Here’s a quick question: what do Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane, Thomas Muller, Gerard Moreno, Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale and Bruno Fernandes all have in common?
They all have fewer goals at Euro 2020 than Alvaro Morata.
Here’s another one. If we use “forward” in the loosest sense to mean anyone in the frontline of Spain’s 4-3-3, then Morata is competing with Dani Olmo, Pablo Sarabia, Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Mikel Oyarzabal for a starting spot. Those players, between them, have scored 21 goals for La Roja.
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Morata alone has scored 20.
So what does he have to do in a Spain shirt to convince everyone he deserves to start for his country?
I know, you’re screaming “finish chances!” at your device right now. According to FBRef, Morata has scored just once this tournament from 2.8 expected goals. Reasonable people might argue scoring penalties is different to open play, but even so, that’s still an xG of 1.7. He’s not clinical.
Through all the competitions FBRef have advanced data on in the past few seasons, Morata has scored 53 non-penalty goals from 55.8 xG. It’s not anything special. But he’s regularly converting the chances he gets. And it’s not like strikers are generally overperforming their xG by huge margins. Someone like Jamie Vardy, who most football fans would consider a “clinical finisher”, has taken 54.9 xG from the data collected and converted 56 times.
It’s better, but we’re not talking about wildly different rates to Morata here. Part of this is just how we measure finishing. Morata’s errors can be about mistiming his runs to end up offside, or failing to connect with crosses. None of that shows up in the data.
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And it’s not quite as though Morata has a glittering club career to back him up. After looking very promising in limited minutes as a youngster at Real Madrid, he got a move to Juventus in which he was expected to prove himself one of Europe’s finest marksmen. In reality, he found himself in and out of the team, getting goals and assists when he was on the pitch but never fully earning manager Max Allegri’s trust.
After a year back at Real Madrid that was arguably his best, scoring nearly a goal every 90 minutes, he had another fresh start at Chelsea. Again, he wasn’t quite trusted all the time. He started that first season in red hot form but badly tailed off, scoring 10 goals before the New Year and just one after. It’s not a satisfying narrative. Had he started slowly but ended strong, people would have felt good about him. This way around, it just feels like he crumbled.
After Maurizio Sarri seemed to grow bored of him the following January, Morata has spent time with Atletico Madrid and Juventus, not really setting the world alight in either situation. This is someone who scores a solid if not incredible amount without ever looking that comfortable doing it, and someone who many managers don’t quite seem to trust.
There is a view that Morata is too mentally fragile to thrive as a prolific goalscorer. He has a reputation for taking setbacks poorly, for finding it difficult to deal with the natural up and down rhythms of being a top footballer. Striker is a particularly tough position for this. Even the most clinical scorers only score about 20% of their shots, so the experience of a goalscorer is knowing you’re going to fail four out of five times, but keeping buying that lottery ticket anyway.
The best centre forwards often seem to have personalities where they can just brush off failure like it’s no big deal. You think of players like Vardy or Ian Wright, who had to fight and scrap their way to the top from the lowest levels. Or you can look at someone like Romelu Lukaku, who was so completely driven to help his family and play professional football by age 16, despite what anyone would tell him. Those kinds of people have the personalities to miss chances and just keep going.
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But for all this, he’s been scoring regularly at international level. Yes, some of those goals came against minnows Lichtenstein and Malta, but he’s also scored against Germany, Italy and Croatia. He’s the country’s first reliable goalscorer since David Villa and Fernando Torres retired. That’s the Alvaro Morata Luis Enrique sees. It’s the striker who makes his manager say Spain “play with Morata and 10 more”. Perhaps he looks at Morata as someone who needs all the support he can get. Perhaps this is simply his honest view.
Morata is not always the most refined player around. You expect a handsome Spanish striker like him to have the technique of an angel, but that’s not his game at all. Even when he scores, he doesn’t always look like he’s striking the ball too cleanly. He gets caught by the flag so often that a parody Twitter account of Morata lists his current location as “offside”. He’s rough around the edges. But is this automatically the worst thing in the world?
Spain are otherwise the most refined team at the European Championship. Every pass, every movement, every touch feels like perfect precision. Everything is always in its right place, slowly working its way forward, until it gets to Morata playing to an entirely different beat.
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This might actually be a good thing. Morata’s offside record, while overblown, speaks to the type of player he is. He’s always on the shoulder of the last man, looking to run in behind and stretch teams. Spain, with their classic possession-heavy style, can often be caught with two many players coming towards the ball and looking to receive it to feet.
In the later years of their golden generation, they had so many wonderful technicians coming short every time, with no one making the run in behind that would open up opportunities for those creative players to make a pass that can really hurt teams. As sides naturally want to close down those wonderful Spanish midfielders, it opens up space for Morata to make those runs. He’s taking a risk, so sometimes he’ll get caught going too soon. If your attackers never get caught offside, it’s a sign you’re playing it too safe and refusing to stretch teams where you can do serious damage.
Morata’s the joker in the pack for Enrique’s precision Spain side. While everyone else is conducting a perfect symphony, he’s shredding a guitar without worrying how the song goes. It feels abrasive to watch him lack so much of that Spanish composure, but he offers qualities that the side certainly need. Without him bursting forward and taking those scruffy shots, Spain would be at greater risk of looking static and plodding.
Considering his track record, the question is whether he can hold things together for the whole tournament. Enrique and the Spain squad need to keep Morata feeling confident somehow, because they need the things he does. It’s not always going to look great, but if Spain are to win Euro 2020, Morata is absolutely going to be a key player for the side.
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