“We are all under pressure after [Cristiano] Ronaldo left. Myself maybe more because I am on loan,” admitted Alvaro Morata last November.
The Spaniard returned to Juventus in the summer following a rather chastening Euros campaign in which he was booed by his own supporters and later saw his penalty saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma in Spain’s semi-final shootout defeat to Italy.
However, Morata could take solace in knowing he was returning to a city in which he was borderline adored while playing a much-suited Robin role to Juventus’ Batman, Cristiano Ronaldo. This secondary function had facilitated Morata’s most productive season since 2016/17 under Andrea Pirlo. While Ronaldo was crowned Capaconniere, Morata chipped in with 11 Serie A goals and an impressive nine assists in 2020/21.
But, Ronaldo’s stunning reunion with Manchester United in the final week of the summer transfer window thrust the Spaniard to the forefront once more with Juve merely mustering a Moise Kean in their bid to mitigate against the loss of an all-time great. Morata was now the lead guy.
And in the Spaniard’s case, great responsibility brings increased anxiety and reduced productivity.
Alvaro Morata has always struggled when performing the lead role
Last season, the striker hit 21 goal contributions in just over 2,000 minutes of Serie A action. This time around, he has six contributions in 1,428 minutes. The underlying figures further depict this downturn: Morata’s xG per 90 is down from 0.49 to 0.29 and on the creative side of things, his shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions (both per 90) are down 0.22 and 0.23 respectively.
The 29-year-old’s increased responsibility this season has been magnified by Paulo Dybala’s perpetual injury struggles and Federico Chiesa’s recent ACL tear after he missed the final month of 2021 due to a thigh problem.
Throughout his career, a pattern has emerged of Morata’s production in relation to his respective responsibility. I know this seems pretty arbitrary but hear me out. During his first spell at Juventus, Morata thrived when Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente were the primary striker options and he once again excelled at Real Madrid, scoring 16 La Liga goals in 2016/17, in a team that contained Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.
Then, when he made the move to Chelsea, the burden of being the protagonist – and costing £60m – eventually caught up with the Spaniard after a bright start to life in west London.
Now, after a rather mundane two-year spell at Atletico Madrid, Morata’s mental fragility has manifested once more. The pressure of being Juve’s leading striker has got to him, but it’s worth noting that his struggles this season aren’t solely mental. Massimiliano Allegri’s incessance on having a target-man leading the line and forcing the Spaniard into that function certainly hasn’t helped. Despite his physical presence, Morata is just not that guy. He’s much better suited to being a channel runner or simply an outlet.
Why Dusan Vlahovic’s arrival should benefit Alvaro Morata
Dusan Vlahović’s imminent arrival at Juventus should benefit the Spaniard two-fold. While his minutes are set to be reduced, Morata is no longer Juve’s number one forward option. That burden falls onto Vlahović, but given the indefatigable attitude he’s displayed throughout his career thus far, that’s a challenge he’ll relish.
Morata now, while still expected to produce, may well turn provider and put up similar creative numbers as he did in 2020/21.
From a tactical perspective, Allegri could pair Vlahović and Morata up top in his default 4-4-2 or, if he’s feeling a little wild, a 4-3-1-2 with Dybala functioning as the trequartista. Should these two join forces up top, one will be tasked with target-man duties (Vlahović) while the other runs in behind and stretches the pitch (Morata). This role suits the Spaniard down to the ground and this dynamic has the potential to be a harmonious one should Allegri opt to use it from time to time.
While the arrival of the now 22-year-old Serb was expected to pave the way for Morata to join Barcelona, it seems that the Spaniard will remain in Turin for the rest of the season and see out his two-year loan.
The next six months are crucial in defining the peak and post-peak of the 29-year-old’s career with Juventus currently having no intention to sign the striker permanently in the summer.
However, a productive end to the campaign serving as Vlahović’s sidepiece could alter the minds of the hierarchy, or only accelerate his proposed move to Barcelona.