Álvaro Morata is a smart guy. A really smart guy. Just 24 years of age, he can speak Spanish, Italian and English, while he has also launched a successful gourmet croissant business back in Madrid. However, it is on the football pitch where he really demonstrates just how intelligent he is and Chelsea have already been enjoying the benefits of one of the best heads in football.
Not only is the striker able to accurately head the ball into the back of nets across the continent, but he has some of football’s sharpest hardware plugged inside his skull.
In Real Madrid’s 4-2 victory over Leganés during last season’s LaLiga title run-in, Morata showed that his greatest asset is above his shoulders, scoring what he will consider the perfect hat-trick when Zinedine Zidane – who has a famous head for very different reasons – gave him a shot at leading the European champions’ line. He didn’t bag a right-foot-left-foot-header trio of goals, but instead used his head for all three, physically steering the ball past the opposition goalkeeper with his forehead for his first and third goals, while demonstrating an impressive footballing IQ to manufacture the space which allowed him to slot in his second.
“Mateo Kovačić just provided a luxurious assist,” were the exact words of the commentator on Spanish TV as soon as the ball rippled the back of the net, but that ignored the fact that Morata’s movement played just as important a role in the pass as the swinging of Kovačić’s boot.
Closely marked by two opposition defenders and with a third closing in, Morata faked a run to the left and pulled all of the defenders with him, before planting a foot in the ground and sprinting back to his right, a feint which an NFL wide receiver would be proud of. By the time Kovačić pulled the trigger, Morata was already in space. He’d done all of the hard work already.
That is the way Morata plays and it could not be more different from the style of Diego Costa, his Chelsea predecessor and rival for Spain’s No.9 role. Whereas Costa is able to bully defenders and use his strength to crowbar himself into the right position, the slighter Morata must instead lose the defender completely, or else he risks being out-muscled. Costa is like the Hummer smashing through traffic during a car chase, while Morata is the Smart Car squeezing through a back alley for a shortcut. There is no right or wrong way to play as a centre-forward, but Morata’s methods are based on brains over brawn and they work well for him.
That is one way in which the most expensive Spanish player in history uses his head, but he’s just as good at literally heading the ball, having scored six of his 15 2016/17 LaLiga goals with that part of his body part. Chelsea supporters have already seen and enjoyed this skill too. Over Morata’s first three Premier League appearances, he has scored two goals and assisted two as well, all with his head and all using some amount of brainpower at the same time.
His headed goals against Burnley and against Everton were just as much about anticipation and awareness of the offside line as about the finish, hence why he found himself in so much space both times. As for his setting up of goals, the no-look backwards nod for David Luiz may already be an assist of the season contender, while the little nudge into Cesc Fàbregas’ path last weekend was just as astute.
Over the course of the season, Morata will score some special goals with his feet too – that’s what all good strikers do. But most of what he does will come from above the shoulders, which will be a joy for Antonio Conte to watch and a nightmare for opposition coaches to try to stop. There may not be another striker in England who has a better head than Álvaro Morata.