Rumours linking Pablo Fornals to English football have been widespread for the past year, with names such as Arsenal and Fulham bandied about by Spanish newspaper AS. West Ham are the latest, however, with the Hammers reportedly on the verge of signing for £24m.
Three seasons into his La Liga career, Pablo Fornals is yet to hit any kind of recognisable ceiling. First making his top-flight debut at Malaga in 2015, the Castellon-born attacking midfielder moved back to his native region upon joining Villarreal in the summer of 2017. That move arrived after a season which saw him make 32 league appearances and score six goals for the Andalusian club that first gave him his big break. Taking the gamble to join Malaga’s youth ranks at the age of 16, Fornals left family and friends behind to try and make the grade as a professional footballer, a gamble that has paid off tenfold since.
In September, Fornals enjoyed his best performance in a Villarreal shirt to date. Helping his side to a 3-0 win against Athletic at San Mames, the Spain international dominated the highlight reels with a 45-yard volley and a combination of skills that left Inigo Martinez staggering and grasping hopefully after his compatriot’s disappearing yellow shirt. After first making his Spain debut under Vicente del Bosque in 2016, Fornals returned to La Roja’s fold in Luis Enrique’s most recent international squad. The 22-year-old’s stock has never been higher. His supposed €20m release clause is nothing less than an absolute steal, and Arsenal should consider themselves lucky were they to secure his signature.
Industrious yet creative
A No 10 by choice, but occasionally a central midfielder or creative wide playmaker, Fornals’ identity is hard to pigeonhole. From playing in parks and in front of garages in Castellon as a child, the 22-year-old plays on instinct. He possesses the ability to wriggle out of tight spaces and receive possession with the solution already in mind in terms of how he is going to spin out of trouble or seek to push on and break opposition lines. The Spaniard is able to receive the ball in between the lines and then move to cut opposition teams apart, whether it be from a central area or drifting in from out wide. Fornals is capable of the flamboyant, but only resorts to such things as a logical, spur-of-the-moment solution to a particular problem.
Citing the likes of Ronaldinho, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo Nazario as some of his role models as a youngster, it is easy to determine the style of football that appeals to the Spain international: causing problems in between the lines and unsettling opponents’ best-laid plans with flashes of skill and technical ability. On top of that, however, the statistics show that Fornals is a very hard worker, able to track back and fulfil defensive responsibilities on top of constantly offering an option for his teammates when his side are on the ball. Consistently posting up 13 kilometres of running per match on top of being his team’s most creative outlet is a curious combination.
From the referee’s first whistle to the last, Fornals is tireless and constantly looks to be positive in possession. Though he isn’t the quickest, his engine is impressive. During his inaugural season as a Villarreal player, the young midfielder racked up 12 La Liga assists, a figure that was matched by only Barcelona’s Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. Elite numbers from a player who is threatening to take his place among his top-level peers for a long time to come. Featuring on both wings, as a No 10 and in central midfield across an arduous campaign, his versatility did not affect his end product.
How would he fit in at West Ham?
Self-critical yet team-driven, Fornals has the right mindset to slot into West Ham’s squad under Manuel Pellegrini. He boasts the technical quality and desire to get on the ball that should be key for a Premier League side who want to have personality in possession. In moving to Malaga as a youngster, sacrificing his teenage years in his pursuit of a football career, he has already shown that his ambition is something that he puts ahead of personal comfort.
“What I try to do is help my teammates and give them the best option at every possible moment. It’s true that sometimes due to me moving too much I close lines of passes myself, or I cut off teammates that are better positioned. But this is how I understand football, to always be active, to look for the ball, to break the lines, to play forward, so that my teammates see me unmarked; and later on in defence I try to make it as difficult as possible for my opponents,” Fornals explained in interview with El Pais in October.
When playing in Andalusia, Fornals quickly became a key man, before settling into life with Villarreal incredibly quickly. The two stepping stones that he has taken in Spain thus far have sent his career prospects rocketing. There is no satisfactory reason as to why the Spaniard shouldn’t adjust to the demanding, intense professional environment he would encounter in England. Off the pitch, he would have his work cut out to settle in, but there should be no doubting that the 22-year-old has the quality to immediately impress when in the thick of the action.