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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Alvaro Morata’s Real Madrid return is bittersweet – but he has found form of his life

Atletico Madrid centre-forward Alvaro Morata had a bittersweet return to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for Sunday’s La Liga game at his old side Real Madrid.

Morata was desperate to play against the team where he began his senior career over a decade ago and against whom he had already scored three times in the three ‘derbis’ this season.

Although he had missed Atletico’s midweek win over Rayo Vallecano due to a minor thigh strain, he was back in the starting line-up and there were loud whistles when his name was read out by the stadium announcer before kick-off.

Morata would have fancied his chances against a makeshift Real Madrid defence, with Nacho and right-back Dani Carvajal in the middle of the back four, and he tested Andriy Lunin early with a low shot that the goalkeeper did well to parry.

That, however, was his only real opportunity in a strangely low-key game, and he was substituted on the hour mark, having clearly been below 100 per cent fitness and with his team 1-0 behind.

He was then one of the Atletico players who jumped from the bench to celebrate Marcos Llorente’s stoppage-time equaliser, in a reversal of this fixture’s history in which Real have often struck late to deny their neighbours.

Although it was a good result for Atletico, the game will go down as a missed opportunity for Morata, a player who has not always had the mental calmness and confidence to make the most of his physical and technical gifts.

However, still fresh-faced at the age of 31, Morata does look to have found a new maturity on and off the pitch, which will be needed as he heads into what could be a defining six months in his career.

From Morata’s clearer mind this season has emerged composure, along with a notably sharper focus to his attacking game.

He has scored 19 goals across all competitions this season, needing just two more to break his personal record (20 goals in 2016-17 and 2020-21). No La Liga player has more non-penalty goals to their name this term, and only Jude Bellingham is over-performing his expected goals (xG) tally by more, pointing to the clinical nature in which Morata is finishing his chances.

Morata’s shot map below offers a telling glimpse into his success; a low average distance of his attempts on goal, a high average quality — with only four La Liga strikers able to better his xG per shot of 0.19 — and plenty of headers.

On the first point, his close-range finishes, Morata is drawing on his experience and looking to take his time in the penalty area. The second goal of an unerring hat-trick at Girona in early January highlighted not only his elusive movement to get into position but also his self-assurance to hold onto the ball and work the better opportunity to score.

As Rodrigo De Paul dances through the midfield, Morata senses an opportunity to embark on a trademark run. With both defenders looking over at the ball, he peels away from Eric Garcia and into the blind spot, no pun intended, behind Daley Blind.

Receiving the through ball from his midfielder, Morata bears down on the penalty area, and decides against shooting even as the opportunity to strike across goal opens up…

… instead electing to chop inside and behind the defenders’ forward momentum, before scooping over Paulo Gazzaniga in goal.

One extra touch and a few moments of poise turn a good chance into an excellent one.

There was a similar moment against Almeria, back in October.

Here, Morata drops a shoulder and skips past Cesar Montes in frame one, feigns to open up his body for the far-post shot in frame two, before taking that extra touch to round the goalkeeper, unbalanced and rushing out of his goal, and rolling home in frame three.

Across all competitions, 51.4 per cent of Morata’s shots have hit the target this season — a higher return than in each of his last seven seasons — while his conversion rate of 26.4 per cent stands at over double his two years at Chelsea.

Morata has always thrived in the air but this season stands out. All of his six headed goals for Atletico this term have been emphatic, from a towering swing of the neck muscles to plant the ball into the corner against Granada to his brace of headers to win a deafening Madrid derbi at the start of the season.

Honing on those central spaces, as the below graphic illustrates, Morata’s game is increasingly about occupying centre-backs, pouncing on the scraps, and using his proactive movement and enhanced composure where it matters most.

Throughout his career, playing for Real Madrid, Juventus, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Atletico, Juventus and back to Atletico, Morata has always experienced peaks and troughs of goalscoring form.

At times, he has seemed like a perfect centre-forward — tall, strong, technically good, hardworking and a lethal finisher in the air or with either foot. At other times, he has struggled for form and confidence, which has meant that, in over a decade at the top level in Spain, Italy and England, his goals have tended to come in spurts.

So it helped when Morata began this season with five goals in the first five La Liga games, including the double in September’s 3-1 victory at home to Real Madrid. That evening, he received a standing ovation from the Metropolitano crowd, which has not always been fully supportive of a player who came through the ranks at Real.

“It was an extraordinary game from Alvaro, beyond the two goals, for his work and commitment,” said manager Diego Simeone afterwards. “We need this Morata, we know he can do that.”

That was just weeks after it seemed Morata might leave Atletico. Last summer, members of the club’s hierarchy were open to offers for one of their biggest earners, and Morata himself considered opportunities to return to Italian football due to frustrations over his role.

Although he played 45 club games in the 2022-23 season, scoring 15 goals, he only completed 90 minutes on four occasions. Every time he missed a chance, he felt he could be subbed off or dropped for the next match.

