West Ham United have been in a rich vein of form this season, naturally garnering plenty of plaudits, but praise is rarely reserved for Pablo Fornals, the understated Raumdeuter in David Moyes’ armoury.
The Spaniard has fallen somewhat under the radar this season as the Hammers have claimed results against Man City, Tottenham, Wolves and Leicester, while teammates have stolen the headlines and generated the monikers: Michail Antonio stars as the ‘new Marko Arnautovic’ and Tomas Soucek as Moyes’ ‘new Marouane Fellaini’.
The comparisons have been rightly distributed. Antonio has been West Ham’s trusty source of goals, while Soucek has been the midfield catalyst, bringing a new dimension to the middle of the park with his blend of athleticism and enterprise.
Even Declan Rice, the poster boy of this current West Ham crop, and Jarrod Bowen are ahead of Fornals in the queue for recognition. Aaron Cresswell has a strong claim too, with the most assists and chances created at the club this season, while Angelo Ogbonna has been the chief policeman in the backline.
So, where does this leave Fornals? He doesn’t rank particularly high in the stats charts. For chances created he is below the aforementioned Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks (who has played just three times this season), while Rice, Arthur Masuaku and Michail Antonio have completed more take-ons.
2019-20: Pablo Fornals scores against Liverpool at Anfield
2020-21: Pablo Fornals scores against Liverpool at Anfield
Wheeling away at Anfield once again. pic.twitter.com/D17E3uQB20
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 31, 2020
For touches in the opposition box he is outranked by Soucek, Antonio, and wing-partner Bowen by nearly double, while he is yet to register a single successful cross. It does beg the question: what does Fornals actually bring to the table?
Well, in a similar role (but by no means on a similar level) to Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich, Fornals’ best work is often done when out of possession, and therefore naturally under-appreciated. His heatmap against Liverpool below should help highlight his positional importance to West Ham’s system.
Despite starting out on the left flank, Fornals will often drift inside and create space for Cresswell and/or Masuaku to overlap on the left. He will not just hug the touchline like a traditional winger, but exploit the half space and liberate the byline for the full-backs to attack.
Conversely, Bowen on the opposite wing functions more as an out-and-out winger. His heatmap placed in conjunction with Fornals’ shows one player who attacks the flank in a more traditional (and predictable) sense, and another who ghosts infield and lets his work off the ball do the talking.
The Spaniard has an instinctive appreciation of space and a positional intelligence that welds perfectly with the explosive energy of Bowen. Where the English winger brings directness and speed to the equation, Fornals balances with deceptive movement and tidy exchanges.
In truth, Fornals should be West Ham’s top scorer this season. Fans lament his wastefulness in front of goal. Against Newcastle he hit the bar. Against Wolves he missed a near-open goal and hit the post. Against Tottenham it was a similar story as his glancing header fizzed over the bar.
And even over the weekend against Liverpool he had more than one opportunity to add to his tally. But, it is easy to criticise the missed chance and not praise the awareness to occupy goalscoring positions. The finishing can improve on the training ground, but the spacial awareness is an innate trait.
That said, what Fornals has produced on the back pages has been impressive. His instinctive thinking to tee up Bowen for the opener against Wolves was a set-piece masterclass; his control and finish against Leicester was sensational; and his second goal in as many games at Anfield was perfectly placed.
Indeed Fornals may not fall into that maverick category so cherished by West Ham fans, and he may not be the headline act, but he is the unsung hero of this side, a positional virtuoso and a hard worker. Moyes’ reliable Raumdeuter.