In the second minute of Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat of Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, Alvaro Morata controlled a long punt and steered the ball out wide to Eden Hazard. He swiftly turned and moved. Hazard half volleyed the ball from the right over to the left towards Marcos Alonso. Alonso met Hazard’s pass on the full and hammered it back across the box. Morata nudged Chris Smalling out of his path and caught it on his left foot only for his shot to crash off the crossbar.
The Spaniard placed his hands through his brylcreem imbued hair and screamed in anguish… and for the proceeding 92 minutes, he cowered into his shell.
On a day when his opposite number Romelu Lukaku finally flourished in a big game, Morata once again faded dramatically. The image of the Belgian that will remembered for years to come is of him bursting his lungs to run the ball into the corner in the dying embers of the game to wild applause by the United supporters and his manager Jose Mourinho. Most will just recall Morata on the floor, arms flailing and a sulking grimace on his face. It’s now nine games without a goal and he has scored only five times since September.
Following Arsenal’s loss to Watford in October, Troy Deeney questioned the ‘cajones’ of Arsene Wenger’s side, pointing in particular to Mesut Ozil laughing after missing a chance to kill the game when Arsenal lead 1-0. Deeney was making the point that Arsenal were too casual in assuming that they’d get another opportunity.
Morata appears to have the opposite syndrome, in that one missed chance sends his whole world crumbling down. All confidence drains from his pours and even relatively simple finishes become crippling. Chelsea’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates in January was the prime example of this. Slipped through one-on-one with Petr Cech in the first half, Morata dragged wide of the post. It affected him for the remainder of the game, as he spurned simple opportunities including an astonishing miss in injury time which would’ve secured three points for his side.
Afterwards, Antonio Conte reaffirmed his belief in his striker. “He’s young. I repeat I understand for a striker it’s not easy if you don’t score, but don’t forget for Alvaro it’s his first season playing regularly. He didn’t always play with Real Madrid and Juventus. You have to know this. I’m very happy with his commitment and the way he’s playing. He has to stay calm continue to play this way. The goal is coming.”
One must wonder if that confidence remains given the events of Sunday where Morata was timid and utterly ineffective. When Victor Lindelof collided into him, he winced and threw his arms in the air. Supporters were growing frustrated as he continuously fell to the ground at the slightest contact and appealed for free kicks. Towards the end of the game as Chelsea laboriously sought an equaliser, they aimed their attack towards Oliver Giroud, who showed so much more grit in 12 minutes on the pitch, rather than Morata. Ironically, the one time he managed to put the ball in the net he was flagged (incorrectly) for offside.
Contrast that with events in Seville, where the man Morata was signed to replace was tearing it up for Atletico Madrid. In the course of 96 seconds, Diego Costa initiated a scrap, tried to get an opponent sent off, was booked, pounced on a defensive mishap and scored. Since his return to La Liga, Atletico have won seven of eight league games and Costa has scored four times as well as receiving a red card. He’s a natural born winner though and the intensity and attitude he plays with clearly emanates through the rest of Diego Simeone’s side.
The faith of Morata at Chelsea will always be defined by how he measures up against the last two great blues strikers – Costa and Didier Drogba. Few would argue that Costa is a more talented footballer than Morata. Morata is intelligent, nimble and fast. He is technically gifted, precise and is good in the air. He is far more polished than both, but he lacks the one unquantifiable quality they and other great centre-forwards possess – ruthlessness.
The cold blooded killer instinct and mentality in front of goal that Costa and Drogba had to shrug off disappointment and know that they would score the next one is currently absent. In Chelsea’s title victory last season, it’s easy to forget the number of winners Costa would grab from scraps late in games. With the exception of the 1-0 victory over United in November, Morata just hasn’t had the same impact. Drogba meanwhile scored in eight cup finals, a truly remarkable record.
Another quality Morata sorely misses is the appetite for battle that his predecessors so relished. Too often he gets bullied by opposing defenders and either complains to the referee or hides. Those who know him personally claim he is a thoughtful and considered person, a sensitive soul who is well balanced off the pitch. His former Juventus teammate Gigi Buffon once said that he could be the best striker in the world “if only he could get over his mental hang-ups”.
There must be concern amongst those at Chelsea who sanctioned his transfer that he may never move beyond those issues. You get the sense that he might just be too nice, lacking the steel required to be an elite player. He is only 25, but time doesn’t stand still. Morata was rarely first choice at Juventus and was a relatively peripheral figure at Real Madrid. Perhaps he is consigned to the role of a nearly man and if he wants to alter that perception, he needs to do it fast. Because patience is running out.