Of all the various emotions Alvaro Morata must have felt, ‘shocked’ was surely the most publishable instead of the most accurate. The striker likely experienced various shades of anger, disappointment and dismay; ‘shocked’ would have barely scratched the surface.
In the transfer window’s constant game of tiresome chess, Manchester United had used the striker as a pawn, a sacrificial lamb. Ed Woodward spent the night chatting up Morata, buying him drinks and showering him with compliments, but he only ever had eyes for Romelu Lukaku.
It is easy – natural, even – to overlook the impact that such a public rejection could have on a player. “People think we’re machines,” he stated in an interview with The Guardian in April. “You have feelings, you make mistakes, you’re a person.”
Even in a sport detached from reality where the individual is treated as a commodity more than any other, it is difficult not to sympathise with the Spaniard. It may well simply be United’s spin that Lukaku was only ever their main target and the pursuit of Morata a convenient masquerade, but it leaves the latter in an unenviable and uncertain position.
So too Chelsea. The Premier League champions finally adorned their side with a signing of substance when Antonio Rudiger arrived from Roma, while Tiemoue Bakayoko soon followed. Both are without a doubt talented and versatile, but will be unable to plug the gaping hole in the squad. The name of striker Diego Costa is spoken only in hushed tones in the halls of Stamford Bridge.
Lukaku was expected to shoulder that goalscoring burden but Morata was, at one stage, pencilled in as Costa’s most likely successor. “Conte is the manager who most ‘bet’ on me,” he stated three months ago. “I feel indebted to him because he’s the coach that most trusted in me, most wanted me, who made me feel I could perform at the highest level.”
Conte was the man who rescued Morata from his first sentence on the Bernabeu bench in 2014, but the head coach left for the Italian national team within a matter of weeks. The pair have never actually worked together, but the stars could align to unite them this summer.
The options for both are limited. The player is undeniably talented, but few sides are able to justify Real’s demands. The club need a proven striker able to lead the line, but few are available. Morata is not Chelsea’s first choice, nor is Chelsea Morata’s, yet a mutual understanding and acceptance could benefit both.
Morata’s record has been placed under scrutiny ever since the Premier League cast its first admiring glance in his direction. Eleven goals in 52 appearances in his first Real Madrid spell did little to justify the hype; 27 in 93 at Juventus served only to legitimise claims that he was not quite of the required standard. But this is a player who has never truly been trusted since he broke through at the Bernabeu in 2010.
His most recent season was his most frustrating yet, but somehow his most productive. The 24-year-old started just 19 games, scoring 20 goals – more than each of his teammates aside from Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi was the only player to boast a better La Liga minutes-per-goal ratio.
Morata might not be as proven on these shores as Lukaku, hence why Chelsea focused their attentions on the latter. But he is no dud. And while the fee might seem excessive for what’s is essentially a reserve player, an elite striker is priceless to the Blues. The impact of United’s rejection on Morata should not be downplayed, either. The motivation is there for him to prove a point.
Both club and player found themselves cast in the role of jilted spouses this summer, but they could viably find comfort and solace in one another. United’s ‘smokescreen’ could be Chelsea’s perfect rebound, a fine consolation prize for the champions.