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  • Writer's pictureSam Leveridge

Gerard Moreno: The Humble Goalscorer

We know Gerard Moreno as one of LaLiga’s most prolific goalscorers. So good that he’s caught the eye of the biggest clubs in Spain and abroad. So unstoppable that of the 62 teams he’s played against more than twice, he’s scored against 59 of them.

But he is a man who has never taken the easy route in life. Even when through on goal as a child. Playing kids’ football, he already had that winning edge. That’s why he has a scar on his chin – from throwing himself at a goalpost to try and get a touch on the ball to turn it into the net.

His roots

As a boy, he joined Espanyol at the age of nine, but when he turned 15, things weren’t working out. “After six years, I started not to play, it was complicated and I could tell that I wouldn’t get the minutes I was hoping for, I knew that I had to play so I left Espanyol to do that,” he told AS.

At a similar stage, others have allowed their careers to go off the rails, falling from Primera to obscurity just as their fledgling careers were beginning. Not Gerard. Staying local, he joined CF Badalona, the Segunda División B side who had just gone toe-to-toe with Barcelona in the last 32 of the Copa del Rey.

His form caught the eye of Villarreal, but also Real Madrid. Explaining his decision, it shows the kind of grounded thinking and humility that has come to define Moreno both on and off the field. “I had that option, but Villarreal had followed me all season. I had a few bad games and they kept following me, then we visited the training ground and you could tell that they breathe football,” he said in an interview with Panenka magazine.

“From when I arrived, I lived in the club’s residence for a year and that was when I fell in love with the place,” the striker told El Transistor. It was a theme which has become evident for other young prodigies to break through the ranks too. “It changed my way of living, I became more professional, I felt like I was a professional footballer,” he said to AS.

With the club’s B team in Segunda, it was hard to get game time. The club’s relegation in 2012 meant that they plummeted to Segunda B, and with it, had to cut costs. That opened the door to an 18-year-old Moreno, who scored 12 goals in 24 games to establish himself and prove just what he could bring.

He broke through into the first team that same season, playing only one level above in Segunda. Marcelino’s men were promoted with Moreno offering an option from the bench in the second half of the campaign. “I began to note true football, everything changed; stadiums, training, team-mates, the rhythm of play, I enjoyed that time a lot,” he reflected.

His personality was already clear though. With the club fighting at the top of the table, Moreno was in the squad to face Barcelona B in the penultimate game of the league season. Back in his home city, Gerard Moreno wanted to make sure that all of his family could attend and so went with his girlfriend to join the queue at the club’s ticket office to get his hands on as many as possible. It was only after he was spotted by the ticket office staff and their manager promised to give him all the tickets he wanted that he agreed to go home.

A trip to Mallorca

Searching for more regular first-team football, Moreno made the trip to the island of Mallorca. The team were in Segunda and amid chaos off the field, but their side included young talents like Marco Asensio and on-loan Thomas Partey.

Despite the talent on offer, he was one of the stand-out talents. Scoring 11 goals in his only season with the club made an impression, even as the team dropped further and further down the table with dissent in the stands. “When a player is able to score 11 goals in Segunda with a team in which nothing is working properly, you could imagine that Moreno could be a good player,” David Roig Roig of Radio Balear told La Liga Lowdown.

An injury against Real Madrid Castilla would all but end his season and Mallorca’s hopes of survival. At the time, Mallorca had lost just one of the last five fixtures, but of the remaining 11 games, Moreno played just two, seemingly unfit in either, and the islanders emerged victorious from one.

In total, Moreno had scored or assisted in more games for Mallorca than those in which he didn’t, involved in 19 goals from 32 games over the course of a relegation season. “That year made me grow a lot, it was a complicated year, but it was a huge learning curve,” Moreno said in his own assessment of his time at the club.

