Moises Caicedo certainly didn’t play like someone with the weight of expectation on him as Ecuador kicked off the 2022 World Cup with a 2-0 victory over hosts Qatar.
The 21-year-old midfielder is reportedly a transfer target for a number of Europe’s elite clubs and they no doubt would’ve been impressed with what they witnessed.
Ecuador were expected to win and Caicedo was expected to impress in what was the biggest game of his career to date. That sort of pressure can sometimes get the better of a player. It can lead to them playing within themselves as they just look to get through the game without making a mistake.
Caicedo, however, was unfazed as he went about his business at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium. Only one starter could better his 92% pass success rate, he also made two interceptions and won 100% of the aerial duels he competed in as he anchored the midfield in a double pivot alongside Jhegson Mendez.
Now, this performance is not one that is likely going to make a highlight reel. However, it did showcase exactly what the Brighton midfielder is good at and why so many are keeping tabs on him.
Every top team has that one midfielder who is in the team to ensure that pressure is kept on the opposition. Liverpool have Fabinho. Manchester City have Rodri. Chelsea, when he’s fit, have N‘Golo Kante.
Not only are they in the right place at the right time but they are also able to play the right pass in the right moment. It is an undervalued trait but one that is possessed by Caicedo.
Caicedo is circled in the above screenshot. Ecuador have gone long and the Brighton midfielder is looking to pick up any second balls to keep the hosts pinned in their half.
As the ball bounces to him, the home side have eight players between the midfielder and the goal.
By rushing out to press him, they are obviously looking to force him backwards and he does have two team-mates to the right of him, just off-screen.
The yellow arrow shows what is perhaps the easiest pass, the one Qatar no doubt want him to play.
Caicedo ignores these options and instead loops a pass over the two players pressing him and straight to Enner Valencia.
Qatar go from having eight outfield players behind the ball with pressure on the man in possession to having six players behind the ball and zero pressure on the man receiving the pass.
Having opted to play that particular pass, Caicedo has kept the pressure on those in red and allowed Ecuador to build an attack in the opposition’s half.
There were other examples of this in the first half.
This time, Caicedo picks up a loose ball on the halfway line. He could play a simple pass to Valencia and allow the move to progress without him. The young midfielder drives forward into the space, forcing a number of Qatar players to engage with him - one of whom is the central defender in the back five.
When Boualem Khoukhi steps up to pressurise Caicedo, the right-sided centre-back, Bassam Al Rawi shuffles over to cover the space.
Caicedo eventually plays a pass backwards from this position and the resulting cross is nodded home by Valencia. The Ecuador captain was able to position himself behind Al Rawi as he was still covering for Khoukhi.
The in-demand Brighton man disrupted the defensive shape with his initial drive forward and Qatar never managed to sort themselves out. Even the decision to carry the ball into the right channel forces the hosts out there to close him down and further impacts their defensive structure.
The one-time Manchester United transfer target doesn’t just retain possession, he also ensures his team are able to retain pressure.
It is one of the reasons why his involvement in the starting XI at Brighton coincided with the Seagulls having a dramatic upturn in form.
Linked with moves to Chelsea, RB Leipzig and AC Milan, it was something of a surprise when the highly sought-after teenager ended up at the Amex in early 2021.
He was eased into life in England and spent the first half of the 2021/22 campaign on loan in Belgium.
He was recalled in the winter window and eventually forced his way into Graham Potter’s first team. This was a Brighton team who had lost six of their last seven Premier League matches.
Yet in the following eight matches, all games Caicedo started, the Seagulls won five and lost just once - against Manchester City. They picked up wins over Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United and West Ham on their way to a ninth-placed finish.
The form carried over into this season too, with Brighton winning four of their opening six matches prior to Potter joining Chelsea. The Seagulls have struggled under new manager Roberto De Zerbi but have won two of their last three.
Across the two campaigns, Caicedo has been involved in 19 Premier League matches. Brighton have 11 wins in that time and are averaging two points per game. If you were to extrapolate that over an entire season, it is a 76-point campaign and would likely be enough for a top-four place.
That is some going when you consider this run coincided with the loss of their long-term manager and two key midfielders in Yves Bissouma, who joined Spurs, and Enock Mwepu, who was forced to retire.
Caicedo isn’t solely responsible for this form but it is no coincidence Brighton have posted these numbers with the 21-year-old in their starting XI.