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Pablo Fornals: ‘We never stop running – we have to enjoy these moments’ | West Ham United

David Moyes has a simple message for West Ham’s creative players: if you don’t run, you don’t play. There is no room for passengers with Moyes in charge. Substance has to accompany style and West Ham have benefited from a humble approach this season, surpassing expectations by establishing themselves as the unlikeliest of challengers for Champions League qualification.

It has been an astonishing turnaround given that they spent last year battling against relegation. Flimsy and unreliable before reuniting with Moyes in December 2019, West Ham are pushovers no more. Spirit in the camp is high and the Scot has a buy-in from his attacking players, who know that they have to put the team first. “It’s the way to understand football and most of the time understand life,” Pablo Fornals says. “If you are passionate and give 100% things can be good or bad but nobody can say you didn’t try. If I do something, I want to do my best.”

Fornals, who faces Leicester on Sunday, is the embodiment of West Ham’s improvement. When the Spanish midfielder left Villarreal for £24m in the summer of 2019, he looked unsuited to English football. During those difficult early months it was hard to see why Andrés Iniesta had anointed Fornals as his heir. It seemed that West Ham, struggling under Manuel Pellegrini, had made another expensive mistake.

“It was a bit of a shock because I thought I was a good player,” Fornals says. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing the same as I was in Spain. I am a slim boy and football here is a little bit stronger. I needed to adjust small things to get myself at the same level as everyone.”

What was difficult? “The speed, how strong the game is, the things allowed by the referees,” the 24-year-old says. “Everyone can see when English teams or Spanish teams are playing in European competitions. Sometimes it is frustrating because some referees whistle more for English teams, or for some Spanish teams the referees are not whistling the same as in Spain.

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“In Spain it is too difficult to speak with the referees. Here they understand you are in a game, your motivation is more than 100%. They try to speak gently with you. If you receive good vibes, you will give good vibes back.”

Pablo Fornals scores West Ham’s second goal at Wolves
Pablo Fornals scores West Ham’s second goal at Wolves. Photograph: Michael Regan/PA

Fornals, who scored his fourth goal of the season in West Ham’s win at Wolves on Monday, was ready prove himself to Moyes by working on his speed and strength. He improved as last season wore on and has continued to progress. Fornals has been excellent this season. He creates and drives into the box, but he also works hard on and off the ball, fitting the template of the classic Moyes player.

“When he came here I was finding myself with Pellegrini and trying to play good games,” Fornals says. “When David Moyes came I just tried to show him I was ready to give the team my experience, my youth, my energy. I want to play and for me it doesn’t matter who is the coach. It’s him who chooses between of all of us and it’s not easy competing with these really good teammates, so I always try to give 2,000%.”

The only hint of ego from Fornals comes when he discusses his talent for Ludo. “I am really good,” he says, explaining that he is rarely more competitive than when the board comes out and battle with his girlfriend commences. “In Spain we used to punish who lost. It makes you ready to compete for everything.”

Family matters to Fornals, who comes from Castellón, an hour’s drive north of Valencia. “A small city or a big town – it’s up to you,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place to live. Close to the sea, close to the mountains. We have everything. It is a quiet place. My mum and dad still work. I have a sister living in Madrid and working for a pharmaceutical company. She was here in England, in Nottingham, working for three years, and living in London as well to improve her English.”

Being away from his family is hard, although Fornals is happier now that better wifi means his parents can watch him play for West Ham. “We live in the mountains,” he says. “It’s not in the city centre so it’s not the richest place.

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“The connections were a little bit poorer. When the government put a really good fibreoptic in place my family could watch our games. I bought them a big TV. It is another boost to know my family are watching me. My mum lives football more than me. Listening for my name, she is excited and jumping on the sofa.”

The 24-year-old is full of energy, even bursting into song midway through an answer about Santi Cazorla, his former Villarreal teammate. “Villarreal is a small place but it is a great team and teams from everywhere in the world go there to learn,” he says. “Tourists from everywhere come. We were on our training pitch and everyone started to sing: ‘Ohhh Santi Cazorla!’ The love that people have for him is amazing.”

Fornals bows to nobody in his admiration for Cazorla, who has continued to impress since joining Xavi Hernández’s Al Sadd in Qatar, and calls the former Arsenal midfielder “a proper baller”. He respects Spanish football’s greats and is uncomfortable with the Iniesta comparisons. “It is a big responsibility for a young guy to hear you are going to be the next Andrés Iniesta,” Fornals says. “Iniesta is the guy who gave Spain its first World Cup. It’s not just one player – it is Andrés Iniesta!”

Pablo Fornals celebrates scoring for Villarreal at Real Madrid on 13 January 2018.
Pablo Fornals, with No 8 on his shorts, celebrates scoring for Villarreal at Real Madrid on 13 January 2018. Photograph: Ruben Albarran/Rex/Shutterstock

Yet the hype grew when Fornals helped Spain win the European Under-21 Championship before joining West Ham. “It was a big moment,” Fornals says. “After this a lot of players changed our careers. Dani Ceballos came here, Borja Mayoral is in Roma, Marc Roca is at Bayern Munich, Dani Olmo is at Leipzig. We were not better than the previous generation. They lost a final against Germany and they had Héctor Bellerín, Gerard Deulofeu, an unbelievable squad. It was an unbelievable tournament for me because the last season at Villarreal had been a bit down.”

Now West Ham can see why Fornals was so highly rated. He needs to add more goals to his game, especially with Michail Antonio ruled out with a hamstring injury, but he finished expertly against Wolves after meeting Arthur Masuaku’s cutback.

“I always speak to the lads and say: ‘If you arrive at the sides, I’m going to try and be at the penalty spot because it’s a good place to stay and receive the rebound,’” Fornals says. “The ball, mathematically, usually stays around the penalty spot most of the time. It was a perfect ball from Arthur.”

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Fornals knew that his job was not done after scoring. He kept running and working. “We have to enjoy these moments as a fan, a player, as a coach, as a West Ham fan,” Fornals says. “Enjoy the moment, enjoy the process. These things are giving us a little bit more – why we never stop running in minute 90, why we believe we can play against everyone. It is a good way to live.”

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