After missing out on the long-anticipated signing of Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid, Manchester United have adjusted their focus in pursuit of a more conventional No.9. It has been widely reported that the Red Devils have trained their sights on the other side of the Spanish capital with Real Madrid‘s Álvaro Morata now the subject of their attention.
Morata came off the bench in Los Blancos' Champions League final triumph over former club Juventus in Cardiff earlier last weekend in what was a continuation of the bit-part role he played for Zinédine Zidane's side last season.
Despite having only returned to the Bernabéu after a two-year spell in Serie A with the Turin giants, speculation is already rife over Morata's future. The player's agent, speaking to Foot Mercato, admitted this week that his client is considering his options and will reach a decision soon.
“Álvaro is a player who wants to play a more important role,” Juanma López said.
“He wants to play more. Which is normal for an attacker who has scored 19 goals. It is too little.
“I do not know (if he will stay at Madrid). This has been a brilliant for Real Madrid who have won many titles.
“The player will take a clear and definitive decision in the coming days. I have not yet met with the representatives from Real Madrid.”
For United's part, amid rumours that Morata tops a list of potential striking targets which is also believed to include Chelsea transfer target Romelu Lukaku and Andrea Belotti, they have reportedly already seen a €60million offer refused by the Spanish champions, who have set a €90million asking price for the 24-year-old.
Undeterred, it is claimed that United are readying a second, improved offer for the 20-cap La Roja star.
If the Old Trafford club are eventually able to snare Morata, he won't come cheap. But not only could he be the man to get United's attack firing again, he is perfect for José Mourinho's system.
A Great Fit For Mourinho And United
Totemic frontmen have been a trademark of Mourinho's teams ever since he first came to the attention of the wider footballing world while in charge of Porto. Powerful, physically imposing strikers such as Benni McCarthy, Didier Drogba, Diego Milito and Diego Costa provide a level of functionality and efficacy that helps the Portuguese's coaches tactical plans pay dividends.
Morata is no brute, he won't go around deliberately antagonising defenders like Costa or making his presence felt quite like Zlatan Ibrahimović. But at 6ft 2ins, he is tall, strong in the air and, crucially, mobile.
Ibrahimović, who will depart Old Trafford this summer, was a revelation for United last season, re-instilling the kind of winning mentality within the team that has gone missing after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. His return of 28 goals in all competitions wasn't too shabby either.
But at 35, the veteran Swedish striker was often stiflingly stagnant when the Red Devils were looking to counter swiftly or unpick a stubborn defence through rapid passing exchanges and swift bursts of movement.
Morata has no such issue. The 24-year-old is incredibly athletic, possesses impressive pace for a man of his size and is constantly in motion along the front line, whether linking with colleagues or looking to time runs in behind the oppositions's defence.
He is also far more diligent in his defensive duties than Ibrahimović and, indeed, most strikers – something that will please Mourinho greatly and is no doubt one of the key reasons the Real Madrid man has been identified as a Manchester United transfer target.
In the above images, taken from a LaLiga game between Real Madrid and Granada, we see Morata dropping back into the Madrid half to win possession with a clean tackle. He then immediately turns defence into attack by setting off on a lung-bursting run deep into opposition territory.
It was this kind of work rate that endeared Morata to Juventus fans during his two-year stint with the Bianconeri. Although he was never truly prolific in Turin, scoring 27 goals in 93 appearances, his ability to bring the best out of those around his was valued and the club were disappointed to see him leave when Madrid exercised their €30million buy-back option.
This same ability to elevate the performances of his team-mates is one of the key reasons why Morata is a better fit for United right now than almost any other striker. Used to playing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale either side of him in attack, the Spaniard operates with humility, doing all in his power to maximise the gifts of his talented colleagues.
Anthony Martial, often stationed on the left flank, could benefit most from having Morata in the team. The Frenchman struggled to replicate the form of his first campaign in England last term, unable to come inside and affect games in the way he had under Louis van Gaal the year before.
