Let’s start with the positives: Alvaro Morata scored more La Liga goals per minute played than Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez last season, he required fewer shots per goal than Lionel Messi, and Real Madrid didn’t lose a league match in which he played.
Left at that, Chelsea fans might be thrilled with the idea of a 24-year-old striker who’s already a veteran of Europe’s highest levels lining up in front of Antonio Conte’s midfield. That line of thinking doesn’t properly consider how Morata scored his goals and how he might be asked to finish for the Blues in less conducive types of play. That’s something that can now be quantified with STATS Playing Styles.
On the surface, Morata’s efficiency is hard to not laud. His 15 league goals came at a rate of one every 88.8 minutes, which, among the seven La Liga players with at least 15 goals, was only bettered by Messi (76.5). No one else came close and, for what it’s worth, Antoine Griezmann’s 16 goals required 191.6 minutes each.
The same conclusions can be drawn from Morata’s shooting. He needed just 3.7 shots per goal last season, which was unmatched by anyone with more than 10 La Liga goals – including stars like Ronaldo (6.4) and Messi (4.7).
Getting even more specific by using expected goal value, Morata was expected to score 10.6 goals. Expected goal value is assigned based on the probability of a goal being scored from the position of the shot. His xG difference of 4.4 was better than not only Ronaldo (minus-1.9) and Griezmann (2.6) but also that of the man he’s replacing – Diego Costa (1.7).
And, most importantly, it resulted in wins. Of the 26 league matches in which Morata saw the pitch, Real Madrid went undefeated and averaged 2.69 points.
All that, yet in the past two seasons Morata has failed to assert himself as a top striker for Juventus and Real Madrid. The why involved here often feels like something a manager sees on the pitch that we can’t always accurately quantify. Again, that’s no longer the case.
There’s some validity in arguing his numbers were better because he was frequently used as a substitute and able to put more effort into his average of 53.9 minutes per appearance than a 90-minute player. However, he scored 11 of his goals in his 14 starts, so there’s something more to it than simply coming on with fresh legs.
His numbers start to come back to the realm of normal when considering nine of his goals came against the bottom six teams in the La Liga table. Then consider that over the last three seasons the bottom six clubs in La Liga have allowed 72 more goals than the bottom six of the Premier League, and Morata’s appeal begins to fall off a bit.
But that’s mostly surface-level stuff. It gets more interesting with club specifics. Here’s why such impressive productivity probably isn’t possible for Morata as a starter in the Premier League.
It can be argued that what makes those elite-level scorers 90-minute players is an ability to score in various playing styles. It’s no surprise that even goal scorers like the diminutive Messi lean on crossing more than any other playing style to score goals. It’s a proven attacking method that will always have its place in football. Seventeen percent of Messi’s shots and 30 percent of his goals occurred in the presence of a crossing style. Ronaldo: 28 percent on shots and 28 percent on goals. Suárez 22/26. Costa: 33/37.
Morata’s crossing percentages were 44 percent for shots and 52 for goals, which isn’t necessarily a good thing for someone who’s about to change systems.
It follows that his finishing might be limited if he’s not playing for a club that doesn’t distinguish themselves from others in that way.
You guessed it. Chelsea didn’t distinguish themselves from the league when it came to crossing. They were exactly at the league average under Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink in 2015-16 and -3 percent under Conte’s league-winning side.
That’d be all well and good if Madrid was also around the La Liga average, but they’re not. Rather, it becomes especially alarming for Chelsea when comparing their playing style under Conte to Real’s. The teams were similar with certain styles, but Real Madrid thrived at 40 percent above the La Liga crossing style average.
Now let’s get back to the fact that Morata came on 12 times as a substitute and try to quantify what that could mean for him. In the 60- to 90-minute range, Real’s attacking threats went wild, particularly when the score was even or they were losing. Real’s crossing style increased to 143 percent of the league average in those circumstances.
Compare that to Chelsea in the same scenario (+24 percent crossing), and the way Morata could be forced to play in late-match situations with tight scores at Stamford Bridge might seem a bit foreign without balls flying into the box at a level he’s used to – and that’s without even mentioning the luxury of those fresh legs he often had with Real.
Morata may very well show progress as a young striker that wasn’t possible in his reserve roles at his past clubs. He may very well score 15 goals for Chelsea. He may very well score 20 like Costa did last season. He’s just unlikely to do it at last year’s rate.