Alvaro Morata is a puzzling prospect. Has there ever been a club record signing with so many questions surrounding them? Put simply, no one seems entirely sure of how good he really is.
The evidence we have to reasonably draw from seems both inconclusive and contradictory.
On the one hand, he’s a 24-year-old who has already featured in three Champions League finals. On the other, he’s a 24-year-old who’s still yet to make his 50th senior league start.
On the one hand, he’s got an impressive knack of scoring in the very biggest games (UCL semi finals/finals, Coppa Italia final, Golden Boot and tournament winner at both U19 & U21 European Championships). On the other, his overall track record is modest at best. Even factoring in how often he's featured from the bench, 53 goals from 187 appearances (3.52 games per goal) at Real and Juventus isn't mind-blowing stuff. For some context, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a man who similarly played 3rd and 4th fiddle at United for over a decade, ended with a career strike rate of a goal every 2.58 appearances.
It’s also true the Madrid native is yet to really seize the role as ‘main man’. On the one hand, he’s had three of the world’s finest ahead of him in ‘BBC’ at Real – all but the very best would struggle to worm their way in there. On the other, he failed to ever truly dislodge the rather less elite trio of Mandzukic, Llorente and Tevez whilst in Turin. Throw in the mounting injury woes of the ‘BBC’ of late, plus Benzema enduring his poorest season in front of goal since 2010 this year and you can’t deny the opportunities to wrestle the No.9 spot at both clubs have been there.
Ultimately Morata needs to fill not only the goal scoring shoes of Diego Costa but attempt to match the talismanic presence the want-away striker cultivated during his time in West London. Elite football is a bastard's game and Costa, for all his foibles, succeeded through a cutthroat desire to win at all costs and by any means, something that many of the world’s top performers share.
Perhaps most telling was analysis from former teammate and paternal figure at Juve, Gigi Buffon. The iconic stopper, a man well placed to comment on what a great striker looks like, noted Morata could be among the world’s best “if only he could get over his mental hang ups”.
Another story emerged this week that was similarly illuminating. Mauricio Pochettino claims the striker turned down a move to Spurs two years ago over his concerns with playing back-up, "Why do you want me if you have Harry Kane?" Morata said to him. Whilst Kane had indeed just enjoyed a breakout season at Spurs he was by no means a household name yet.
Morata, conversely, had scored vital goals in both legs of the Champions League semis and ensuing final. Can you imagine the likes of Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic turning down a move on the grounds that they didn't back themselves to win their personal battle with fellow teammates? Zlatan may well have failed at Barcelona but he went there, fully believing he could oust Lionel Messi as top dog. Whilst misplaced on that occasion, such cast iron belief has held him in pretty good stead everywhere else his remarkable career has taken him.
Whilst Morata might arguably be a more natural footballing talent than Costa, he also comes across as more normal, a human capable of being vulnerable. Top level sport exists in a warped mental vacuum, however. It’s the unflinching, borderline psychopaths who often prevail and doubts persist, based on his past struggles to ruthlessly strong-arm the opportunities presented to him, in his ability to thrive as the main man.
It’s incredibly hard to shake the feeling that for the type of money being discussed (initial £58M, possibly rising to £70M), you’d arguably expect to get Karim Benzema, the man who’s kept the Spaniard on the bench or on loan these last six years. That point becomes more pertinent when you consider Chelsea’s gradual slide from football’s top economic table. It isn’t 2005 anymore, the Pensioners are no-longer the game’s big swinging appendages in the transfer market, they can’t match the financial clout of PSG, Man City and United. Whilst the financial landscape of football has been perverted beyond recognition in the space of the last 12 months alone, such a fee still represents a major outlay.
For all the niggling doubts, however, there’s no one overt flaw to his game and Morata actually enjoyed the best season of his career to date last year, netting 20 times in all comps for the first time. This was despite starting in less than half his appearances.
There’s also no knowing how much he could improve, no single player develops in the same way or at the same rate - Thierry Henry had never hit double figures in 6 seasons as a professional when he arrived at Arsenal whilst Didier Drogba was 27 years old before he really found his feet at Chelsea.
So back to the original question – ‘how good is Morata?’. The answer lies somewhere between ‘quite’ and ‘extremely’. Whether that’s enough for Chelsea as they attempt to not only retain their league title but make a dent in Europe, remains to be seen.
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