One of the reasons for this could well be that Ibrahimović's lack of movement in the central zone didn't open up the kind of spaces that the former Monaco man thrives on bursting into. As a converted striker, the 21-year-old prefers to play his position as more of an inside-forward than a conventional winger. If the centre-forward is unable to pull the opponent's centre-backs out of line, it becomes a much more difficult task for Martial to break into the half-space between the central defenders and full-backs.
Morata's ability to pull wide could be just the tonic, freeing Martial – or Marcus Rashford or Henrikh Mkhitaryan – to come inside.
Here we see Morata pick up the ball wide on the left. Rather than lay a simple pass off and look to take up position in a central area, he carries possession forward.
Confronted by two defenders, the Madrid man confidently takes them on before finding a pocket of space from where he can look to set up a team-mate.
With an arcing, left-footed cross to the far post, Morata perfectly picks out the advancing run of Lucas Vázquez, who smashes a volley into the bottom corner.
With an average of 24.2 passes per 90 minutes in La Liga, Morata was not as regularly involved in his side's build-up play as Ibrahimović (38.5 passes per 90), but he was more accurate, picking out a colleague with 78.8 per cent of his attempts to the Swede's 73.6 per cent.
In addition to his work both in and out of possession out wide, Morata is also incredibly unselfish when advancing on goal. Unlike many elite strikers, the Spain international is willing to pass to a better-placed team-mate rather than taking on a low-percentage shot from a difficult angle.
This time we see Morata played through on goal by an incisive pass from Isco.
He rounded the goalkeeper and had the opportunity to shoot but the angle was becoming narrower.
He then showed the composure to lift his head and identify the run of another Manchester United transfer target, James Rodríguez. A simple, unselfish pass allowed the Colombian to score with an easy finish.
Ibrahimović, though an adept creator of chances in his own right, was the figurehead of United's attack last season. The Red Devils were set up so that the majority of their shooting opportunities were funnelled to him. Although this yielded fantastic results on a personal level for the former Barcelona and AC Milan superstar, it meant that Mourinho's men did not have a healthy spread of goals throughout the team.
The iconic No.9 found the net 17 times in the Premier League last term. United's next highest scorer was Juan Mata with just six. Having Morata leading the line could see a more even distribution of goals.
Morata The Lethal Finisher
Before last season, Morata was widely perceived as grafter with many commendable attributes but, ultimately, lacking the ruthless edge of a prolific striker.
There was good reason for that belief – he'd never cracked double figures for league goals in a single season, nor had he scored more than 15 in all competitions during one campaign.
However, in 2016/17, all of that changed. Despite playing second fiddle to Karim Benzema for most of the season, whenever he played, Morata produced results. Indeed, with 15 LaLiga goals in just 1334 minutes of action, only Lionel Messi (76.5) could top his average of a goal every 88.7 minutes.
Finishing was arguably United‘s biggest problem last season. Mourinho's side created the fourth-most chances in the Premier League (447), yet ranked eighth for goals scored (54) and a dismal 17th for shot conversion (13 per cent). No side missed as many “big chances” (50), with no player wasting more of those opportunities than Ibrahimović (17).
Morata's shot conversion rate of 27.27 per cent was not only better than any United player by far – including top scorer Ibrahimović (15.45 per cent) – it also beats the figures of Lukaku (22.72 per cent), Belotti (20 per cent) and even the Premier League's top scorer Harry Kane (26.36 per cent).
This shows that, since returning to Madrid, perhaps with a point to prove, Morata's finishing has improved leaps and bounds. Wastefulness cost United dearly last term, there may be not better option for putting that right than the former Juve striker.
Some United fans have questioned whether the club should be targeting a player who, for the most part, was not a first-choice option for Los Blancos. But the European champions possess possibly the deepest, most talent-rich roster in world football; there's no shame in not making their staring XI every week.
Plus, one of the main reasons that Benzema remained Zidane's preferred starter in the No.9 role is due to the understanding he has developed from years of playing alongside Bale and Ronaldo. The Frenchman has become wonderfully adept at linking with the superstar pair and to remove him could upset the side's balance. That does not necessarily mean that Morata is an inferior player.
In the current inflated market, securing Morata's signature is likely to prove expensive. But there's no doubt that he has the calibre and, more importantly the right characteristics to take United forward.