significant part in this capitulation. His head did not seem in the right place against his former club, and he ended the season out of favour with both fans and management.
This was made clear by Klopp’s choice to convert James Milner into a left-back ahead of the 16/17 campaign. At a time when he would have been hoping to flourish, Moreno was relegated firmly to second-choice. This did shore things up at the back to some extent, and Liverpool belatedly got their Champions League spot courtesy of a top four finish. Following this, the club invested in bringing Andy Robertson in from Hull – this appeared to spell the end for Moreno.
Not so. The scrappy Spaniard refused to accept that his Liverpool career was over, and Klopp was more than happy to keep him on the books over the summer. Robertson’s arrival has actually worked in favour of Moreno: having two designated left-backs at the club has allowed Klopp to take Milner effectively out of contention in that position, leaving Moreno and Robertson to compete for the spot. It seems as though both will be given opportunities over the course of a long season fighting on multiple fronts: Moreno has established himself as the first-choice for the time-being.
Happy ending? That still remains to be seen. Moreno has won over the boss again, and also has a fair portion of the fans backing him once more. He appears to have matured; he reflected candidly upon the infamous Sevilla game in a recent interview, noting that everyone has bad games and must look to grow from them. This maturity is at least partly reflected in his play – the marauding runs that endeared him to the fans in the first place remain, but the defending is perhaps a little less kamikaze than it once was. Nonetheless, many remain unconvinced: although a lot of the problems down the left side can be attributed to Lovren, it is hard to deny that Moreno continues to play a part in the defensive frailties of the team.
At twenty-five, it seems naïve to just confidently state that defensive nous will come with experience. He has made some improvements in that area, but there comes a point where it needs to be accepted that Moreno simply isn’t a defensive full-back. Moreno and his club must embrace the fact that he occasionally leaves something to be desired on the defensive front, acknowledging that the trade-off is what makes him arguably the best attacking left-back in the league. His pace is simply staggering – there are very few who could consistently provide overlapping runs for Mane as he does. He can finish, too: the Spurs game was where he first showed it in Liverpool colours, but his goal record has been good for a defender throughout his career. Questions can sometimes be raised about his decision-making in the final third, but when he does opt to pick a pass or cross it generally finds its mark. The trouble is that this all gets overlooked when his prowess at that end of the pitch is the very thing that sometimes leaves a Moreno-sized hole at the back, much to the frustration of the fans.
What, then, is to be done? One of two things needs to happen in order to earn Moreno the plaudits he is more than capable of receiving. The first (and less radical) option is for Liverpool to buy a highly capable left-sided centre-back: this is something the fans are crying out for in any case, and the ongoing interest in Virgil Van Dijk suggests it could be on the cards in the near future. Such a player would provide the cover to allow Moreno to bomb forward with total freedom, safe in the knowledge that he can leave a gap from time to time without being punished for it. This would allow him to unleash his full range of attacking talents, and would see him earn the recognition he deserves as an elite player going forwards. The second option is one that sadly could not be pursued at Liverpool: conversion into a winger. The presence of Mane, Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain makes the idea a non-starter at his current club, but elsewhere he could thrive if deployed further up the pitch. The comparisons to Bale, who also left much to be desired defensively when used as a full-back, are irresistible – that is not to say that Moreno could find himself at Real Madrid within the next couple of years, but he has all the underlying attributes for a similar sort of transformation.
As a Liverpool fan, I hope the first route is the one taken. The club have a very good player on their hands in Alberto Moreno, and if he keeps working hard and is provided with a competent central defender on his side he is capable of excelling in the Premier League. He could yet become the player we all thought he might end up being when that ball hit the back of the Spurs net.
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