“Alberto Moreno is 100% back” Jürgen Klopp said this summer and you can see it. You can hear it, too, with every joke, every giggle, every time he bursts out laughing. After a year he describes as “very bad”, in which there were times he felt “down” and only his baby daughter, Carla, could be guaranteed to coax a smile from him, life in Liverpool is good again. As for mornings at Melwood, they are even better. There are reasons to be cheerful and he is cheerful, all right. Not least because he has one fewer problem now. Well, two.
The best thing about being back is not the sense of satisfaction in overcoming, the feeling of redemption, or the sound of silence, critics falling quiet; it is not the return to the Champions League or to the Spain squad after three and a half years, although he was delighted to take an “unexpected” call. It is not even the proud return home, when Liverpool play Sevilla in the Champions League on Tuesday, Moreno heading back to a place that “smells different”, the boy from here doing well over there. Now, at least; now, at last. No, he smiles: it’s that Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are someone else’s problem. Someone like Sevilla.
Mention their names and, more than words, Moreno makes noises. “Pfff,” “Ooh.” “Wow.” “I wouldn’t want to face Mané and Salah,” he says, puffing out his cheeks. “It must be … pfff.” You would think he speaks from daily experience, forced to face them each morning, but here is the rub, another reason why the benefits of being back go beyond match day. “No,” he grins, “when the manager picks teams, I’m usually with them. The best thing about starting this season is playing on their side.” And with that, Moreno falls about again.
He is joking but, for the man who admits reaching a point where he feared whatever he did he would be “useless”, just how much things have changed, and how fast, has come into focus lately. Last week he returned to the Spain squad, the smile spread across his face as he described playing in Russia on Tuesday as “like making my debut all over again”. On Tuesday, he returns to the Sánchez Pizjuán, where it all began and where his boyhood hero plays. He still has a photo of himself, aged 11, alongside Jesús Navas. This time, he will be up against him.
It is tempting to see symbolism in the trip to the Pizjuán, to see his return there representing his return, full stop: an opportunity to close the circle against the team he faced the night when many considered his Liverpool career was over.
Moreno won the Europa League with Sevilla in 2014. In 2016 he lost the Europa League final against Sevilla – and for some it really was him that lost it. The verdict after a 1-0 half-time lead became a 3-1 defeat was in: guilty. Jamie Carragher deleted a tweet that pleaded with Liverpool to “sign a fucking left-back”, but not before thousands had seen it. Mark Lawrenson said bluntly: “He can’t defend.” One match report called him “brainless”, giving him two out of 10; another described him as “hopeless”; it was a “horror show” said a third.
The reactions might have been exaggerated but when a BBC report stated: “He’ll surely be replaced,” they were not exactly going out on a limb. He did not leave but he did not play, either. James Milner played at left-back, a converted midfielder trusted more, and in the whole of last season Moreno started two league games. Then, in the summer, Liverpool signed Andy Robertson from Hull.
But it was not the end; that signing might have sparked something in Moreno but he had already sought to turn his situation around. He describes himself as a fighter and says he “loves Liverpool”; he did not want to go and he did not give up. “I went to see Klopp a few times to ask what I could do and he said: ‘Alberto, you’re doing well but I can’t change.’ At the end of the season I asked myself: ‘Alberto, what can you change? What can you do?’” Having resisted, held on, the answer, as it turned out, was for the one-time winger who wanted to emulate Diego Capel, Antonio Puerta and Jesús Navas to rebel against his nature.
Something shifted; this summer a bid from Napoli was rejected. In early August, Klopp said pre-season had brought “new players” and Moreno was one of them. Soon it seemed he was right: he has started nine league games and all six matches in Europe, becoming one of Liverpool’s most consistent performers. Had he really been a new player, he would surely be talked about as a shrewd signing. Meet him and he is the same as ever; watch him and he is not.
By his own admission, he has changed; by his own hand, too – although he is swift to credit those around him, from family to team‑mates, coaching staff to the club’s nutritionist, Mona Nemmer, who has even found a place for a taste of Seville on Merseyside.
“We really notice the change,” Moreno says. “The first couple of years, there would be ice creams, cakes, sauces, ketchups, which isn’t good. If a player needs to eat something particular, she lets him. You tell her what you want – olive oil, say – and she’ll do all she can to include it. What I really miss is jamón ibérico, sea food, fish. Mona prepares a lot of things for you and the truth is we’re very happy with her.
“I always talk about my family, my daughter, my parents, how much they have helped me and it’s true,” he says, “but in the end, it’s the player who does it, who changes the situation. He’s the one that goes out there in front of I-don’t-know-how‑many-thousand people.
