How Alexander Sørloth Finally Found His Home at Villarreal

Heading into Villarreal’s last game of the season away at Osasuna, Alexander Sørloth knew he needed at least one goal to claim the Pichichi – the trophy given to La Liga’s top scorer each year.  The Norwegian thought his 17-minute four-goal haul against champions Real Madrid the week prior would have been enough, but he was still one goal off Artem Dovbyk’s tally of 24, with the Ukrainian having netted a hat-trick in Girona’s 7-0 battering of Granada the night before.


Nonetheless, he still had one more game. Approaching the 13th minute he got his first chance – receiving a perfectly weighted slipped through pass into the left channel from Manu Trigueros, after the forward dropping off to show for a pass to feet, before peeling off his defender and spinning in behind. Sørloth let the pass run across his body, and struck the ball first time, but it went straight into the side-netting.



Granted, it was a difficult shot from a tight angle, but on his stronger left foot – and the form he’s currently in – you wouldn’t be surprised if it found the net. Nevertheless, it was only the 13th minute, he still had plenty of time. Or so everyone thought. In striking the ball, Sørloth slightly overstretched and subsequently tweaked his right hamstring, resulting in José Luis Morales coming on as the giant Norwegian glumly walked straight down the tunnel.


The Pichichi race was now over: it was going to Dovbyk. Of course, the Girona man was still highly deserving of the award following a magnificent first season in the Spanish top-flight, but it marked a bittersweet ending for Sørloth, who deservedly earned some sort of tangible recognition after what had been one of, if not the best seasons he’s had in all of the countless European leagues he’s played in. 


A Tumultuous Journey across Europe


The 28-year-old has had somewhat of a nomadic career so far, constantly jumping from one club to another. In fact, all of his last eight transfers (either loan or permanent) have seen him move leagues, and have come after he’d spent no more 18 months at each club – that is, aside from his two consecutive loans at Real Sociedad.


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Arguably the most high-profile of these was a move to Crystal Palace in January 2018, after Sørloth, then 22, had caught the eye with 17 goal involvements in 19 games for Danish side Midtjylland. Following spells at Rosenborg, Bodø/Glimt, and Groningen, the Danish side signed him just six months prior, yet had already sold him on for a club-record fee.


The move to Selhurst Park didn’t exactly go as planned though. Sørloth, was shipped out on back-to-back loans after failing to find the net in 16 league appearances for The Eagles, set to be remembered as yet another ‘flop’ Premier League number nine. Following an unsuccessful stint at Gent, he found his form in the second loan at Trabzonspor, finishing as Turkish Super Lig’s top scorer with 24 goals.


These performances earned him another high-profile move, as RB Leipzig stumped up a reported €20m in the hopes that Sørloth’s time in London was just a blip. Unfortunately, the striker suffered similar fate in Germany as he did in England, quickly moving to Real Sociedad on a year-long loan after a lowly five goals in one Bundesliga season.



His first year in La Liga was largely unremarkable, but he scored a respectable 12 goals in 28 starts in the next after rejoining Imanol Alguacil’s side for a second consecutive loan. Without an option-to-but clause, La Real were unwilling to negotiate a fee, but, having now proved himself in a top European division, Villarreal seized the opportunity to sign the Scandinavian, paying €10m as they sought to replace the outgoing Nicolas Jackson.


Starring in Eastern Spain


Sørloth wasn’t exactly entering a settled environment at La Cerámica, with the instability in the coaching staff somewhat mirroring the ever-changing nature that had spelled his career so far. Just 12 league games in, Villarreal were already on their third manager of the season. Quique Setién, the man in charge when Sørloth signed, was forced out the door after four games, only to be followed by his replacement Pacheta, who was sacked with just two wins in eight.



However, thankfully for Villarreal, their new No.11 was used to constant environment changes, and thus still showed some promise in those 12 matches, scoring at rate of a goal every other game. It’s been under new head coach Marcelino where he has really thrived, netting 17 goals and 5 assists in 21 La Liga appearances.


Under the Spanish manager, Sørloth is clearly profiting from a clearly defined role in the side. Playing either in the centre of a front three or as the left striker of two, the 6’5” powerhouse doesn’t get involved in play much, instead tasked with occupying centre backs and running the channels to stretch defences and create space in between the lines for more creative and technical players such as Gerard Moreno, and Álex Baena. 


Showing this, as per Opta data via FBRef, Sørloth’s 28.8 touches and 12.9 passes per 90 are the lowest in the Villarreal squad, whilst his high rank amongst forwards in Europe for successful take-ons, progressive carries, and aerial duels won highlights how he’s used as an outlet to terrorise defenders both in the air and on the ground.


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This role not only exploits the lethal pace and power imposed by his towering yet well-built frame, but also minimises the impact of his less-refined technical abilities. Consequently, Sørloth is given the licence to play with freedom and focus on his main job – get into the box and score goals.


It has evidently paid dividends, with all of his 23 league goals coming inside the box, but none being from penalties, compared to Pichichi winner Dovbyk’s seven goals from the spot. Rather, Sørloth’s goals have been a variety of finishes come from a wide range of situations.


His league-high seven headed goals shows his ability to outleap his marker from set pieces. He’s capable of shooting first-time after finding space with fake runs and clever box movement. Or, most impressively, he can finish off a swift counter-attack with a rifled left-footed strike across goal – a trademark Sørloth move.



Despite this multifaceted box threat, and his excellent strike rate – his rate of almost one goal in every three shots leads La Liga forwards – it must be noted that he is drastically overperforming. According to FBRef, Sørloth scored close to 11 more goals than his expected goals (xG) – two more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.


Now of course, he could just be an exceptionally clinical finisher, after all, many of the world’s top goal scorers consistently outperform their xG. However, this doesn’t match up to Sørloth’s prior record, with this the first season in his career that he’s not scored less than expected, whilst his total xG this season (12.3) is almost identical to his last under Alguacil (12.7), where he scored 12 goals.


As such, it would be negligent not to consider that he may be on a hot streak, especially given his on-again off-again form over the years.  Nonetheless, Villarreal and Marcelino will still believe he can carry his performances into the new campaign. That is, if Sørloth is still there.


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On the Move Again?


Whilst his nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 2024, and his recovery from a minor thigh injury, means Sørloth will certainly have a quiet summer on the pitch, that may not be the case of it. As reported by The Athletic, Villarreal’s lack of European football next season means they need to balance their books to comply with La Liga financial regulations, and would consequently be willing to listen to offers for the Norway international, who also has a €38m release clause inserted in his contract.


Therefore, despite neither the player or club actively looking for a transfer, Sørloth may be on the move after just one year at a new club yet again (at least his estate agent is getting his money’s worth!). Wherever Sørloth ends up though, it will be interesting to see whether the forward’s confidence and potency in front of goal continues, or if this is yet another purple patch in his career.


By: Travis Levison / @TravisLevison67

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images