Up until the weekend, it seemed virtually certain that Alvaro Morata was destined to become Manchester United’s new No.9 and the most important signing of their rebuild to date. Club officials were in Spain to close out a £61.5 million deal that would make him the most expensive Spaniard of all time, but now Cristiano Ronaldo has thrown a spanner in the works and given them another reason to travel to Madrid.
Embroiled in a tax fraud scandal, the winking wonder has made it known that he wants to leave the Bernabeu this summer. United, understandably, have been drawn into a flirtation with a player who exploded into life at Old Trafford. But they cannot afford to become distracted from their pursuit of Morata and other, long established targets. Ronaldo is a dream, Morata is a reality. And moreover, he can leave a longer and more lasting impression.
His first task would be to fill the rather large void left by two of the most prolific strikers of the last decade – something Ronaldo simply cannot do in the long term. Admittedly Wayne Rooney’s rapid decline has weakened the impact of his own looming departure, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s absence will be more keenly felt. Twenty-eight goals, an imposing playing style and the big-game mentality Jose Mourinho craves. He was the Special One’s special striker.
But in Morata he could have a new forward to build his attack around. Few managers are as appreciative and reliant on a bullish and mobile centre-forward, and if there was one weakness in Ibrahimovic’s game it was that he lacked the speed and mobility to unnerve defences and trigger counter-attacks. Ronaldo offers slightly more in that respect – but for how much longer?
By contrast, Morata is a thoroughly modern breed of striker; at 6’2” he is a physical presence, but he is also blessed with good pace and lithe movement. Many will question spending such a huge fee on a player who was predominantly used as a substitute last season, and only has 40 career league goals, but he is the exact profile of forward that Mourinho has used to such great effect in the past.
In his first spell at Chelsea, he had the destructive Didier Drogba, while at Inter he signed lone-furrow plougher Diego Milito. Then at Real Madrid he could rely on the dynamic Karim Benzema, before he raided Atletico Madrid for mischief-maker extraordinaire Diego Costa. Quite apart from their goalscoring prowess, they all share similar qualities – tall, athletic, powerful and hard-working – and Morata has shades of all of them.
They are also all hugely dependable out-balls, something that is intrinsic to the way Mourinho plays – especially away from home and in the biggest matches. It is probably for this reason that he has targeted Morata over Romelu Lukaku, despite the latter’s Premier League experience, greater goal tally and more consistent play time. Morata has never played more than 43 per cent of the total available minutes in a league campaign, while Lukaku played 95.5% last season alone.
But he is considerably more reliable in possession. In fact, according to Opta stats, Lukaku loses the ball every 2.59 touches on average, while Morata only every 3.48 touches. Over the course of a 90 minute match, that makes Lukaku 25% more likely to give possession back to the opposition – that will not be lost on Mourinho.
Ball retention: Morata v Lukaku
His previous No.9s have in many ways been hold-up men first, goalscorers second – though they netted bucket loads regardless. When Real won the title under Mourinho in 2011/12, Benzema had 81.8% passing accuracy, while his Inter treble winners of two years previous could always rely on Milito, who found a teammate with 83.6% of his passes, to retain possession and bring others into the game.
Pass completion of Mourinho’s previous strikers/targets (%)
Those players all relished the biggest stages, another thing Morata has in common. At Juventus, he scored an extra-time winner in the Coppa Italia final, his final match for the club, and netted their ultimately fruitless equaliser in the 2015 Champions League final. But it was his quarter-final appearance against Bayern Munich a year later that would have really impressed Mourinho.
He bullied Bayern’s centre-backs, both dropping deep and running in behind to drag them out of position. He was an absolute force of nature at times, notably slaloming through a sea of red shirts in a full 60-yard dash before assisting Juan Cuadrado to make the score 4-2 on aggregate. It was the perfect performance from a lone striker, and when he left the pitch dripping in sweat his effort appeared to have won the tie for Juve.
But Max Allegri’s side would implode, conceding four times in the 37 minutes that proceeded Morata’s substitution, only underlining further what a tremendous job he had done in releasing pressure and getting the Old Lady’s counter-attack up and running. Without him, they looked completely blunt.
Morata’s skillset has not translated quite so well back at Real Madrid, where the balance between attack and defence leans rather more towards the former. There has also been the significant presence of Ronaldo to contend with, who needs a very particular type of forward to work in tandem with. Benzema is considered the better foil, pulling out wide to cover the Portuguese superstar’s increasing forays though the middle.
Clinicalness: Morata v Lukaku
In the Champions League final, for example, you would be forgiven for thinking that Benzema had lined up on the left wing, his heat map burning brightest on the touchline. Instead it is Ronaldo who acts as the fox-in-the-box finisher, the one touch-one goal predator, who gets all the glory without any of the legwork.
Morata interview with The Guardian
It is what made United such an appealing destination for Morata. The chance, at last, to be the undisputed main man and to find a permanent home – his stay at Juve only ever felt temporary, given that Madrid’s buy-back clause hung over him. It was Mourinho who gave him his debut, and it is Mourinho who has made frequent phone calls to the 24-year-old to stress the important role he can play next season.
But signing Ronaldo, or even contributing to the charade that now engulfs him, would undermine that message. The two players are not well suited to each other, and United must only choose one. It is a choice between a brief but bright glimpse into a long-since departed past, or a vision of a longer, more sustainable future.
The young Spaniard needs confidence and trust, but the potential for him to explode is plain to see. Only Ronaldo out-scored him among the Madrid squad last season, while he netted every 89.4 minutes in La Liga – of players with at least 10 goals, only Messi (76) bettered that strike rate. Across his entire career for club and country, he has scored every 124.8 minutes. An astonishing return.
As further proof of his all-round threat, only one player scored more headed goals than Morata in La Liga last season, netting six of his 19 efforts – and he got another for Spain against Colombia. Christian Benteke and Fernando Llorente are the only Premier League players to have buried more headers, but from 45 and 34 efforts respectively. Given that only Southampton attempted more open-play crosses than United’s 629 last season, it is a great asset to have.