Manchester United have reportedly made a £52.4m bid for 24-year-old Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata.
But why has the Spain international emerged as the man that they are after to fill the void left by the injured veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
A known quantity
In Jose Mourinho’s first press conference as Manchester United manager, he launched a fierce defence of his record in bringing through young players. Alvaro Morata is perhaps one of the best examples of that, the Portuguese giving him his Real Madrid debut in 2010. Mourinho worked with him for three seasons with Morata scoring twice in 18 appearances.
Even then, Mourinho faced questions over his use of the youngster. In 2013, he launched an impassioned defence. “I was the one that brought Morata into the first-team squad,” he said. “Who called him up for pre-season with the first team, three times? Me. Who stopped him leaving? Me. Who gave him a first-team contract? Me. Who arranges all that? Me.”
For his part, Morata described him as “the best coach in the world”. Even after Mourinho’s departure from Real Madrid, now seen by many as a divisive figure at the club, the young forward remained grateful. “I want to thank Jose Mourinho, who drilled it into my head that if you don’t work and toil, you’re less likely to play,” he said. And Mourinho remembers.
Big club pedigree
In the years since the two men parted company, Morata has proven himself to be an effective goalscorer at the highest level. He scored eight La Liga goals in the 2013/14 season under Carlo Ancelotti and played his part in that year’s Champions League victory over Atletico Madrid – coming on with the team one goal down and helping them to a 4-1 win.
Unlike his team-mates, Morata was back in the Champions League final the following year after moving to Juventus. In fact, he equalised against Barcelona only to see Juve beaten 3-1. In his two years in Turin, Morata scored 27 goals in 93 games and won the double twice – scoring an extra-time Coppa Italia winner against Milan in his final game for the club.
He returned to Madrid last summer when his first club exercised their buy-back clause and enjoyed his best season yet in front of goal, netting 20 times in 43 appearances as Zinedine Zidane’s men won La Liga and the Champions League. The striker also started Madrid’s UEFA Super Cup success and came off the bench in their Club World Cup triumph in Japan
Great strike rate
Of course, Morata has had to continue to play a supporting role at the Bernabeu but he has plenty of admirers in the Spanish capital. Not only has he outscored the team’s main striker Karim Benzema but he has done so in a fraction of the time. In fact, Morata’s strike rate in La Liga is superior to even Cristiano Ronaldo. Only Lionel Messi has a better goals-per-minute rate.
Morata’s record of scoring a league goal every 89 minutes will encourage Mourinho that if the forward is given more opportunities to start then he can seize them. And there will be chances. After all, Ibrahimovic played every single minute in all but one of United’s Premier League matches up to the start of March.
The team’s fixture list could be just as congested in 2017/18 – starting with an early August date with Morata’s current club Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. With so many matches to play, Mourinho could use a player who is used to making an impact, both from the start and off the bench, across a range of competition. Morata is that man.
In terms of style of play, Morata is the sort of hybrid forward who gives a manager options. He has the pace to run in behind defences and exploit space on the counter-attack late on in games. What’s more, at 6’2″ he can latch onto crosses and provide the physical presence that will need replacing in Ibrahimovic’s absence.
Romelu Lukaku has those qualities too but doubts remain over the Everton man’s surety of touch when it comes to holding the ball up. Perhaps this is where Morata’s tidy work with the ball at his feet makes him a better bet. He brings others into play, as indicated by his six assists in his last 1364 minutes. Lukaku has half the assists in more than twice the time.
Best years ahead
The unknown aspect with Morata is whether he can translate his impressive per-minute numbers across an entire season. After all, he has never played more than 43 per cent of the total minutes possible in a top-flight campaign. United are entitled to expect more than that if they are to get a return on a £50m+ investment.
But perhaps the potential is part of the appeal. Morata has the pedigree and the silverware; the big-game experience at big clubs. All that remains is for him to be given responsibility and the chance to show he is ready to be the main man. At 24, he is the right age to take that next step. Who better to take it with than the man who started him on the journey?