Aged only 17, Ilaix Moriba has already gone through a lot of things in his career. The midfielder was born in 2003 in Guinea, moving to Spain at a young age. He started playing for Espanyol but soon moved to city-rivals Barcelona as one of the most promising players of his generation. He’s been part of the Spain U17 and U18 squads, but just before the pandemic, there were rumours he chose to defend Guinea at a senior level.
Moriba is currently one of the best-paid teenagers in football. The interest of the best clubs in Europe to sign him when his previous contract expired made Barcelona offer him a contract valued in over two million euros, with a release clause of 100 million euros. This tactical analysis will look into the abilities that earned Moriba this contract at such a young age.
Moriba usually plays as the right or left centre midfielder position in the classic 4-3-3 Barcelona use. His physical presence (183 cm / 6’0’’) could make him fit the defensive midfielder role, but his main abilities are in the attacking part of the game. Moriba needs freedom to move up and down the field, and his heat map shows how he has the ability to appear all around the field.
Often compared to Paul Pogba, Moriba is a very dominant and complete midfielder too. He combines his pace and strength with a great technique in tight spaces, a good long shot, and a high work rate to attack the box. He’s very adaptable to very different tactics and roles as he can play as a defensive, box-to-box, or attacking midfielder, depending on the needs of his team.
Given Moriba’s young age, the available data sample for him is not big enough to get an accurate idea of his strengths and weaknesses, so we will only use data in this scout report to show and support certain aspects we spotted on video. This season, Moriba has only played eight matches (288 minutes) in Segunda B and three matches (237 minutes) in the UEFA Youth League. He hasn’t made his La Liga debut yet.
Attacking movements: simple passes and direct movements
Moriba isn’t the typical Barcelona midfielder. While he has the technical and passing ability one could expect from a La Masía graduate, his main strengths lay elsewhere. Moriba uses his great physical conditions – he’s a powerful runner and resistant to long efforts – to make vertical movements instead of moving horizontally to dictate from deep positions.
Moriba’s positioning on the field is very useful to Barcelona’s playing style. When his team is building up from the back, he takes good positions behind the opposition midfield to receive the ball and accelerate from there. In more advanced positions, Moriba reads very well where the weaknesses of the rival are, taking good positions in the half-spaces between the lines when there’s space to receive there or making runs in behind when he detects holes in the defensive line.
Apart from the physical abilities that allow him to run up and down the pitch to find spaces, Moriba has the technical ability to get the most out of his movement. His first touch is great and, combined with his awareness, allows him to always face the part of the pitch he wants to progress to. He also uses both legs to pass, his passes are accurate and is good shooting from distance, adding goals to his already all-around style. We will see all these in action in some examples further in this analysis.
In the first image below, Moriba positions himself in the half-space just behind the opposition midfield, providing a good progressive option for his teammate. When he receives the ball he plays an easy pass to the overlapping right-back. In the second picture, four seconds after the first, Moriba is attacking the channel between centre-back and full-back with a direct run. With these kinds of runs, he looks to receive the ball in dangerous positions, but also attract the attention of the defenders and open up spaces for his teammates at the edge of the box.
When his teammates generate spaces for him, Moriba is quick to spot them and attack them. In the next picture, the winger in front of him cuts inside and Moriba makes an overlapping run, putting himself in a good position and creating doubts in the opposition full-back.
Again in the example below, Moriba receives the ball behind the opposition midfield. This time he knows there’s space between the lines and he turns with an excellent first touch and carries the ball forward. His decision-making regarding when to run with the ball and when to pass is quite good and impressive, especially given his young age.
When the attacks advance from the other side of the pitch, Moriba focuses on arriving at the box and getting into good scoring positions. He times his runs well to get in the box in a second wave after the strikers and is intelligent to detect any positioning mistakes in his rivals and attack those zones. If he receives in or around the box he can use his good shooting abilities to score from different positions.
Let’s take the picture below as an example of his ability to detect holes in the defensive line. The attack comes from the left side and Moriba detects the rivals are ball-watching, so he gets into a dangerous position behind their backs, going undetected and unmarked. Used to play with technically-gifted players at Barcelona, Moriba knows the smallest space is enough to receive a pass.