A return to Villarreal beckoned, with it evident that he was of Primera quality. Playing in the Europa League was an added bonus, and he scored an impressive 16 goals in 39 games in all competitions, including four European goals. Despite that, with just 19 league starts, and never more than four in a row, it was clear that he wasn’t among Villarreal’s first choice and they had plenty of options in attack. Luciano Vietto, Ikechukwu Uche and Giovani dos Santos all provided more experienced options and Marcelino wanted more.

“I wasn’t surprised he was sold, because Marcelino really wanted a counter-attacking team built around speed to score goals,” Allen Dodsen of Villarreal USA explains. It left the club with little choice but to move Moreno on. The club knew that he was too good to let go entirely, and so a deal was struck, allowing him to move back to Espanyol for just €1.5 million, retaining half of his rights.

“I think probably a better value for half his rights would have been €3-4m; but Marce was building his team around guys like Cedric Bakambu, Gerard had the interest to go to Espanyol, so we were not going to haggle too much,” Allen adds. Espanyol were delighted to get their bargain.

A return home to Espanyol

On paper, it was an ideal move. To a club he knew, in a style that suited him, and back home. “I had my family close and was back at the team where I began, people welcomed me like one of their own, I think I grew there as a person and as a player in every sense,” Moreno explained.

But it wasn’t always easy. Brought in by now Real Valladolid coach Sergio González, the Spaniard was gone by Christmas, while his replacement Constantin Gâlcă would last just six months in charge too. Moreno scored in just five of his 36 appearances that season, again reunited with Asensio, but struggling to really find his place in the team.

That would all change with the arrival of Quique Sánchez Flores in the dugout. “Early on, he was in and out of the team, but under Quique he became more like a 9.5, like Karim Benzema, and it allowed him to become our goalscorer, but also our playmaker. Quique didn’t want him just standing up top,” Espanyol fan Geoff Gillingham explains.

“I began to feel more comfortable, to do things I’d never done in my career, it was like my brain opened up, I discovered an area of the field where defenders wouldn’t follow you,” Moreno analysed when talking to Panenka. “With my style, the more I touch the ball, the more I enjoy it.”

It was a move which would change his career. He was the club’s top scorer in 2016/17, linking up with wingers like Pablo Piatti and Leo Baptistão, but clearly the first-choice attacker. He would go on to score 32 goals in two seasons. While he had battled with Felipe Caicedo in his debut season, the Ecuadorian scored just two goals in that second campaign and was sold the following summer.

Not since club legend Raúl Tamudo in 2003/04 had any striker matched Moreno’s 19 goals in 2017/18 and he was even acting as one of the club’s captains. While the team around him were struggling to meet their ambitions, Moreno’s performances were exceeding them.

A move that summer was almost guaranteed, and Villarreal emerged as the leading candidates. With 50% of his ownership rights, it meant that he could be snapped up for €20 million, half of his €40 million release clause. A bargain for a player with his track record, it was nevertheless a huge profit for Espanyol, selling him for a fee worth more than 12 times what he cost them.

“He had become our idol, when he left it really hurt a lot of fans,” Geoff admits. In his final season in Catalonia, no-one had played more minutes, no-one had made more appearances, and no-one had scored even half as many goals. Espanyol had become dependent upon his form and knew they had their work cut out to replace him.

And back to Villarreal

Back at Villarreal, Moreno’s return wasn’t the dream everyone had hoped for and he endured a slow start. A goal just 15 minutes into his debut in a defeat to Real Sociedad looked to be ideal, but he wouldn’t score again in LaLiga until matchday 10, and after Christmas he had a drought until mid-March before scoring as a substitute against Rayo Vallecano. As the team struggled to live up to expectations, Moreno was highlighted as one of those to have disappointed.

“I think with Gerard coming back in the way he did for the price he did, he put a lot of pressure on himself to perform, and the 2018-19 season reflected that,” Allen Dodson of Villarreal USA told us. It’s a sentiment echoed by Moreno himself. He looked back on that period as being similar to his time with Espanyol when he wasn’t getting game time as a teenager. “We were suffering, they’d paid €20 million for me and things weren’t working out, you don’t play with the same freedom and security,” he said.

