Results and performances in pre-season may not mean very much, but Alvaro Morata’s role as the villain of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal in Dublin on Wednesday night felt like a worryingly poignant moment in the Spain international’s Blues career.
Having missed a handful of glaring chances and even seen a penalty saved by Petr Cech, a goalkeeper famous for so rarely stopping spot kicks, Morata’s underwhelming and at times disinterested performance was perhaps the most significant narrative of an otherwise meaningless game.
Maurizio Sarri was quick to downplay Morata’s struggles in front of goal post-match, and in fairness the party line is hard to argue with; the striker celebrated the birth of twins earlier this week and that must have affected him in some way. Emotionally, mentally and physically it sounds like a wonderful yet inevitably draining experience.
But the negative response to Morata’s performance – Twitter predictably filling up with condemnation of the west London club’s record signing – hasn’t manifested in a vacuum. It comes in the context of Morata’s drastic drop in form during the second half of last season, starting off his Premier League career with ten goals but then scoring just once after the turn of 2018, and Sarri’s much-reported interest in upgrading on the 25-year-old.
Priority target Gonzalo Higuain is now set for a loan move to AC Milan instead, but even before Sarri was announced as Chelsea’s new manager the club were being strongly linked with Robert Lewandowski. It seems the Italian isn’t the only person at Stamford Bridge concerned Morata might never quite develop into the star of the show at a major European club after serving so well at Real Madrid and Juventus as one of the support acts.
It is, after all, a completely different challenge involving far greater mental and physical pressure, and Morata seemed to struggle with that the longer his first Chelsea season went on. By the end of the campaign, January signing Olivier Giroud had proved himself far more dependable in terms of goals, bringing the midfield into the game and simply handling the expectation of leading the attack of a top Premier League side.
Morata’s performance against Arsenal painted the picture of a striker down-heartened by the speculation and his own goal tally. But rather than beating himself up about the rumours, spending the next few weeks wondering whether he’d be at Stamford Bridge if Higuain had moved there instead of the San Siro, the Argentine assassin is someone Morata should be taking hope and inspiration from as one of the biggest success stories of Sarri’s career.
Indeed, when Sarri first arrived at Napoli, he had a simple message for the Italian club’s star striker who, more for historic reasons than any genuine likeness, was being compared by fans to the legendary Diego Maradona. Higuain felt he had earned the adoration too; his first two seasons in Naples had been productive if not exactly groundbreaking, netting 53 in 104 appearances.
Sarri though, believed Higuain wasn’t achieving his maxim. “You’re too lazy. If you don’t change your attitude, you won’t become the best centre forward in the world,” he told Napoli’s top scorer of the two previous seasons, in a sentence that contained both carrot and stick – the warning not to rest on one’s laurels, but also the promise that world-class status was well within his reach.
One year on from Sarri delivering that verdict to arguably the most important player at the club prior to his appointment, Higuain had set a new record for goals in a single Premier League season, doubling his return from the campaign previous to 36, and earned an £81million transfer to the only Italian club with a realistic chance of lifting the Champions League – Juventus.
It was a transformative impact on a player who, much like Morata, had always impressed in patches at one of Europe’s biggest clubs but struggled to truly embrace the limelight once it was thrust upon him slightly lower down the ladder. And there are other key similarities too; just as Higuain was often accused, once by Sarri himself, of being too sensitive, Morata’s a surprisingly timid character for a 6 foot 2 centre-forward.
Certainly in the Premier League, he’s struggled to hold his own in physical confrontations, to battle defenders and create space for others, and to come anywhere close to replacing the ruthless aggression Diego Costa once brought to Chelsea’s forward line. Nobody expected the Spaniard to be of exactly the same cloth, but the difference in mentality with Costa – and similarity with Higuain’s – was glaringly noticeable at times last season.
And this is despite the fact Morata clearly has all the requisites to play in that kind of way; he’s quick, he’s tall, he’s powerful in the air and he’s mobile enough to really press opposition defenders. Rather than the technical aspects of his game needing improvement, it feels as if something simply needs to flick from off to on in the back of the Chelsea striker’s mind.
Sarri, perhaps begrudgingly if transfer rumours are to be believed, is the man with his finger on the switch right now. History tells us that can only be a good thing for Morata, but any development is inevitably a two-way street.
How many goals will Morata score in the Premier League this season?