Chelsea fans must have watched in bafflement. Of course, it’s unlikely that many of the Stamford Bridge faithful tuned in for Atletico Madrid’s trip to Real Sociedad on Sunday, but the few who did were faced with the most surprising of propositions – a confident, free-scoring Alvaro Morata.
There was no sign of this player over the course of his season-and-a-half as a Chelsea shirt. Instead, Morata was a shell, hollowed out by the crippling pressure heaped on to any big money striker not scoring, not performing as expected.
When Morata left for Atleti on loan in January, he did so as the biggest flop seen at Stamford Bridge since Fernando Torres.
Since then, though, the 26-year-old has scored in back-to-back games for his new club. He was also desperately unlucky to have a stunning lobbed finish chalked off in just his second appearance for the club against Real Madrid, and suffered similar misfortune in wrongly having a header disallowed against Juventus in the Champions League the following week.
At that point, some questioned whether Morata had been cursed upon leaving Real Madrid two years ago. Three goals in his last two games have seen the Spanish striker rediscover his touch in front of goal though, giving Diego Simeone’s an extra dimension they had been lacking up until now.
For all that Atletico have proven themselves to be shrewd transfer market operators in the past, they have struggled to find a striker to lead the line ahead of Antoine Griezmann. Over the years, Mario Mandzukic, Alessio Cerci, Raul Jimenez, Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto, Kevin Gameiro and Nikola Kalinic have all been tried, tested and discarded of.
Of course, Costa is perhaps the one exception, but his scoring record of just four goals in 26 appearances isn’t that of a true goalscorer, the type Atleti have spent the past five years or so searching for.
Chelsea fans might baulk at the suggestion, but Morata is a more natural marksmen.
His form at Atletico Madrid, the way he has started there, underlines how Morata was never the problem, it was Chelsea.
In England, the 26-year-old became a scapegoat, a punchline. Maurizio Sarri quickly lost faith in the striker, benching him in favour of using Eden Hazard, a winger, up front. But with the right coaching and team around him, Morata would have been a success at Chelsea – just as he was at Juventus and Real Madrid and just as he is proving now at Atleti.
“Most of the time, forwards are judged by their goals but, above all, I have adapted well and quickly,” Morata explained following his game-winning performance against Real Sociedad at the weekend.
“I am very happy because I have had a bad time in the past. I have adapted quickly thanks to the help of everybody at the club and my colleagues.”
The January move to Atletico Madrid might not just be a watershed moment in the career of Morata, but in the season of the club he has joined. Simeone’s side are the only ones who can still catch Barcelona at the top of La Liga, with the Catalans currently holding a seven-point advantage.
Morata’s arrival has given them the momentum to at least narrow that gap.
Atletico Madrid have now won four games on the spin (in all competitions), with Morata contributing in all of them. Before his signing, Simeone’s team were guilty of drawing too frequently to sustain a title challenge.
Now, they have someone to help turn those draws into wins.
Simeone has adapted and tailored his Atleti team to accommodate Morata. While he used Costa as a battering ram, such are his natural qualities, the Argentine coach has recognised how Morata can open up space for others with his movement. He is a modern kind of centre forward and Simeone is modernising.
The Atletico boss has done more for the striker in one month than either Antonio Conte or Sarri did for him in his entire time at Chelsea. Not that Morata will be thinking about past failures anymore.
He’s a key component of a team going for a league and Champions League double, while Chelsea are still facing the same issues. Maybe Morata wasn’t the problem after all?