Scouting Spotlight: Rony Lopes, Hakim Ziyech and Gerard Moreno
Scouting Spotlight profiles players across Europe who have caught the eye. This week, Monaco's rising star, an Ajax attacker and an Arsenal target starring in La Liga feature in our round up.
Rony Lopes -- Monaco
Having progressed through the Benfica academy alongside Bernardo Silva, Lopes joined Manchester City in 2011 and made several appearances during a four-year spell in England. He moved to Monaco for a reported £9 million in 2015, but found his path to the first team blocked by his former youth teammate before Silva departed for Manchester last summer.
Lopes was highlighted as a special talent by Patrick Vieira during the Frenchman's coaching spell with City's elite development squad, and the 22-year-old has continued to demonstrate his ability under Leonardo Jardim at Monaco.
A technical wide forward with devastating acceleration and impressive upper-body strength, Lopes is most frequently deployed as an inverted winger on the right of Jardim's 4-2-3-1 system. The Brazilian-born attacker possesses excellent close control and awareness, constantly assessing his options to find the right pass or a direct route to goal.
Favouring his left foot, Lopes likes to bend shots towards the far post from the edge of the box. His decision-making is a little rushed at times, but he can dribble in-field or on the outside of the full-back, and is strong enough on his weaker foot to slide dangerous balls across the six-yard box.
With 26 starts in all competitions, Lopes has proven himself to be an important player for Monaco this season. He has managed four goals and four assists in 24 Ligue 1 appearances, despite playing the full 90 minutes on only five occasions.
The forward has impressed most against an exciting young Lyon team who have rivalled Monaco for a Champions League place. He scored and set up another in a last-gasp 3-2 defeat to Bruno Genesio's side in October and found the net when Lyon triumphed 3-2 again in the Coupe de France in January.
On Sunday Monaco finally gained revenge, claiming a 3-2 victory of their own at the Stade Louis II despite trailing 2-0 at one stage and being reduced to ten men in the first half following Keita Balde's red card. Lopes scored a fine winning goal in the 88th minute, driving a left-footed half-volley across the goalkeeper and into the corner.
Where would he fit in?
It was assumed that Lopes would eventually earn a regular first-team role at City, having scored on his debut as a 17-year-old against Watford in the FA Cup.
Tottenham were reported to have rivalled Monaco for his signature in 2015, while there was interest in the Portugal international from Serie A last summer after he spent the season on loan at Lille. It now appears that Lopes' immediate future lies at Monaco, however, with the youngster performing well in the starting XI and tied to the club until 2020.
Hakim Ziyech -- Ajax
An €11m signing from Twente in 2016, Ziyech helped Ajax finish as runners-up in the Eredivisie and Europa League last term. The midfielder declared his international allegiance to Morocco in 2015, and will play at the World Cup in Russia while his native Netherlands stay at home.
A languid dribbler with exceptional vision, Ziyech roams across the midfield for Ajax, often finding space in wide areas to cause problems. The 24-year-old isn't blessed with pace, but possesses remarkable balance and quick feet to protect the ball as he drives forward.
Ziyech's greatest strength is his ability to play defence-splitting passes. He is adept at spotting his teammates' runs in the final third, often sliding perfectly weighted through-balls inside the full-backs. Although a composed finisher inside the penalty area, he likes to shoot from distance, with almost three-quarters of his attempts in the Eredivisie this season coming from outside the box.
Ziyech is one of the most productive attackers in the Netherlands, scoring 30 league goals in two years at Twente and claiming 27 assists over the same period. He led the assists chart in his first year at Ajax last season, creating more chances per game than any other player in the Eredivisie and laying on 11 goals.
Ziyech also claimed seven strikes of his own, and has contributed five goals and eight assists in the current campaign as Ajax look to rein in PSV Eindhoven at the top of the table. The Morocco international demonstrated his set-piece ability at the weekend, scoring a late free-kick to seal a 3-1 victory over NAC Breda.
Where would he fit in?
Everton, Arsenal and West Ham were all linked with Ziyech in 2016 before he chose Ajax as the next step in his career. Having maintained his impressive form at the Netherlands' most decorated club, it has been reported that Liverpool are considering the 24-year-old as a potential replacement for Philippe Coutinho.
Gerard Moreno -- Espanyol
After climbing through the ranks at Villarreal, Gerard joined Espanyol in 2015 on a five-year contract. With 12 goals in 28 appearances this season, he is enjoying his best campaign to date.
A busy left-footed striker, Gerard likes to drop deep to get involved in Espanyol's build-up play. He is confident with the ball at his feet, twisting and turning away from his marker, and likes to defend from the front, pressing the opposition into making mistakes -- a tactic he scored from recently in a 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao.
Gerard also has an eye for a killer pass, which he demonstrated with a brilliant assist for Leo Baptistao in Espanyol's 2-0 Copa del Rey win over Levante. Around the box, the 25-year-old is proficient at finding space, sneaking between Barcelona's defence to head home the opening goal in Sunday's 1-1 derby draw.
Gerard's fine header against Barca was his ninth goal in 22 La Liga appearances this season as Espanyol fight to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.
The striker's goals have directly contributed to nine of the Catalan club's 25 points, with winners against Real Betis and Getafe. Gerard's strikes are usually typical of a penalty box poacher, displaying the positioning sense to profit from his teammates' deliveries.
Where would he fit in?
In November, Espanyol extended Gerard's contract until 2022, with Villarreal retaining 50 percent of the player's rights as well as a buyback clause.
He was strongly linked to Arsenal in 2015 before leaving Villarreal, while Newcastle expressed an interest last summer. A €25m release clause will test any club that intends to make a bid.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger