Arsenal are one of a number of clubs reported to be keeping close tabs on the progress of Villarreal’s talented midfielder Pablo Fornals, who continues to impress in La Liga.
Before we get to the statistics, it is worth noting that Fornals is simply a very fun player to watch, capable of things like this:
After a fine debut full season in the top flight with Malaga (0.27 goal contribution per 90 minutes), followed by an excellent campaign at Villarreal last time out (0.43 goal contribution per 90 off of 0.35 xG + xGA per 90), this season, the 22-year-old has continued to stand out even as part of a side situated in the lower reaches of the table. While his range of attributes haven’t quite yet coalesced into a consistently decisive player, the raw materials are certainly there.
Fornals is comfortable using either foot, strikes the ball well, and has a touch of ingenuity to his game that allows him to break down sturdy defences with an unexpected pass or effort on goal. Impressive technical attributes are allied to an ability to maintain a high rhythm. “If in the first minute, I get into a race with the central defender or defensive midfielder, I won’t win it, but in the 90th, it’s more likely I will,” he said in a recent interview. “At that stage, I know that I am fresher than other teammates and opponents.”
His excellent fitness levels are borne out by the fact that he has only missed out on six match-day squads over the course of the last two seasons and this to date, and taken part in 81 of the 90 league matches his teams have been involved in during that time.
Last season, Fornals impressed at the tip of a midfield diamond, but this season, he has largely been employed in the wide positions of a flatter 4-4-2. He has been dribbling more often to help carry the ball forward (covering for the summer departure of Samuel Castillejo) and has been more forceful with his passing, playing the ball forward more and backwards less. He leads the team in deep progressions (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third).
He is also still producing in attack. There has been a slight skew from assists towards shots, but the end result is the same 0.35 xG + xGA per 90 that he was providing last season. He leads the team in passes into the area, and still takes the same amount of touches there himself.
The positional change has required more defensive work from him. Villarreal remain a fairly average side in La Liga in terms of the intensity with which they press out of possession, but Fornals’ individual numbers have increased. He is making roughly the same number of possession-adjusted tackles and interceptions (2.12 per 90), but is pressuring the ball around eight times more per match and more often regaining possession.
In short, Fornals is making a bigger defensive contribution than last season, utilising a different set of skills to help his team progress the ball into the final third and once there, providing the same solid offensive output as in the previous campaign.
At 22, Fornals has established himself in La Liga and already made his debut for the Spain national team, but what makes him a really attractive proposition is that it still feels as if there is more to come. The way he has adapted to his new role this season suggests that with proper guidance, he could potentially develop into an elite player in any number of midfield positions. Especially so as he remains self-critical. He accepts that his constant desire to get involved sometimes results in him clogging up passing lanes for teammates, and has admitted that his flummoxing of Athletic Club’s Íñigo Martínez, linked at the start of this piece, had no real value given that the resulting cross was easily cleared.
Add that to an accessible buyout clause of €30 million and it is no wonder than interest in him is growing. Reports indicate that he has already rejected approaches from Fulham and West Ham, while Barcelona and Sevilla are also thought to be monitoring his situation. He is keen to stay at Villarreal until the end of the season in order to help them from their current position just above the relegation zone, and the feeling is that he is more minded to remain in Spain than make a move abroad at this stage of his career. Arsenal nevertheless may be keen to make a push for his signature.
The Gunners have been more proactive in their defensive work under Unai Emery, and Fornals fits the profile of a player who would be comfortable operating in such a setup. He has the attributes to perhaps become a less injury prone version of his compatriot, current teammate and ex-Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, capable of operating deeper or further forward as needed. Looking across North London, it also doesn’t take too much of a squint to see similarities to Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen.
It is clear that Fornals has a valuable set of technical and physical attributes. Next summer’s move will be key in dictating just how far they can take him.
Header Image courtesy of the Press Association