There were soon signs to be optimistic though. The team began to climb away from relegation by April of that season, driven by the goals of Moreno in part. In his last five appearances of the campaign, he scored three goals, all on the road, and registered an assist, arguably producing a man-of-the-match display in a narrow defeat at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. His targets for his first season back in yellow hadn’t been met, but it was enough to boost his confidence heading into 2019/20.

As if he had a point to prove, he began the next campaign with five goals in his first four games. Villarreal had Moreno back at his best and firing on all cylinders. It was enough to earn him a call-up to the Spanish national team, making his debut aged 27 against Sweden under Robert Moreno.

With eight goals under his belt by the November international break, Moreno was included again and produced two of the best performances in a Spain shirt for some time. Malta and Romania may not have been the toughest of rivals, but for a player with only 18 appearances at European level at the time, he proved his point. Three goals and four assists in just 147 minutes firmly put him on the scene. With Euro 2020 just months away, Moreno was a candidate.

Covid-19 hit but it couldn’t break Moreno’s momentum. He scored seven goals in 11 games after lockdown, firing Villarreal up the table, and putting him behind only Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema in the race for the Pichichi award for top goalscorer.

But what was behind this turnaround? “Honestly, his finishing has improved dramatically. I think the reason why he's been finishing better is actually tied to him spending more time dropping deep and getting involved in build-up play,” Zach Hicks of Villarreal USA analyses. “I think he's a player who shoots better when he's more comfortable, and he gets more comfortable the more he is on the ball. That's part of why I think he's better suited as either a right wing or as part of a front two than he is as a lone striker.”

In 2020/21, he’s just got better and better. Compared by Zach to Thomas Müller for his style, of lacking pace or strength but dominating play through his intelligence, he’s found a way to become truly prolific. With a goal every 121 minutes so far this campaign, he is yet to go more than two consecutive games without a goal, while there has only been one league fixture in 2021 in which he has failed to provide either a goal or an assist, that being against LaLiga leaders Atlético Madrid.

He continues to dumbfound expectations. Whenever anyone thinks that he has reached his peak, he goes one better. “I don’t think anyone could have expected him to break out quite as much as he did,” Villarreal fan Allen confessed. “I didn’t expect that he would be so good,” Mallorca supporter David agreed. Nobody did.

So just how good is he? “I think he's the best current Spanish footballer,” Zach says, confidently. “For how he's playing right now, especially in the context of the offensive struggles Villarreal has had in terms of chance creation this year, what he's been able to do is absolutely remarkable.”

“I’m happy and comfortable, I’m very confident and I just hope to keep improving and growing as a player,” is how Moreno assesses his own form. That humble side of his personality still shines through, but underneath there’s ambition.

With Euro 2020 on the horizon, albeit under a different coach and at a different time to what he’d expected after those prolific performances in November 2019, he has his sights set high. “Playing for Spain is the best thing that can happen to any player,” Moreno says. Luis Enrique has only started him in three of the six internationals he has been available for since the former Barcelona coach returned to the role, but Moreno knows that his form puts him in contention with the likes of Álvaro Morata to be Spain’s starting striker.

Linked with the likes of Atlético and even Juventus over the past few months, Moreno is happy where he is. While his ambitions go far for Villarreal and Spain, he isn’t publicly courting the world’s biggest clubs. He’s focused on his game. Long-term, he’s said that he’d like to retire back at his hometown club of Espanyol in what would be a third stint.

What is evident is that no matter how far Gerard Moreno goes in his career, he will never forget his roots. While being linked with Euros glory or a multi-million move to Juventus, he’s more concerned about the opportunity to return home. You almost wouldn’t be surprised to see him queuing up at the ticket office to see him buy tickets for his own farewell match.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or want to know why Espanyol are called the Pericos - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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