Why Alvaro Morata is losing the mental battle in one-on-one situations
Football fans are a pessimistic sort at the best of times, but few scenarios during a match elicit such pure dread as watching your team's No. 9 go one-on-one with the opposing goalkeeper.
On the evidence of his last two-and-a-half hours of football, Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata looks like he feels much the same. In the space of 145 minutes against the alarmingly welcoming defences of Stoke and Arsenal, he saw the whites of a goalkeeper's eyes five times -- and failed to score once.
It's tempting to frame this as a psychological battle. One-on-ones are held up as the ultimate test of a striker's nerve -- even more so than the self-contained confrontational theatre of a penalty kick -- and a moment where everyone holds their breath to see which way it will go.
In Morata's case, it hasn't gone well. After a quarter of an hour at Stamford Bridge five days ago, with Chelsea already 2-0 up and swaggering, he broke free of what could generously be described as Stoke's offside trap and arrowed in on Jack Butland's goal. At this point, there was little hint of a confidence crisis: Morata took three touches before slamming a low shot against Butland's legs from seven yards.
In the second half, he raced clear again. Another three touches -- a little more uncertain than before -- took him to the edge of the six-yard box again, and the odds were again swung in the favour of Butland's giant frame. Beyond a striker's frustration at not getting his name on an already crowded scoresheet, though, there was no obvious concern.
Until last night. Morata emerged from a chaotic and thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw at Arsenal with an unwanted hat trick. After 15 minutes, he was once again granted an almost embarrassing amount of space by a defence, but -- despite setting himself earlier than before -- Morata sidefooted emphatically wide of Petr Cech's post.
In the second half, with Chelsea back level and pressing hard for a winner, he shrugged off Calum Chambers only to drive himself away from goal, the xG value dwindling with every step before he clipped a hopeful finish over the bar.
By the fifth time of asking -- as the Arsenal defence inexplicably allowed a 93rd-minute Chelsea hoof upfield to unlock them, seconds after Hector Bellerin had equalised -- Morata's confidence was shot to bits. The ball bounced up twice off the turf -- more inviting than awkward -- begging to be thumped beyond Cech, whose mere presence was enough for Morata to shin the ball straight at him.
A forensic re-telling of these five moments might feel unnecessary, but it emphasises all the tiny things that go through a striker's head when they embark on that 25-yard journey, with only a hapless centre-back and some rapidly-released adrenalin for company. One-on-ones are constantly presented as formalities: they are anything but.
Plenty of elite strikers have mastered the art of controlling all those miniscule variables of ball, defender, goalkeeper, time and potential humiliation. Brazil legend Romario, for example, had no grasp of the concept of doubt; goalkeepers knew how his fellow countryman Ronaldo was going to dummy them with a stepover, and still couldn't stop him; Arsenal's Thierry Henry padded out his immaculate Premier League goal tally with an endless conveyor belt of unfussy sidefooted finishes into the right-hand corner, but even he knew the mental hurdle that needed to be overcome first.
"The hardest thing in the game is when you have time to score as a striker," Henry told Sky Sports after the game. "It sounds crazy. But the more you think about what you need to do, the more difficult it becomes."
Morata's repertoire of goal scoring this season would suggest Henry might be on to something. His towering headers haven't been instinctive, split-second decisions, but nor have they been drawn-out, 10-second sagas of gathering self-doubt. On a purely technical level, he's buried much more difficult chances than the five relative sitters against Stoke and Arsenal but, crucially, they were situations in which self-awareness had no chance to creep in.
There is an obsession with "confidence" when it comes to would-be goal scorers. Even if Morata's line-leading and link-up play remains sound (his partnership with Eden Hazard has never looked better than at the Emirates) and he continues to put himself in the position to score, the inevitable perception is that every miss surely erodes his self-belief even more. That eventually manifests itself in tentative touches of the ball, or hesitating as it bounces, rather than simply getting from A to B and getting the job done.
Confidence alone doesn't explain it all, but in Morata's case the mind and feet have become entangled.
But some players are just not built for it: Morata is 6-foot-2 tall and, although a willing runner, he isn't a smooth one. Hazard can rely on getting the ball out of his feet as a matter of course; by the 93rd minute of last night's game, Morata was tumbling towards the Arsenal goal like a baby giraffe. Conte's look of disbelief was interrupted only by Davide Zappacosta thumping the follow-up against the crossbar, which send the Chelsea manager to the floor with the horror of it all.
Afterwards, Conte relied on the age-old words of reassurance for misfiring strikers. "Usually I'm more worried when the strikers don't have opportunities to score," he insisted after Morata's blank against Stoke. Pressed again last night, Conte referred to "luck," "confidence" and "staying calm," the holy trinity of unquantifiable goal scoring qualities.
"Sometimes I go home, put the game on and think: 'How can I miss that?'" Morata told the Guardian back in April. "In my position, what matters is goals. 'Did he score? No? Una mierda de partido [a s--- game].' They don't know the movement, everything you've done."
Perhaps that sort of single-mindedness -- ignoring all the cumulative reasons not to score -- is precisely what Morata needs right now.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.