Lucas Digne or Alex Moreno? Which left-back should Aston Villa persist with?

Aston Villa aim to upgrade across multiple positions, be better equipped for Champions League football and remain on an upward trajectory on Unai Emery’s rocket ship.

But against the backdrop of Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR), the club’s hierarchy is left checking its fuel tank.

As The Athletic reported last month, improving at left-back is an option. It is a key area, given the contrasting remits of either full-back in Emery’s asymmetrical build-up system.

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Left-back provides the biggest reason for gritted teeth. In Lucas Digne and Alex Moreno, two players are competing for the same spot. Both are practically the same age, in the same predicament and, in some cases, offer identical output.

Due to PSR and Villa scouting the market for another left-back, allowing one of Digne or Moreno to depart is a strong possibility. The dilemma facing Villa centres on finances versus availability, with Digne among Villa’s top earners at £120,000 per week and Moreno suffering recurring hamstring issues, limiting the Spaniard to just 520 minutes across all competitions last season.

Moreno is 41 days older than Digne. Far removed are the days when wisecracks were made at a left-back’s expense, the position regarded as the most trivial and undervalued (left back in the changing room etc). For Emery, it is among Villa’s core areas.

Digne and Moreno each rank in the top eight per cent of full-backs from Europe’s top five leagues for progressive passes received. This, fundamentally, demonstrates Emery’s remit; staying high and wide akin to a winger.

Interestingly, Moreno and Digne are identical in defensive activity, a consequence of Emery’s low-intensity structure and that, typically, neither are front-footed. Digne (2.73 per 90 minutes) and Moreno (2.71 per 90) rank in the bottom 40 per cent of Europe’s full-backs for tackles and interceptions made.

Each have enjoyed and endured the different ends of Emery’s appreciation scale, ranging from being left out to becoming integral cogs in the system. Until he suffered a hamstring injury four months after joining, Moreno was Villa’s in-vogue player. It was Digne left in the cold, having signed 12 months earlier from Everton for £23million — £10million more than Moreno.

Trajectories have crossed since, with Digne last season’s clear favourite after Moreno’s stuttering campaign. However throughout that time, Villa’s recruitment sounded out left-backs such as Sevilla’s Marcos Acuna to replace the France international.

Signing Acuna would have paved the way for Digne to move on, which was discussed among the Villa hierarchy at the start of pre-season. Digne had interest from Europe and Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia, but did not want to leave.

Though the left-back situation ultimately stayed the same, this summer is increasingly opaque. Digne was among Villa’s most reliable performers, offering an improved attacking threat while making efforts to add defensive sturdiness, particularly guarding against back-post threat.

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Digne and Moreno are competing for the same spot (ANP via Getty Images)

Digne ranked in the top 11 per cent of full-backs for aerials duels won (1.57 per 90) — a sharp increase on Moreno, whose aerial duels are a blind spot in his game, despite being a couple of centimetres taller. He is in the bottom seven per cent for aerials won (0.35 per 90).

Digne had few issues when informed that Villa would block an approach from France’s Football Association to participate in this summer’s Paris Olympics. The 30-year-old recognised the importance of hitting the ground running in pre-season and proving his worth, be it retaining his spot or convincing the club he should stay.

People close to Digne, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships, believe his pedigree — formerly at Barcelona and capped 46 times for France — has played a part in his revival.

Both Moreno and Digne are highly popular among team-mates and want to stay at Villa. They are big characters in different ways, with Moreno more vocal. He also likes to sing and dance while Digne shares a different level of dedication off the field, where he keeps a small circle of friends. Those who know him credit his mindset in helping to recover from injuries ahead of schedule, with the hamstring issue sustained on Boxing Day at Old Trafford a case in point.

Moreno is more active out of possession, making 1.57 tackles per 90 minutes in the defensive third, with Digne making 1.31 per 90 on average. Neither are aggressive higher up the pitch and are inside the bottom 10 per cent of full-backs for tackles made in the middle third. This, however, is a theme within Villa’s broader set-up, reluctantly pressing and preferring to remain in an organised shape.

The argument for either depends on your preference of left-back. Data and the eye test support Digne as the best option defensively while Moreno, a sentiment shared across all parties, has the better acceleration and is more adept in one-v-one situations, complimenting Emery’s desire for the role to serve as a left winger in possession.

In the fleeting periods when Moreno was fully fit last season, he struggled to regain rhythm. This visibly dented his confidence, with recurring hamstring injuries impacting his natural game, built on speed and fast-twitch muscle fibres.

This was evident in March’s 2-0 victory against Wolves. Moreno overhit three crosses in the first half, with the final loose delivery prompting audible groans inside Villa Park. Moreno appeared shorn of the risk-taking attitude that was his greatest attacking strength.

As illustrated below, Villa’s staple patterns — the left No 10 drifting inwards and creating space for Moreno’s overlaps — were functioning.

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Yet Moreno’s execution was continually found wanting.

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“I thought we could exploit him attacking higher,” said Emery. “He got in the box many times but his crosses weren’t finding good solutions. He wasn’t clinical but I appreciate how he played higher and tried to get his performance to a level like he had before.

“Defensively, we struggled on the left. It’s true when we changed with Lucas (Digne), we did better.”

Moreno’s campaign was bookended by ongoing niggles, missing Villa’s first 14 games and playing just one minute across the final five matches. Nonetheless, there remains a sense a full pre-season — his first at the club — would enable Moreno to reattune and be in better condition to rediscover his early Villa form.

This notion is strengthened by Emery’s admiration, with Moreno his first signing at Villa in January 2023. Moreno ranked in the top 18 per cent of Europe’s full-backs for progressive carries (2.79 per 90) — discernibly more than Digne, who averages 1.57 per 90 — which Emery views as a standout trait. Though a slight quirk is Moreno being in the bottom one per cent for passes into the final third (0.87 per 90), illuminating the contrast between his dribbling and distribution.

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His arrival was entirely manager-led, with Emery an advocate from when his Villarreal team played Moreno’s former side, Real Betis. The left-back feels a particular bond with his compatriot, insisting Emery is one of the most detailed coaches he has worked with.

In Digne’s case, the sticking point has been his natural characteristics not chiming with what Emery wants. Digne is more of a stand-and-deliver, traditional left-back, inclined to hold his position and cross rather than provide the same one-against-one threat as Moreno.

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This is highlighted by Digne ranking in the top nine per cent for crosses per game (5.75). Moreno, in comparison, rated in the 64th percentile, meaning 36 per cent of left-backs delivered more crosses (3.23 per 90).

Digne’s success at Everton was augmented by the team suiting his strengths, such as a front line highly capable in the air in Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. He had to adjust in the Midlands, working on precision crosses with greater variation, including cut-backs and low deliveries to the near post.

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Generally, the data leans towards Digne. Although a hat-trick of assists against Hibernian inflated his numbers to some degree, in the Premier League, he registered 2.76 shot-creating actions per game, with only 20 per cent of players in his position more purposeful in attacking areas. Moreno, in comparison, ranked in the 41st percentile.

Digne and Moreno are adept full-backs in their own right, boasting a similar profile but contrasting stylistic attributes. But with Villa looking to strengthen at left-back, one may need to make way. Deciding who to cash in on is another juggling act for Villa to deal with.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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