“Last year was useful for me: to think, to change things, to say to myself: ‘Alberto, what can you do better?’ And the first thing was: defend. I’m a defender. And I’ve changed that. I’m more focused; I think you can see that – and thankfully I haven’t made any mistakes. Maybe in my first few years at Liverpool, I was always thinking: ‘Attack, attack, attack.’ Confidence is vital for a footballer but I’m [also] more settled, more focused: now I’m like: ‘First, let’s defend, keep a clean sheet and, then, let’s go forward.’”
Moreno pulls a face and grins, imitating a man battling his instincts, reining himself in, then he starts laughing again. “It’s true I’m always there, with that urge to go up the pitch. But you have to be focused. There are times I want to go but the first thing I do is look. And if there are two attackers there then there have to be three of us, so I stay. If there’s another one of us, maybe I can go. It’s about choosing the right moment and I think I am attacking less but better – even if it’s true that there’s always that thing in my head: ‘attack’. Then I’ve got Lovren and Klavan there. They’re the ones going: ‘Alberto, stay!’ ‘You can go!’ ‘Help!’”
He has got Klopp too. “He has a big personality, madre mía!” Moreno says, bursting out laughing when it is suggested the 45 minutes he spends on the other touchline, furthest away, must be a relief. “You hear him less!” he says with a grin, adding: “Well, you can hear him wherever you are and you’re always listening for instructions. He’s emotional, passionate: he really feels football, lives for football. Day to day, he’s super-happy, nice, close, but at the hour of truth, match day, pfff … he’s the most serious man in the world and he wants us to be ‘plugged in’. I wouldn’t like to see him angry.”
But surely you must have? “Yes, and it’s not nice! What angers him is seeing how his players aren’t playing as he wants. I’m sure all coaches are like that but with him it’s like his blood is boiling.”
Moreno pulls another face, with gritted teeth. “It boils and he pulls a face that’s like: ‘Lads, let’s be who we are, let’s play football.’ There are times we play badly in the first half and he can’t believe it: he gets wound up if he sees that his team doesn’t react, like he laughs so as not to hit someone. In every game there’s a moment when someone’s out of position or they make a mistake; we’re humans, that happens. It’s more about attitude, if he sees his players are not giving everything, if they’re not running, if they’re not pressuring …
“In training, the sessions are led by Zeljko Buvac and Klopp gives him freedom to decide what tactics to employ. Then there’s Peter Krawietz, who does most of the strategy. But Klopp is emotional, he can’t just stand there watching – and when the staff play, he plays up front – so he always takes part, always intervenes. Last season I asked him: ‘What can I do to improve?’ And he helped, of course, but he wasn’t especially close. This season, being a starter, he’s closer to me: he corrects my mistakes, improves me more. I’m much happier than last season.”
Perhaps it helps that his best friend has stayed, too but Moreno does not know how much longer Philippe Coutinho will be at Anfield and his position is not a comfortable one. “I have told him, eh,” he says. “I’ve said: ‘Brother, don’t go.’ But in the end, a player has to make the decision himself. I can’t tell you what he said to me, of course, because it’s something that’s very personal, but we’ve talked.
“He’s my friend and always will be, we get on very well, and of course [I will support him whatever his decision]. I don’t know what will happen. If it was down to me, I’d love him close to me for life, always enjoying seeing him play football, which is a wonder. It’s a privilege. It’s an honour to share a dressing room with him. He’s top, top. I see him train every day and he does things I’ve never seen before.” Moreno starts waving his hands as if performing a magic trick: “Things with the ball, touches, dribbles …”
Surely whatever happens in the long term, Liverpool cannot let him go in January? “If I get to decide, Philippe’s not going. But I can’t interfere. It’s Liverpool, Barcelona and him, and they decide. He’s a big piece at Liverpool. Every fan, everyone who watches Liverpool, everyone who understands football knows that. They know that if he goes, it will leave a big hole. But we’re Liverpool. We have a great squad and we won’t stop being Liverpool.”
And Liverpool, he says, can win something. “We have the team, but it has to come off. We got knocked out of the Carabao Cup, so one of the options has gone. And [Manchester] City have quite a lead in the league. But dreaming is free, so why not? I’ve been here for four years and I’m desperate to win something; it’s taking its time. But we have a good team, so dream, let’s dream. We have a great team, we’re very dangerous up front, we’re a side everyone would prefer to avoid. I don’t think anyone in the Champions League wants to face Liverpool.”
He wouldn’t want to, not with Salah there. The man whose very name, like that of Mané, brings appreciative noises. “He could be the signing of the season, for sure: his numbers are incredible,” Moreno says. “He’s scoring almost every game, providing assists, doing loads of work for the team. As a defender I wouldn’t want to face Mané and Salah. Having players like that, so fast, always running in behind the defenders: behind, behind, behind … the defender’s jodido, screwed.”
Moreno’s not, not any more. “I’m on their team now,” he says, laughing.