Terem Moffi is challenging our understanding of what it means to improve as a player.
Much of football discussion continues to be annoyingly post-hoc. To an extent, this is understandable: we do not have intimate access to the work done on the training ground, and even more frustratingly, we are as yet unable to read minds, so our only reference point for evaluating intent is outcome.
Witness, for instance, the now pervasive idea of Pep Guardiola as football’s arch overthinker, and the negative effect that is perceived to have on his teams’ chances of success, especially in European competition. While it is certainly true that the Catalan manager is a neurotic, tic-tastic nerdboy perfectly happy geeking out on dots and arrows all day, and that he will turn back on himself a million times, agonizing like a worm in brine about his every decision until he has worn his players’ patience down to a nub, it is also fair to acknowledge his response to the criticism: no one brings it up when it works.
We are perfectly happy to flay him for not selecting a specialist defensive midfielder for a Champions League Final, or shake our heads in bemusement when one of his special plans comes a cropper. However, those clever schemes have been a part of his legend as a manager from the very start. Fielding a 169cm-tall imp as a centre-forward, while shunting two of their generation’s finest strikers wide, came out of no coaching manuals at Coverciano, to be sure. And yet, Guardiola “overthought” his way to every success possible at Barcelona by deploying precisely this bit of devilry.
As the great Jonathan Pryce gleefully remarked in all his scenery-chewing glory in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. Basically, if it works (and even more so: if it’s seen to work), then it’s good. It is reductive, but it is all we have to go on. Mostly.
Terem Moffi’s trajectory as a player is a fascinating one. After failing to make the cut for Nigeria’s squad to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup (a shortcut many a Nigerian football star has taken) in 2015, he took the scenic route to the top, taking in Lithuania and Belgium before landing in the French top-flight with Lorient last season.
He was, put simply, a revelation in Ligue 1. His debut season saw him score 14 goals for Les Merlus, and if that does not seem particularly impressive, consider that Lorient were a newly-promoted side, and that Moffi’s total accounted for 28 percent of the club’s goals in the entire season. Did I mention he only turned 22 two days after the season wrapped? Yes, that too.
A star was born. Moffi came from footballing stock (his father had been a goalkeeper during his playing days), had an educated left foot, and was strong as a stallion. If he could do that in his first season in one of Europe’s top five leagues (at the time; now, Portugal has vaulted France in the UEFA coefficient), then it was entirely reasonable to expect he would absolutely chew up the division and spit it out come 2021/22.
Well, about that…
So far this season, Moffi has played 11 matches in Ligue 1, for a combined total of 908 minutes. In that time, he has scored two goals. That’s a goal every 454 minutes; last season, he averaged a goal every 149. If he keeps the current pace and plays the same number of minutes as he managed last term, he is on track to finish the season with 4.6 league goals. So maybe it was presumptuous to assume he would rip it up with the benefit of a season to settle, but surely hubris cannot explain a drop-off this precipitous.
So, what’s wrong?
Well, the simple answer is: nothing. Absolutely nothing is wrong.
Sure, there are soft factors at play, such as Lorient cashing in on strike partner Yoane Wissa, with whom Moffi shared a great understanding and a strong relationship off the pitch. There has also been a slight change in system, with manager Christope Pelissier looking for greater solidity in the centre of midfield at the expense of attacking width.
However, in the deeper sense, nothing is wrong. Moffi is simply improving as a player.
If that sounds counterintuitive, that is because our notion of what it means for a player to improve is a little flawed. We tend to think of growth as a straight line, and so the inference we draw is simplistic: if a striker is scoring more goals, he is getting better; fewer, and he is getting worse. Of course, like all fallacious logic, there is situational truth buried in there somewhere, but to think in those terms is to let the outcome determine our understanding.
Despite his falling away in terms of goals this season, it is instructive that the Lorient striker has already matched his tally of assists for last season. A look at the difference in his touch maps from last season to this paints a picture: Moffi is doing a lot of his work farther from goal.
To buttress the point, here comes an Opta mini-dump: his touches per game have gone up from 23.4 to 29.8, successful passes per game from 8.2 to 12.3, and total duels won per game from 2.9 to 3.3. Heck, he’s even committing more fouls. To cut through the techno-babble, he is a lot more involved in Lorient’s play: whereas last season he was the outlet, this term he is the conduit. He’s having to kill his own food – per Statsbomb data, Lorient’s shot-creating actions (the final two offensive actions preceding a shot) per 90 have gone from 17.18 to 14.75 and, even more telling, take a look at the difference in his carrying and dribbling actions – all have shot up this season, buttressing how much deeper he is playing.
Whether by necessity or by design, Moffi is doing the side of centre-forward play he did not have to last season, and is developing a more rounded game as a result (note: his numbers for miscontrols and dispossessions have dropped – he is much better at retaining possession under pressure). With no wingers either side providing options on the break, Lorient’s means of supporting attacks is to use their leading scorer from last season as a target man this time around.
The results have not been great – they have only won three matches this season, and have scored the fewest goals in Ligue 1 so far. However, it is not because Moffi has become a worse player. It is because, if anything, he is becoming a better centre-forward, not by adding scoring volume, but by becoming rangier.
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