“I would like to see what people say now.”
Those were the words Alvaro Morata used after Spain emphatically responded to whispers of criticism with a 6-0 humbling of Germany on Tuesday night, but they could just as well be aimed at the countless doubters which have loomed over every difficult spell in the striker’s career.
At 28 years of age, Morata has played for a quartet of Europe’s elite sides, in three different countries, accumulating more than £160m in terms of transfer and loan fees. Yet, whatever expensive rental the club lined up for him, he’s only really looked at home with Juventus.
Spain’s manager Luis Enrique, having left Morata out of the September and October internationals, echoed this sense of renewed vigour, saying: “You can see since he returned to Juventus, his confidence is back,” as quoted by the official Spanish national team Twitter account. “He’s turned into a different player and his numbers prove that. He’s improved both offensively and defensively.”
The most obvious indicator of any striker’s uptick in form comes in front of goal. Morata opened the floodgates against Germany with a thumping header at the back post, tiptoeing into the six yard box unnoticed from a corner as a warning of things to come for the porous visitors. This close range strike reflects the early trend in his shooting this season.
In very limited minutes, Morata has been taking fewer shots but from much better positions. Since making the switch from Atletico Madrid in September, on average he’s pulling the trigger more than two yards closer to goal than he was last season, according to FBref.
Cristiano Ronaldo, his Juventus teammate, takes a more scattergun approach. But while he was sidelined with COVID-19, Morata shouldered the goalscoring burden for Juventus. The Spaniard has scored six goals in his last seven games for Juve.
But Morata has always offered more than just goals. When Ronaldo made his long-awaited return as a substitute against Spezia at the start of November, Juve’s number nine seamlessly and selflessly fell into the role of facilitator. Barely 120 seconds had elapsed after Ronaldo took to the field before Morata dropped off the front line to collect a pass, spun and slipped a ball to the feet of the prolific Portuguese for his first goal back.
Employing the same move, Morata laid on an assist for Sergio Canales against the Netherlands in Spain’s first game of November’s international break, his first appearance for the national team in one week shy of a year. This season Morata has been averaging more touches in the attacking and, interestingly, middle third of the pitch compared to recent campaigns as he gets more involved in the build up of attacks.
Often when Morata drifts deeper during games, he drags the opposing centre back with him. Against Germany, Robin Koch spent the majority of the match seemingly intent on identifying Morata’s aftershave of choice by getting uncomfortably touch-tight.
Yet, the 28-year-old’s hold-up play has been another aspect of his game which has seen a healthy bump in the premature stages of the campaign. Having successfully received a little over half of the passes aimed at him with Atletico last season, Morata is safely controlling three-quarters of the balls which come his way this term.
However, it wouldn’t be a complete performance from Morata without a disallowed goal. 22 minutes into Spain’s contest (or lack thereof) with Germany, the greasy-haired frontman – again the target of a ball from the back – swept a first time pass out to Ferran Torres on the right flank and made a beeline for the penalty box. Torres fired a return ball across the face of goal and Morata stabbed in what he thought was his second of the night only to be denied by the assistant’s (potentially ill-advised) flag.
The Juve loanee netted a near identical goal against Crotone, which actually stood, to open his account in his second spell in Turin. After cushioning a lofted pass down to Dejan Kulusevski, Morata darted forward, peeling off to the back post. This time he was correctly adjudged to have stayed onside for Federico Chiesa’s fizzing cut back to level the score.
Although, just to ensure the Universe remains balanced (and that he earns that second syllable in his first name) VAR robbed Morata of a second later in the match.
After a blistering start for club and country, Morata has all but assured his place atop the pecking order in each, richly talented squad. If Morata were to hear what people were saying now, he would struggle to come across anything other than glowing praise.