Speaking with Simeone during pre-season in South Korea, Morata received assurances that he would be more central to the team for the current campaign.

“I had the conversation I needed with Simeone,” Morata said in October. “I needed to feel important in the club, play more than last season.”

Morata has scored 19 goals for Atletico this season (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

It also helped that Simeone did not have lots of options. The squad’s other recognised centre-forward Matheus Cunha had left for Wolves and attacker Joao Felix was on his way to Barcelona. Neither Memphis Depay nor Angel Correa is a traditional No 9. Antoine Griezmann plays deeper, and likes to have a foil ahead of him.

An evolution in how Atletico play has also helped. Previously, the No 9 in Simeone’s teams had spent a lot of time isolated in attack, battling alone against opposition defences. It was a role that former team-mate Diego Costa, a more ‘outgoing’ character, enjoyed a lot more than Morata.

This Atletico side sees a lot more of the ball, with Griezmann, Koke and De Paul creating chances centrally, and wide players Samuel Lino and Nahuel Molina providing a regular supply of crosses into the penalty area. All of which suits Morata much better.

Morata’s self-esteem also grew when he succeeded Sergio Busquets as Spain captain last summer. Although not everyone in the squad sees him as a natural leader, the armband automatically goes to the player with the most caps, which is now Morata, and he immediately hit a hat-trick in a 7-1 Euro 2024 qualifier win over Georgia in September.

Again, circumstances have helped Morata emerge as his country’s undisputed starting centre-forward. Spain does not traditionally produce many orthodox centre-forwards, and former national coach Luis Enrique backed Morata even as Spain fans whistled him during early games at home in Euro 2020.

Morata’s sensitive nature has seen him take that type of criticism seriously. On international duty in October, he talked about suffering “almost depression” due to abuse he has received, including when out around Madrid with his four children and wife.

“I’ve had to live through many disagreeable things,” Morata said. “And I’ve had to work a lot on the mental side. There were moments when I wanted to jack it all in but thanks to my family and the people I work with, I am here now.”

Morata has made 69 appearances for Spain, scoring 34 goals (Manuel Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

This was a reference to Adria Carmona, a former Barcelona youth player who now works closely with Morata as a mentality coach. He teaches Morata to visualise, in advance, everything that could happen in a game, from the warm-up exercises to his goal celebrations. It has helped him be more relaxed, on and off the pitch.

A less comfortable part of being national captain came after former Spanish Football Federation president Luis Rubiales kissed Jenni Hermoso at last summer’s Women’s World Cup. Morata was visibly awkward as he read a statement that many, including some of his team-mates in the national squad, felt did not sufficiently support their female peers. He, however, felt loyalty to those at the federation who had helped him in previous difficult moments.

The new year has begun with a couple of games against Real Madrid and, until Sunday at the Bernabeu, Morata had been central. In January’s Supercopa de Espana semi-final in Saudi Arabia, his challenge on goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga led directly to Antonio Rudiger’s own goal, which seemed to have set Atletico up for victory. Real Madrid then came back late, as they so often have in derbis, and won in extra time.

Atletico turned the tables in the following week’s Copa del Rey last-16 game at the Metropolitano, with Morata capitalising on another defensive mix-up to score. He ran to celebrate with Atletico’s hardcore fans, earning a yellow card, but again showing the connection to and standing with supporters.

Morata was off the pitch before Griezmann’s superb strike set up Atletico’s 4-2 victory, and Simeone has limited his minutes through recent games, due to the wear and tear of many games already this term.

Fitness was a factor in him being replaced early at the Bernabeu on Sunday night, although Depay’s return to form and fitness also influenced Simeone’s decision to make the change. The Netherlands international had five goals in his previous five appearances, including the late winner against Rayo midweek. He is a different type of striker than Morata — not as physical or as hardworking — but has a stronger inner self-confidence.

Depay then provided the assist as another former Real Madrid player, Marcos Llorente, equalised in the 93rd minute. That contribution means Depay now has more goal involvements per minute than Morata in La Liga this season (0.97 to Morata’s 0.89).

Atletico celebrate Llorente’s late equaliser on Sunday (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Atletico also almost signed another centre-forward, Juventus’ Moise Kean, during the January window, which could also be discussed when Morata meets next with his coach Carmona.

More positive thinking and visualisation should help over the remainder of the season. Atletico have a Copa del Rey semi-final with Athletic Bilbao and a Champions League last-16 tie with Inter Milan coming up soon. This summer, he is set to captain Spain at Euro 2024 in Germany.

Although he has two and a half years left on his contract, speculation of a move is also almost sure to pop up. It is quite likely that Saudi Arabia clubs will return with another offer, which Atletico’s hierarchy might be tempted to accept.

But Morata has no intention of going anywhere. He is happy at Atletico, happy in himself, and playing the best football of his career.

(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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