How Alvaro Morata copes with being the ‘main man’ will be fascinating. It’s a role he’s always craved, and if anyone can help him succeed there, it’s Antonio Conte.
Much has been made of Morata’s pure numbers game, a very impressive one at that. His 14 goals with just 15 starts last season garnered wide acclaim, and rightly so given how prolific the record is – his 89 minutes per goal ratio was bettered by only Lionel Messi in 16/17.
It remains to be seen how Morata will respond when asked to be a lead, starting striker however. It’s something, despite being 24, he’s still yet to experience.
At Real Madrid he was never really handed what you’d declare a fair chance, and with Zinedine Zidane’s arrival at the club it seemed like he was always going to favour his countryman Karim Benzema, a player who he’d always admired.
There’s no surprise then that Morata felt under appreciated, and in that there is another issue presented. To get the best out of the player, he must feel universally loved and respected.
When he had such fondness at Juventus the Spaniard was excellent and developed a bond with Carlos Tevez on the field which resulted in him become a key weapon for Massimiliano Allegri. This came after an initially difficult start to life in Italy, but Morata dug in and persevered.
In key games he was particularly vital, including goals against Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Barcelona – as well as a decisive penalty against AS Monaco in a fraught, nervy Champions League quarter-final encounter. It was Morata, often derided for his lack of conviction in front of goal, that stepped up.
A transition season in the year that followed saw Morata struggle as Allegri tried new things with Juventus, but he still weighed in with key goals including a memorable performance against Bayern Munich and winning Coppa Italia goal.
His return to Real Madrid was a success in terms of pure numbers, but the nagging feeling of him not being given a genuine chance nor offered the continuity he craves lingers.
That goes hand in hand with confidence, which is a particular issue with the player. It’s vital then, that Antonio Conte is currently Chelsea coach. He could well provide the injection of self-belief that Morata can often find himself missing.
If the Italian can have his way with the striker and make him meaner, then we could be seeing the emergence of another prolific striker in the Premier League. It surely is the main problem for Morata, because his overall game is impressive enough.
Conte perhaps has an advantage on that level, given his relationship with the player – despite never having coached him. The Chelsea coach signed Morata for Juventus when he was in charge of the club in 2014, but left to manage the Italy national team shortly afterwards.
Back in May, Morata commented on the Italian coach and a potential reunion to the Guardian.
“Conte is the manager who most ‘bet’ on me, without even ever having had me in his team,” he said. “I’m very conscious of that: he bet on me for Juventus but left before I arrived; then he wanted me at Chelsea come what may. He knows me better than I could imagine, I’m sure, and that’s important: it motivates you to work hard, train well.
“I feel indebted to him because he’s the coach that most trusted in me, most wanted me, who made me feel I could perform at the highest level. And yet I’ve never had the fortune to actually work with him. I’m sure sooner or later I will.”
Above all, and again it’s something ideal for Conte to have at his disposal, is Morata’s willingness to contribute and work hard for his team. At times the player can focus too much on that area however and if he had a little swagger and selfishness, things could be looking a lot different for him right now.
Conte will perhaps look to release the inner beast inside Morata, and find a ruthless streak within the player. Clear the coach has an energetic, sometimes intense, personality. Some of that could well rub off on the striker and that could be highly beneficial for his game.
What Morata will immediately offer is clear. He will chase lost causes and press from the front, providing mobility in attack from a defensive view but also in the positive sense.
The 24-year-old is smart with his movement and can play in a variety of different roles, from holding up the ball and driving into the channels but also in behind the opponents’ defence. He’s not particularly rapid, more a case of being quick over short distances and above all a hard runner, able to go the distance.
It leaves the sensation that Morata’s adaptation won’t be particularly difficult. From a system point of view he fits perfectly as a Conte type player, and for Chelsea’s approach.
Morata’s impressive physically too, and general concerns that he could be another lightweight Spanish import are wide of the mark. The striker can be rugged and rough it up with the best of them, and rarely passes up on an individual duel.
Conte will finally get to coach Morata this time, and the faith he’s shown can be expected to be repaid in due course.