It was hard not to feel sorry for Álvaro Morata at Chelsea. The Spaniard, who initially shone following his big-money move from Real Madrid, came to resemble a broken man, a lost soul wandering around in the increasingly alien climes of the Premier League.
Forlorn and out of step with his teammates, it was clear Morata wouldn’t last at Stamford Bridge.
Antonio Conte, short on strikers, continued to play him in hope rather than expectation. Maurizio Sarri, however, wasn’t quite as agreeable to the forward’s plight, perhaps subconsciously cold to a player who had helped fire Juventus to Serie A glory over his Napoli side.
By January of this year, Morata needed an out, of that there was no doubt. He boasted a respectable goalscoring record in the Premier League – 16 goals in 47 appearances – but the dispiritedness that seemed to follow him around like a bad smell made clear his career needed saving.
Luckily, his boyhood club, Atlético Madrid, came calling. Diego Simeone, like Conte, needed attacking reinforcements.
Another former Chelsea star, Diego Costa, already having endured an underwhelming campaign, required surgery on a foot problem that would ultimately rule him out for ten weeks.
Simeone responded by partnering either Nikola Kalinić or Ángel Correa with Antoine Griezmann up top. And while the Argentine coach said he wasn’t overly interested in bolstering his strikeforce in January, the club felt compelled to move when word spread that Morata was free to leave Chelsea following Gonzalo Higuaín’s arrival in west London.
His form since has been a stark reminder of how a change in environment can lift a player. Morata fell out of favour at Chelsea, then fell out of love with football.
At Atlético, he was instantly made to feel like he’d come back home. While some of the club’s more hardened supporters urged Simeone to promote youth players in his bid to lighten the weight of responsibility on Griezmann, the majority were happy to see Morata in red and white.
They wanted to see a different player. They wanted to see the striker who averaged better than a goal every 90 minutes for Real Madrid during the 2016/17 season. They wanted to see the aggression, confidence and clinical edge that made him one of the most sought-after strikers the summer Chelsea signed him.
Much to their delight, Morata has obliged. It was refreshing to hear him speak enthusiastically about football once again. “Everything else stopped when Atleti appeared,” he said after joining. “Everything that has happened before is history, I’m here now and everything appears very beautiful.”
Focusing on what is ahead of him as opposed to what came before, Morata has been reborn at the Wanda Metropolitano.
He has three goals and an assist in six appearances. Two of those goals arrived last weekend, lifting Atleti to a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad, keeping alive their admittedly slim title aspirations. There was a fine finish in the win over Villarreal, too.
Of course, Morata had to endure more frustration before finding salvation.
VAR robbed him of two goals against former sides. In the derby defeat to Real Madrid, the forward strayed centimeters beyond the last defender before deftly lobbing former teammate Thibaut Courtois.
Then, in the Champions League last-16 victory over Juventus, his thumping header was disallowed after VAR ruled he had pushed Giorgio Chiellini just prior to heading past Wojciech Szczęsny.
The former was the correct decision but the latter was, at best, dubious.
For a while, Morata had plenty of luck. The only problem was that it was bad, not good. Fortunately, things have turned around, he is scoring goals again and has managed to banish the ghosts that haunted him in England.
And it’s not just Morata who has changed. Since his arrival, Griezmann has altered his game. As we can see from the Football Whispers player comparison persona below, he is taking far fewer shots, both on-target and missed, and is pivoting his game more on chance creation.
He may not have an assist since mid-January but Griezmann is so often heavily involved in Atleti’s moves in the final third. The Frenchman created more chances than anyone else against Villarreal, Juventus, Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid and Real Betis, 14 in total across those five games.
While Morata is reveling being back among the goals, Griezmann has continued to be the man making Los Rojiblancos click in attack. They seem to enjoy playing together and it has certainly added another dimension to Atleti’s attack.
With one foot in the Champions League quarter-final, this season may end up being a memorable one for Morata. At Chelsea, he looked lost and on an entirely different wavelength to those around him.
Back in the Spanish capital, he looks anything but.