It ended after 82 days. Or 13 games. Whichever way it is measured, Alvaro Morata’s wait for his 13th Chelsea goal was a lengthy affair. Until he found the net in Sunday’s FA Cup win at Leicester City, his 2018 had produced seven yellow cards, one red and no goals. They seemed the statistics of a clumsy old-fashioned target man, struggling with a new implementation of the rules and a loss of potency, rather than one of the slickest strikers in the world game.
The reality is that many of those cautions came for dissent. Morata became a picture of frustration in a drought prolonged by injury and suspension. That irritation seemed reflected by the forever dissatisfied Antonio Conte. He granted a Uefa Champions League winner only 30 minutes' football out of 180 against Barcelona. It was a microcosm of how it went wrong for Morata, the European specialist benched in Europe, the biggest buy in Chelsea's history omitted for the biggest games in their season.
The trip to Leicester instead offered echoes of his early-season excellence. Morata’s finish showed the precision of a maestro, not the nervousness of a man who had not found the net for almost three months. He displayed the capacity to glide in behind defences that was apparent in autumn. Factor in the aerial ability that allowed him to head in a series of Cesar Azpilicueta’s crosses when two Spaniards struck up such a productive relationship, and he had initially appeared a high-class revelation.
Instead, Morata has generated unflattering comparisons with his abrasive, ubiquitous predecessor Diego Costa and a competitor and counterpart. Last summer, Chelsea and Manchester United had striking vacancies. They identified the same men. United determined both players’ direction, signing Romelu Lukaku when he appeared likelier to return to Stamford Bridge.
Eight months on, it looks an example of pragmatism paying off. There has been a predictable element to Morata’s struggles. It was no secret a squad player for Real Madrid and Juventus had never shouldered the burden of being the first-choice striker for an elite club all season. A gruelling campaign took its toll. His goals dried up.
And while he struck in a FA Cup quarter-final, so did Lukaku. The Spaniard has scored in one round, the Belgian in every one. Morata has 13 goals for the campaign. Lukaku has 25, almost twice as many. If Chelsea's No 9 can look a thoroughbred, his United rival has proved a workhorse, equipped to survive the rigours of winter. Jose Mourinho played the percentages. He signed the proven Premier League finisher. He chose the low-risk option.
The same may be said in midfield. The weekend contrast was starker between United and Chelsea, between different policies and signings. Nemanja Matic was commanding against Brighton & Hove Albion, setting up Lukaku’s goal and an isolated “island”, in Mourinho’s word, of excellence in a team who disappointed him. The following day, Conte hauled Tiemoue Bakayoko off at half time after another ineffectual display.
Bakayoko was on United’s radar last summer. Mourinho professed himself surprised he was able to re-sign his old Chelsea charge Matic, with the reigning champions moving for the Monaco man. Bakayoko is six years younger and during a decidedly mixed start, it felt that United had the better player in the immediacy but that Chelsea may have the finer deal when Matic declines. Yet Bakayoko’s enduring troubles cast that into doubt: perhaps Chelsea just traded down, certainly in the context of English football.
Mourinho’s short-termist strategies, his practical focus on who benefits his team most now, has drawn criticism, some of it deserved. He is the man who let Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah leave Stamford Bridge. Chelsea can still rue marginalising the duo who became the two best players in the Premier League. Now they can regret more of Mourinho’s moves.
Lukaku and Matic were the safer bets for United. His fondness for experience and Premier League pedigree has backfired in the past. It was justified last summer.
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