Heart Of Football

Morata to shed his journeyman status in Chelsea colours

Alvaro Morata is the prime example of a young man whose life appears to play out in permanent transition.

Four weeks ago he took his bride, fashion designer Alice Campello, by water taxi to the church in Venice. In the back of their minds, they were expecting to set up home in Manchester once the proposed transfer from Real Madrid to United was finalised.

But, this is football.

Man United signed Romelu Lukaku instead, and Morata, one of Spain's brightest shooting stars since his early teens, was back in limbo.

After a short honeymoon, he was back in training with Madrid. Or rather, in a transitory training arrangement. He flew with the team to Los Angeles for the pre-season tour, but trained alone while negotiations with a new suitor, Chelsea, were carried out.

Then he boarded a flight from LA to London. Alice was waiting at Heathrow to greet him before he was whisked away to the Chelsea training ground.

Again, Morata was a man alone. The Chelsea senior players and staff were on a journey of their own, to Beijing and in the coming days to Singapore.

Spain's most prolific teenager through the growing years from 15 to 21, always adaptable, often more coveted by rivals than by his own managers in Madrid (including, at one time, Jose Mourinho), he spent season after season being the best understudy around. 

After passing a medical at Chelsea's Cobham training establishment, and finalising wages, Morata had another solo training session. He was then free to spend a night or two with his bride before boarding another flight, to Singapore where Chelsea are due to play at the National Stadium against Bayern Munich on Tuesday, and against Inter Milan on Saturday evening.

He knows Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez, the Spanish players of Chelsea, from their days on national team duty.

He also knows, in passing, the coach Antonio Conte. It was Conte who, in Morata's words, took a bet on him and signed him for Juventus back in 2014.

But then it was Conte who was in transit. Shortly after persuading the Italian champions to take a punt on Morata, Conte accepted the position of Italy national team trainer.

Nevertheless, Morata started more games for Juve than he ever did for Real, where he played in the shadows of the BBC - Benzema, Bale and Cristiano.

Spain's most prolific teenager through the growing years from 15 to 21, always adaptable, often more coveted by rivals than by his own managers in Madrid (including, at one time, Jose Mourinho), he spent season after season being the best understudy around.

He got more goals than full games. He was Real's eternal substitute, not because his form or fitness were a problem. But because Cristiano Ronaldo was (and still is) untouchable, Karim Benzema has been Ronaldo's best workmate, and Gareth Bale was, until this manic summer of inflated fees, the world-record signing.

The arithmetic of Morata's career tells its own story.

He made 63 LaLiga appearances, scored 25 goals, and provided six assists in Madrid's famed white. He was subbed, on or off, in 54 of those matches.

He also started or finished 63 Serie A games in the zebra stripes of Juventus, scored 15 goals, had 13 assists, and was subbed 49 times.

His total stats are just as telling: 206 games, 70 goals, 31 assists. On as a sub 108 times, taken off 49.

There was a problem with injuries in his second season in Italy, after which Real Madrid exercised a buy-back option to keep him in reserve (first reserve until the rising young Marco Asensio appeared).

There also was a cameo in which Morata, born in Madrid, scored for Juventus in both legs of the Champions League semi-final in 2015, knocking out Real. And he scored in the final, against Barcelona, although Barca recovered to win the trophy.

So here we have a player of match-winning quality, traded in and out and roundabout. A youth star witnessed by many of the world's top scouts as his goals helped Spain to win world tournaments at various age groups.

Yet he was a human shuttlecock because of Real Madrid's impatience over home-grown talent, preferring to buy the very best proven stars of global fame.

Along his journey of impermanence, someone who studies in minute detail the abilities of strikers in Europe, made the observation that Morata can be one of the the best strikers in the world "if he could get over his mental hang-ups".

That comment came from Gianluigi Buffon, the most experienced goalkeeper anywhere in football. Now in his 40th year, once the captain of Italy and still the captain of Juventus, Buffon prolongs his career by keeping an eye on every star player who might damage him.

The "mental hang-ups" presumably have something to do with the restless uncertainty of Morata's life thus far. This began, apparently, when he was 11, and his father forbade him to join the academy in Madrid (not of Real but of Atletico) because he was neglecting his schoolwork.

Eventually, he did play one season under Atletico's wing, then another at Getafe, and then in 2009 he entered the youth system at the Bernabeu.

Between the boy and the man that is Morata we have glimpsed what looks like exceptional but unfulfilled ability. I once heard a commentator describe a run of his through midfield against Bayern Munich as "bordering on Messi".

That was overblown. Morata had indeed beaten four of Bayern's finest in his run to set up a goal for Juan Cuadrado. But Morata's burst was physical, almost brutish as he powered his way beyond those opponents and set up the goal.

Messi, the magician, could not if he tried show such strength. And would never need to.

Yet those who have watched the 1.89m Morata grow say his best is to lurk on the shoulders of the central defenders, on the very edge of off-side, and timing his breaks to strike with clean and clinical "coldness".

If so, imagine how he will thrive on the passes of Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, and on the crosses of his Spanish pals from the flanks.

He should fit right in, and you might get to see that on Tuesday or Saturday. By default, it seems, Chelsea could get a better fit for their style of play than they might have done had Mourinho not hijacked the plan to sign Romelu Lukaku.

Time will tell but for once in his life Morata should get time in the shirt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'Morata to shed his journeyman status in Chelsea colours'. Print Edition | Subscribe