“To succeed you have to become nastier” Mark Hughes told Tore Andre Flo, soon after the young Norwegian arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1997.
Twenty years on and you can hear similar observations about Alvaro Morata, from some of the pundits anyway. The Spaniard, it’s being said, has to become more like Diego Costa to succeed at his new club.
At least superficially the pundits may have an argument. At 24 Morata is the same age as Flo when he moved to the Premier League.
Like Flo he has a gentle reputation: by temperament, he’s shy and has sometimes lacked belief in his own abilities. Spain manager Julen Lopetegui has told him he needs more mala leche – bad milk – in other words more edge, and a bit of craftiness.
At Real Madrid he played in the shadow of more aggressive or assertive personalities such as Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo and was usually a sub. At Juventus he had more opportunities but then suffered in his second season because Massimo Allegri used him more sparingly, in part because the club thought that might dissuade Madrid from using their buy-back agreement.
It is typical of the player that he accepted this without public complaint at the time, though it affected him badly. He has praised the supportive atmosphere in the Juventus dressing room but even so, he was clearly suffering.
“It was a bit of everything,” he says. “I’d left home young, I’d fought to play for Juventus and I was ‘conditioned’ by Madrid having a buy-back option that didn’t depend on me. I didn’t know my future. All that affected me and I let myself slide a bit, became distracted.” He went 100 days without scoring and says that at times he couldn’t even control the ball in training. One day Gigi Buffon, Juve’s captain and godfather (in the good sense of the word) found him literally in tears in the physios’ room.
“Afterwards (Gigi) took me aside, alone, and said that if I wanted to cry, to do it at home. He said the people who wished me ill would be happy to see that and the people who wished me well would be saddened by it.”
Buffon had been through his own bout of depression and crisis of confidence 12 years previously, so bad that he needed psychiatric help, and the combination of sympathy and ‘tough love’ evidently helped Morata to refocus.
Fittingly, however, it was real love that made the difference.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I met Alice and my life changed” – Alice being Italian model Alice Campello, who he initially approached as an admirer on Instagram.
Their subsequent 18-month courtship and recent marriage in Venice have been prominently featured in glossy magazines in both Italy and Spain.
Back at Madrid over the past season Morata evidently benefited from the new sense of purpose in his private life. He still didn’t make many starts, but his strike rate was second only to Lionel Messi. In a purple patch towards the end of season he scored 11 in 13 games.
Some of these goals were against cannon fodder sides – including a hat-trick at Leganes – which may partly explain why he was only allowed a token appearance in the two big Champions League matches against Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Nevertheless, it felt like a slight for a man who had scored for Juventus in both legs of their 2015 semi-final against Madrid, as well as in the final against Barcelona.
He was a starter in all three matches, and now he says: “I want to start more, then I think I can reach a much higher level. It’s a difficult situation you have to live with until, one day, it changes.
“I have been lucky enough to score in big matches but I have never reached 30 in a season and that’s the jump I have to make if I’m to confirm that I’m a good centre forward.”
The Premier League has been in his sights for at least a year. Chelsea wanted to sign him from Juventus; Antonio Conte has long been an admirer. He also spoke to Mauricio Pochettino, and for a time it looked as if he was José Mourinho’s main target to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So does he now have that edge he needs to make the striker’s role his own?
Arsene Wenger sees him as less of a goalscorer than Diego Costa, but a more complete player. Tony Cascarino believes he can do for Chelsea what Ruud Van Nistelrooy did for Manchester United when he arrived in 2001.
There are similarities, including mobility and strength in the air, but this seems an exaggerated expectation.
In that first season, Van Nistelrooy scored 23 times in 32 league games, including eight consecutive matches, and another 10 in the Champions League. The following season he topped the goal charts ahead of Thierry Henry, again scoring in 8 consecutive matches, and was Uefa’s pick as the best striker in Europe.
Van Nistelrooy was a heavyweight, and an intimidating opponent. Morata has more the build of a super middleweight. He represents a break from Chelsea’s recent emphasis on relentless power and strength at the centre of the attack, personified by Didier Drogba and continued by Diego Costa over the past three seasons. Conte has opted for craft and variety rather than brute strength.
It is a risk. Both Morata and Michy Batshuayi have great potential, but a lot of substitute appearances. Neither is proven in the Premier League. However, both can score goals and they are flanked by very experienced players. Morata’s idol and role model is not Costa but Raul.
Inevitably there will be concern among Chelsea fans about a possible repeat of their experience with Fernando Torres. Another Spanish striker who has gone through a crisis of confidence. But there are some major differences.
Morata arrives with 14 trophies to his name, including two doubles with Juventus. His role in Madrid’s Champions League triumphs may have been part-time, but he was a key player in Juve’s advance to the final in 2015.
He also joins a team that has stealthily become the most Spanish side outside La Liga. For someone who regretted the lack of Spanish players at Real Madrid that will be encouraging ahead of Spain’s World Cup challenge next summer. As for cultivating that nasty streak, he can count on his manager for a few tips – and there is always Tore Andre Flo among the backroom staff.
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