HARK back to May after Liverpool had secured their top four position on the final day of the season and you would’ve had some very long odds on Alberto Moreno still being at the club come the start of the 2017-18 season.
Even more improbable would’ve been the suggestion that Moreno would begin the new season as Jürgen Klopp’s first-choice left back after the Spaniard started only two Premier League games in the whole of 2016-17 and just eight across all competitions.
Such was the apparent lack of trust in Moreno, James Milner was converted into a left back, a role in which he largely impressed before running out of steam towards the end of the season. Moreno was hardly ever used even as an option off the bench and it seemed as though he would be shipped on to pastures new in the summer.
The arrival of Andy Robertson from Hull City seemed to further signal the end of Moreno’s Liverpool career with little evidence to suggest a dramatic change in fortunes was just around the corner. It came as a surprise at the time when a £11 million bid from Napoli was rejected for the Spaniard’s signature and despite the assumption that he would eventually move on, no further rumours emerged around Moreno’s departure as he played a prominent role during pre season, impressing in particular with an exceptional performance in the 3-0 demolition of Bayern Munich in the Audi Cup.
Here we are, in mid October and Moreno seems to have firmly established himself as Klopp’s first-choice left back against all the odds, with Milner seen as a backup midfield option and Robertson currently occupying the role of understudy despite several impressive outings when given the opportunity.
Eyebrows were raised when Moreno’s name appeared on the teamsheet to face Watford on the opening day with fans justifiably confused as to how a player who had seemingly been cast aside the previous season could so suddenly be back in the manager’s plans again.
On the evidence so far, however, it would be fair to say that Moreno has justified Klopp’s faith and has merited his status as a regular starter this season. In the goalless draw against Manchester United at Anfield, he was particularly excellent and gave virtually nothing away despite Jose Mourinho’s obvious attempts to target his flank as a potential weakness.
While we are still looking at a relatively small sample of games, the improvement in Moreno’s game has been clear to see. Having gained a reputation for being rash, reckless and lacking positional intelligence, the 25-year-old appears to be playing with a newly found degree of maturity and assurance, making the right decisions when previously he might have lunged in to make an unnecessary foul.
The timing of his tackles looks to have improved, along with his positional discipline and concentration. Once prone to switching off all too often, Moreno looks like a more focused professional who knows exactly what the manager requires of him in this system. That isn’t to say he’s now perfect, far from it, as he still gets caught out of position at times, but far less often than he used to.
The numbers back it up, too. So far this season Moreno has been winning an average of 1.67 aerial duels per game — more than three times his average of 0.47 during his first two seasons at the club. In terms of total duels, he’s now winning 63 per cent compared to his previous average of 48 per cent, while he’s also making an average of just 0.67 fouls per game, compared to his previous average of 1.23. He’s also averaging 0.33 blocks per game, more than double his previous average of 0.15 during 2014-15 and 2015-16.
All this suggests he has significantly improved his all-round defensive game having benefited from a season of work on the training ground. A great deal of credit must go to Klopp and his coaching staff for developing Moreno’s potential and ironing out his biggest weaknesses.
A huge amount of credit, however, has to go to the player himself for his attitude and determination to fight for his Liverpool career and work on the areas of his game most in need of improvement. It can’t have been easy watching Milner, naturally a right-sided midfielder, taking his position last season and with all the criticism he has received both from fans and the media during his time at the club.
After the Europa League final against Sevilla, many deemed that to be the final straw with Moreno as his defensive deficiencies proved costly in the second half capitulation. It has been a long way back for the Spaniard and he still must maintain this level for a sustained period of time, but he has gone a significant way to proving his doubters wrong.
It’s worth remembering that when he first joined Liverpool in the summer of 2014 from Sevilla, Moreno was widely regarded as one of, if not the very best up and coming young left backs in Europe. His first goal for the club against Tottenham Hotspur was an early glimpse of the attacking talent he has at his disposal, but he was very much rough around the edges at that point with significant gaps in his skillset.
It’s easy to see what he offers for Klopp going forward in this system with his blistering pace, boundless energy and fairly accomplished technical ability on the ball. Moreno often plays a prominent role in Liverpool’s buildup play with quick one twos and short passing sequences around the edge of the penalty area, as demonstrated superbly with his assist for Roberto Firmino’s equaliser in the 2-2 Champions League group game against Sevilla at Anfield this season.
His ability to get in behind opposition defences with his pace and movement means he is a constant threat down the left flank and gives the opposition an extra concern to deal with — especially when Sadio Mane is also playing on the same side. Although Milner had his own strengths in that position last season, his lack of pace and need to cut inside on his right foot often slowed down Liverpool’s attacks and it feels like Moreno is a more natural fit for the rapid, counter-attacking style Klopp likes to play.
The one major criticism you could level at the offensive side of Moreno’s game is that is crossing is still not of the required quality — in comparison to Robertson, for example, who has the ability to create multiple chances with his accurate delivery from out wide. For a left back with the attacking mindset of Moreno, a total of 10 assists and three goals in his 119 Liverpool appearances to date is certainly a record he can look to improve upon.
Of course, doubts still remain and there is every chance Moreno might make a bad error in the next couple of games, in which case it’s not difficult to imagine what the reaction might be given his previous reputation.
Yet if we’re being fair to the player, had we signed Moreno this summer and were judging him purely on the performances he’s delivered for Liverpool this season alone, we’re probably thinking it’s a very astute piece of business and we have a very capable left back on our hands — albeit with plenty of scope for further improvement.
From the brief glimpses we’ve seen of Robertson so far, it feels as though the healthy degree of competition between two specialist left backs has driven Moreno to up his own game and for the first time in a while Liverpool now have two decent options in what has long been a problem position.
In order for Moreno to fully convince supporters of his long-term credentials at Liverpool, he’ll need to at least sustain his current level throughout this season and prove that this isn’t just an extended purple patch.
From what we’ve seen so far, however, Moreno is showing encouraging signs of becoming the left back we all hoped we’d signed when he first joined the club.
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