When it comes to Liverpool scapegoats, few bore the brunt of fans’ anger quite like Alberto Moreno.
The Spanish left-back arrived at Anfield in a £12m deal in 2014 with a strong reputation as an up-and-coming star, the latest product of the country’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent and prime challenger to Jordi Alba’s spot in the national team.
What followed, however, was a two-year period of erratic, defensively suspect performances as the talent and promise all seemed to drain away from him – not too dissimilar, really, to those NBA players in Space Jam. Liverpool’s defence in general has been a source of fan frustration for a the past few years (Simon Mignolet and Dejan Lovren have also been targeted), but Jurgen Klopp quickly identified left-back as a problem position in the team.
In the German’s first full season as Liverpool manager, Moreno started just two Premier League games. He was used from the bench in ten more league games, but the fact that Klopp would rather use an out-of-position James Milner in that role spoke volumes.
Milner made it known that it was keen to move back into midfield for this season which should, in theory, have given Moreno his place back – but the £10m arrival of Andy Robertson from Hull should have shit that down. Indeed, so surplus to requirements was Moreno at this time that only Napoli’s refusal to meet the club’s £15m asking price kept him on Merseyside in the summer.
And then a funny thing happened. Moreno rediscovered how to be a defender. As Klopp himself put it after Saturday’s 3-0 dismantling of Southampton:
“I felt that it was unfair after last season, I thought, ‘Damn, we didn’t use [Moreno] often enough’.
“Before the season, he came to my office and asked again and I told him we get another full-back but it was not the plan for Milly to be in the full-back race again so you decide what happens – and he decided it.
“He’s now a much better defender, that’s how it is, he’s a brilliant footballer.
“I never had something like this, I never had it to be honest.”
The stats tell their own story. In every almost every conceivable defensive matrix (according to Whoscored), Moreno has improved on last year. The number of tackles he makes per game has gone up from 0.5 to 2.3 (approaching his 2016/16 level of 2.9), his passing accuracy (86.3%) is the best it has been since he moved to England, and he has taken to clearing the ball effectively (2.8 per game, double that of last year and 2016).
In short, while the Reds’ defence has come in for some heavy fire this season, Moreno has been one of the few shining lights back there. While Mohamed Salah dominates the headlines this season, the former Sevilla defender has been quietly performing as one of the team’s most consistent performers. In a defence that always has a mistake in them, nobody is mentioning Moreno in that breath anymore, and that alone is a sign that he has made significant progress.
In an interview with the Guardian last week, the 25-year-old acknowledged that he had to change his tactical approach if he was ever going to make it at Liverpool:
“Last year was useful for me: to think, to change things, to say to myself: ‘Alberto, what can you do better?’ And the first thing was: defend. I’m a defender. And I’ve changed that. I’m more focused; I think you can see that – and thankfully I haven’t made any mistakes.
“Maybe in my first few years at Liverpool, I was always thinking: ‘Attack, attack, attack.’ Confidence is vital for a footballer but I’m [also] more settled, more focused: now I’m like: ‘First, let’s defend, keep a clean sheet and, then, let’s go forward.’”
The way in which Moreno has resurrected his Liverpool career is testament to hard work and perseverance (and should be the blueprint for Lovren in particular to follow). He had one foot out the door at Anfield in the summer, and Robertson, despite earning rave reviews when he has appeared for Klopp’s side this year, can’t even get a look in right now. Considering the side’s problems at right back with Nathaniel Clyne’s injury and the relatively inexperienced Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold on rotation, to have two of their most in-form defenders vying for the same berth on the left is a frustrating occurrence for the manager to have to deal with.
In a week where Moreno has celebrated the birth of his son (a birth that he missed because he was in the team hotel), baby Alberto Jr has entered the world in a year that his dad can look forward to playing in the World Cup, and leave the last few years of his career behind him.