Alvaro Morata is rounding into peak form, and the timing couldn't have been better - for both him and Real Madrid. Yesterday it was announced that the Club will bring Morata back from Juventus - an announcement that should come as surprise to nobody. The Madrid-based striker who was nurtured in Castilla gained momentous experience over the past two season in Juventus. No, he wasn't prolific, but he grew, so much so that the Club rode his back in big games. In consecutive seasons, Morata scored in Champions League knockout ties - one sent them to the final, the other should've leapfrogged them over Bayern Munich but for a collapse after Morata was taken off the pitch.
Morata's season with Juventus was insecure. He spent chunks of it on the bench, looking up at two strikers ahead of him in the depth chart in Mandzukic and Dybala. It wasn't an ideal place for a striker who left Real Madrid on a probe for more playing time. When on the field, he struggled at times, but eventually found his way, proving he's worth investing in, certainly more so than Mario Mandzukic - an inconsistent striker on the wrong side of 30. Morata came around, put in a season and team-best performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, and is capping his season by developing into the first striker in the post-Villa era to finally mesh with Spain's labyrinthine scheme.
Morata is back, but no one really knows quite what that means - yet.
1. Keep or sell?
Signing Morata this summer was clear. The next step, not so much. It's unknown whether the Club will want to keep Morata, asking him to serve in a much-needed role as Benzema's understudy, or, do they look to turn a profit on him to help fund a potential Pogba signing? With Morata's emergence in the Euros, his value will have surged. On the flipside, it's unclear which teams would be willing to dish out 60 million for him. Those English Clubs that can afford him have strikers in place already, and perhaps netting 30 million on him from Real Madrid's perspective is not so clear-cut.
From a football stand point - and from the perspective of the Club itself - keeping Morata should be a priority. He fills an immediate need in the team and has a unique set of traits. He's not Lewandowski, but that's precisely why this deal makes sense. He's below Benzema's level, but more than good enough to step in when the Frenchman is injured or suspended without the team crippling itself offensively. Time and time again, Real Madrid has struggled without Benzema in the lineup, and having a player as capable as Morata, is, at the very least, paramount to having Fabio Coentrao against Bayern Munich two seasons ago in the Champions League semi-finals - reliable and conducive to keeping the team flowing seamlessly without its 'strongest' 11.
2. Convincing Morata
Real Madrid knows its answer to the first question is one thing, but actually convincing Morata of it is another massive hurdle to overcome. It was wise of Alvaro to leave the Spanish-capital to spread his wings, and for him to come back as a back-up, for the 2nd time, two years later, could be a regression of sorts in his evolution and trajectory as a footballer.
There are reasons for Morata to at least consider staying in Madrid to come off the bench though. For one, ejecting himself out of the Bernabeu to another team that can afford him doesn't guarantee him anything. It's naive to think he would walk past Olivier Giroud, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Diego Costa. Competition exists everywhere, as was proven this season in Juventus - the team he fled to for more minutes.
Morata would absorb all of Jese's minutes, and more. The latter wasn't always the preferred stand-in to Benzema, particularly under Rafa Benitez, but next season Morata would be the de facto first player off the bench in any situation where Benzema can't play or needs rest. Factor in a Copa Del Rey campaign which didn't exist this season, and that should be a good 2000 minutes of football.
3. Controlling politics
The elephant in the room is...... Alvaro Morata. We've discussed plenty the politics surrounding what it means having Morata in the squad next season, so I won't rehash it here, but I'll paste a portion from one of my articles last week on this subject.
The problem — and trust me, as silly as it sounds, it's a problem — is that Morata might be too good, too Spanish, and too good of a story. Everyone wants him to succeed, everyone knows he's talented, and everyone knows that he always steps up on big occassions. Whether it be a Clasico or a UCL knockout tie — he's ruthless. He's also from the Castilla, and the contingent of fans who've been starving for the next Raul are palpable.
Portillo, Soldado, and Negredo have all failed. The fans are thirsty for their next goal-poaching icon, and the media hounds of AS and Marca will be agenda-heavy.
Morata will use all of that noise as fuel, and he'd be right to do it. And it's not that he would necessarily outperform Benzema, but he will at least create a debate. And to be clear — in most situations these are good problems to have. But this is not your typical Marcelo / Coentrao; Benzema / Higuain strife — it's more. Morata is from Castilla. We discussed this during last night's podcast.
He has unfinished business in Real Madrid, and there are so many angles to consider. When he initially left the club in 2014, he left in search of playing time. Fans were upset with Real Madrid's decision to let Morata go, but few realized he left on his own merit — he wanted to start, and that was impossible in a team with Karim Benzema leading the line.
Things have changed now. This season, Morata went through large stretches of the season further down the depth chart behind strikers Paolo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic. Now with Real exercising their buy-back on the Spanish striker, Morata knows that he'll play just as much, if not more, than he did with Juve this season. Zidane plays with one-striker in his scheme, and he has no proper back-up for him. Plus there are always injuries, suspensions, rotations, Copa games — all those elements have to be factored in.
Morata has a lot to prove, but if he's looking at his own development, he would also have to consider that both he and the club would benefit if he was flipped to a side like Manchester United. He would play, and his hometown team would turn a profit. Though he would, presumably, get plenty of playing time in Madrid next season, he wouldn't walk into the starting lineup, and he's competing with Karim Benzema who's currently riding the peak of his career. Real Madrid will also look at Borja Mayoral coming up the ranks in a few years as some kind of assurance if they do decide to flip Morata. Benzema won't be leaving anytime soon. He's 28, and it will be two years at the very least before they could transition Morata into a starting role.
Now, having looked at multiple angles and potential worst case scenarios, it's time to dig out the truth. Morata is absolutely worth the gamble and any potential media drama that might ensue. If Real Madrid paid close attention to Juventus' season, they would be ill-advised if they didn't bring Morata back for footballing reasons. He went through a sluggish season, underperformed for good chunks of the campaign, found his form to round out the season, and then was Juventus' most impressive player in Munich despite Juventus collapsing towards the end of the match against a back-breaking Bayern. Though, it has to be noted, the collapse happened after Morata was substituted, and when Bayern tied up the aggregate, Juventus were an offensive-zero and were praying for a penalty shootout.
That he did suffer through limited minutes with Juventus this season could convince Morata to fight for a place at Real Madrid instead. Here, he only as one striker to hurdle through.
"Of course returning to Real Madrid is what I'd like best.
"This is my desire, to win with Real Madrid. But in that club there are some extraordinary players, and what I want is to play and feel important.
"Next year I'll play for the team that gives me the greatest opportunities to do that.
In an ideal world — one that probably doesn't exist — it would be unanimous: Real Madrid would bring back Morata, Marca and AS would focus on quality sincere journalism, Benzema would lead the line when healthy with the Spaniard filling in admirably before transitioning into a starter by 2018-19, and Borja Mayoral would be ready to be Morata's understudy by then.
The TLDR version is this - Morata is worth the gamble, and Zidane should be able to weather any political storms that arise - all of which will probably spawn from the media, not internally.
More due diligence - take a moment to listen to this week's podcast, where, towards the end, we touched on this issue again.