When Pablo Fornals signed for West Ham from Villarreal, there was naturally a wave of excitement among the club’s supporters.
This was a player who had just helped Spain’s Under-21 squad lift the 2019 European Championship, and was widely regarded as one of the brightest prospects in La Liga.
His arrival, supplemented by the signing of Eintracht Frankfurt’s Sebastien Haller for a club-record fee, was supposed to herald the dawning of a new era at the London Stadium, under the guidance and wisdom of Premier League winner Manuel Pellegrini.
Inevitably, as so often happens at West Ham, those expectations fell flat. Not quite on the same scale of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano arriving before imminent Champions League qualification, but flat nevertheless.
Instead of riding high, West Ham slumped after a promising start to the season, and the Chilean was replaced in the managerial hot seat before the turn of the year as the threat of relegation loomed large.
One standout red flag from Pellegrini’s final few months in charge was his initial reluctance to give Fornals an opportunity to shine from the start. That seemed surprising, given the Hammers had paid £24m for his services, but was also understandable given the differing pace of English top-flight football compared to that of Spain’s top division.
Indeed, Felipe Anderson, a £36m arrival the previous summer from Serie A, told 90min in May how difficult he’d found it to last the full 90 minutes, remarking: “The difference is incredible. It’s a big difference. I felt, in my first 10 games, I couldn’t play more than 70 minutes because of the intensity.”
“Wow, they told me it was intense, but I didn’t expect all of that. Then I had to work on the physical part, to be able to take it – because it is very close, it is very strong.”
Fornals played 90 minutes just once before the start of December, West Ham’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United at the London Stadium. Even in that game, he’d looked overly keen to impress – misplacing passes, not really knowing his role in the side and generally looking out of his depth – and was a peripheral figure as the Hammers coasted to victory.
Initially thought of as an advanced central midfielder, creative and able to push balls through the eye of a needle, Fornals was instead playing in any role that needed filling at that time.
He appeared on the right, left and through the middle as he was eventually afforded seven starts in Pellegrini’s final month in charge – a sad indictment of the hectic fixture schedule around Christmas – and scored his first goal for the club in what turned out to be the manager’s final game.
Fornals grabbed three assists in a run of four games, too, offering an insight into what he might be capable of if given a regular run in the side.
That momentum was halted when David Moyes was re-appointed as manager, with the Scotsman tinkering with his lineup and formation in order to find his best fit. But against Southampton in February, prior to the coronavirus induced lockdown, Fornals put in his performance of the season on the flank, drawing high praise from his manager.
The bit that probably goes unnoticed is his work rate, which is fantastic. He’s one of our best players at getting around the pitch and gives us fantastic ability.
– David Moyes on Fornals, February 2020.
Since then, the Spaniard has rarely looked back, establishing himself as West Ham’s first choice left midfielder. His tenacity, willingness to press high up the field and track back in defence has endeared him to the club’s supporters, leading to a loan spell away from the club for Anderson – who simply hasn’t been able to get a look in.
Moyes suggested after that particular performance that Fornals and players who come in from the continent should be afforded around a year to settle in, acclimatising to their new surroundings while they become familiar with the nuances of Premier League football.
That analysis appears to be ringing true, as 15 months after moving to east London, Fornals now appears to be flourishing. In terms of creativity and goalscoring, you feel there’s so much more to come from a player so technically sharp, but his understanding of the game and quick thinking has improved ten-fold.
He’s also evolving his end product and no longer looks like a player who is anxious to make a contribution. Instead, he’s a key cog in a West Ham side that have shone surprisingly brightly against Wolves and Leicester in recent games, and has helped raise the level of those around him.
Fornals isn’t the finished article, far from it, but alongside Jarrod Bowen and Michail Antonio, he’s looking better and better each and every week.