When the attacks end in a cross, Moriba tries to find free spaces around the penalty spot, arriving there in the last moment and taking advantage of the spaces generated by the forwards who attacked the box just before him. In the sequence below we see Moriba’s first goal for Barcelona B. We can see how two of his teammates are in front of him and have dragged the defenders, so his late run into the box is found by a good cross. His shot is very good too, finding the back of the net with a difficult and acrobatic volley using the inside of his right foot.
His adaptation to first-team football
The current season is Moriba’s first playing with Barcelona B and against senior players. Thanks to his physicality he has adapted quite well and is getting more and more minutes, but there are parts of his game that still need improvements.
First of all, Moriba’s passing is still too conservative when playing with Barcelona B. It’s good that he tries not to lose the ball and use his intelligence to attack spaces, but to make it to the first team he needs to contribute more with his passing. He has already proved with the Spain and Barcelona youth teams that he can progress the ball both with runs and passes, so it should be a matter of time that he can translate that to Barcelona B and, potentially, to the first team.
Below we can see his ball-progression map from the last calendar year. It includes his matches for Barcelona B, Barcelona U19 and Spain U17. We see Moriba progress mostly from central zones and has a nice mix of passes and runs, making him difficult to stop.
When it comes to delivering the ball into the box, Moriba still needs some improvement. He does it well when he can run with the ball, but struggles to make passes into shooting positions. However, he delivers the ball well to the lateral zones of the box with passes between the centre-back and the full-back.
He’s doing well with Barcelona B in terms of dribbling. With 3.44 dribbles per 90 and completing 64% of them, he still has room for improvement – especially given the skills he showed in youth teams – but is proving to be a creative player under pressure. As an example of his creativity, we have the example below. Moriba receives the ball from the full-back and lets it run through his legs, catching the defender off-guard and dribbling him without touching the ball. He usually showed his skills in youth matches, and the more he plays with Barcelona B, the more he will show them at that level.
In general, we can say Moriba is adapting well to the adult’s game. At the moment he seems to focus on what he knows are his strengths, but he’s still 17 years old and has time to increase his confidence and show all his talent.
Defensive positioning issues
As we mentioned before in this scout report, Moriba has the physical conditions to be a great defensive midfielder. He wins duels easily and is great in transitions, using his long legs to reach his position quickly. This seasons with Barcelona B, Moriba has been involved in 6.25 defensive duels per 90, winning 40% of them, which isn’t bad considering he’s not playing as a defensive midfielder. This part of his game will still develop further and be important in the near future.
The problem with his defending lays mostly in his positioning. Moriba’s work rate is not bad, and he runs during the match, but he’s often caught ball-watching or gets himself in positions where he doesn’t cover passing lines effectively.
In the example below, Moriba leaves his mark in midfield to press a rival defender. When the rival plays the pass, Moriba turns his head and doesn’t intercept the ball, making his pressure useless as the ball arrives at the player who he was previously marking. We should note that the decision to press wasn’t bad in itself, but the execution was poor and Moriba didn’t show any defensive instinct.
Again below, we see Moriba’s defensive positioning. He doesn’t watch his back and fails to block an easy passing lane. He should have noted his defensive midfielder was already marking someone, so the player who receives the pass is Moriba’s responsibility as he’s right behind his back. These kind of mistakes can be very costly for teams like Barcelona who are used to defending high up the pitch, as any progressive pass can leave a player with lots of space to advance.
Finally, let’s see another defending positioning issue of Moriba. This time, Moriba fails to anticipate how the play will develop and doesn’t follow the run into the box of the opposition midfielder, who ends up receiving the ball and scoring from inside the box. Instead of getting himself into a good position and defend from there, Moriba is too reactive and when he wants to track back it’s too late.
Moriba is an obviously talented player. His technical and physical conditions are superb for his age and with the correct development, he could be dominating the UEFA Champions League in the future. He also reads the game very well in attack and knows how to interpret his teammates’ movements to get himself into dangerous positions. From there, he has the attributes to decide matches by himself, scoring, or assisting.
But he’s still very young and needs to prove he can translate all his talents into the top level. His defensive positioning needs a lot of work and he could also improve his consistency during the game. Barcelona placed a lot of hopes in him with the contract he signed, and they expect him to prove they were right when they made that decision.