Premier League

Morata renaissance continues...but masterpiece not complete, yet

 • by Tom Bodell
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Washed up and written off at the start of the season, Álvaro Morata was so desperate to change his fortune in front of goal he ditched the ‘cursed’ Chelsea No.9 jersey in favour of No.29.

The number has not been kind to Chelsea players since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left Stamford Bridge. Since then Mateja Kežman, Hernan Crespo, Khalid Boulahrouz, Steve Sidwell, Franco Di Santo, Fernando Torres and Radamel Falcao have all donned the number with limited success.

It seems unlikely Morata’s change of squad number is to thank for the Spaniard’s continuing renaissance in front of goal. But whatever the former Real Madrid and Juventus man is doing is clearly working after his match-winning brace in the Blues’ 3-1 success over Crystal Palace.

He looked a little embarrassed after netting the winner in the Europa League against Vidi at the start of October but followed that up in his next outing against Southampton.

Today’s brace means it’s now four in as many Premier League appearances and the two strikes spoke of Morata’s increasing confidence in front of goal. For the first he controlled a fizzed cross from Pedro before dispatching a rasping volley. The second was almost as impressive, flicking Eden Hazard‘s free-kick up with his right thigh before steering home with his left.

Neither, you suspect, he would have finished a month ago. Since scoring the winner against Manchester United on November 5 last season, Morata has scored just nine Premier League goals. That is not the return of a £60million striker or a No.9 at a top-six club.

Yet in the early weeks of his Chelsea career the 26-year-old looked to finally be the striker the Blues had been crying out for, hitting seven in as many games in all competitions – albeit three came in a 4-0 demolition of a Stoke City side which would go on to be relegated.

Alvaro Morata's stats for Chelsea v Crystal Palace

So what has changed, if anything? It’s long been suspected that Morata is a confidence player – how many strikers are anything else? – but it is interesting to note that by the point at which he’d scored his hat-trick at Stoke (September 23, 2017), Morata’s seasonal xG stood at 3.41, per Understatyet he’d registered six goals.

He was, therefore, scoring chances he ought not to have been. In fact, in those six games when the narrative was that he was a ‘good’ striker, the Spaniard only registered an xG score higher than one once – at Stoke, where he outperformed his 1.37 xG by more than 100 per cent.

On that basis a drop-off was inevitable. But because he’d set the bar so high Morata was doomed to be written off, particularly as his decline in form fitted the narrative of implosion at a time when Antonio Conte’s side were making a meek defence of their Premier League title.

So what of this season? Before today’s brace against Crystal Palace Morata’s seasonal xG total stood at 3.87 across nine Premier League appearances and he had three goals. Afterwards he has five goals against an xG of 4.97.

So while people were quick to read into his body language after than strike against Vidi, he has not been performing too far behind where he would be expected to and is now, almost unbelievably, overperforming.

Interestingly he is averaging more shots per 90 this season (3.66 vs. 3.43 last season) and has a higher xG per 90 (0.8 vs. 0.55). But on nearly every other metric he is down.

Yet when you are judged almost solely on your goal output, does that really matter? No-one had more shots (5) or efforts on target (3) for either side in the game and he took both his ‘Big Chances’ which came his way.

Right the death, though, he was released by substitute Hazard and raced clean through to meet Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey. All he had to do was score and a second Premier League hat-trick was his.

Clearly buoyed by his earlier success Morata tried to chip the 6ft 6in Welshman. But he failed and, despite being named man of the match, looked somewhat dejected at full time. The masterpiece isn’t complete yet, but the broad brushstrokes are there.