"It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves," opined Josef K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. In the novel, K. is arrested and confronted with the administrators of a byzantine bureaucracy whose unwavering belief in their incomprehensible methods is almost certainly aided by their own idiocy and lack of critical thought.
When Chelsea battled Arsenal at the Emirates earlier this month, Alvaro Morata was not facing a singular, existential confrontation against a corrupt, inscrutable institution. He and his Chelsea teammates were simply faced with the task of trying to score a goal on Petr Cech. Imposing as Cech may be, he does lack the menace of an entire bonkers bureaucracy hell bent on destroying your life.
Obviously Morata wasn’t playing against Arsenal by himself, but the loneliness of his plight should not be undersold. When watching replays of the match (note: for the sake of your sanity, do NOT watch replays of this match) it’s hard not to see Morata as a forlornly isolated figure as he botches his three (!) one-on-one opportunities against the former Chelsea goalkeeper. It’s like reading a tragi-comic book. You can almost see the anguished thought bubbles appearing over Morata’s head each time he lumbers his way towards another miss. Those metaphorical thought bubbles may be precisely Morata’s problem.
"The hardest thing in the game is when you have time to score as a striker," former Arsenal great Thierry Henry told Sky Sports when analyzing Morata’s calamitous evening. "It sounds crazy. But the more you think about what you need to do, the more difficult it becomes." And Morata has given the indication that he thinks more than the average football player.
"People think we’re machines; they don’t realize that behind a bad run there’s almost always a personal problem, some family issue. You have feelings, you make mistakes, you’re a person," Morata said in an excellent Sid Lowe Guardian profile last year. His words do not fall in step with the self-assured, almost robot-like image many have in their minds of professional athletes. There is genuine thought and introspection when Morata speaks. He is far from stupid. He hasn’t always been sure of himself.
While at Juventus, Morata experienced a nasty loss of form, going over 100 days without a scoring a goal. Morata’s inner turmoil ended up manifesting itself outwardly. "I’d just finished training one day. It had been a terrible, terrible session – one of the worst in my life. I couldn’t even control the ball. The physio asked what was wrong and I told him I was sad. I was crying," Morata recalled. Ex-teammate Gianluigi Buffon said Morata could be one of the world’s best strikers "if only he could get over his mental hang-ups."
Contrast Morata’s mental struggles and his visible sorrow at that Juventus training session with Diego Costa’s (possibly apocryphal) introduction to a few of his then-Chelsea teammates: "I go to war. You come with me." There is little nuance in that statement. It’s the type of statement that is far more likely to be lauded by supporters and pundits than Morata’s reflections on how his personal life can affect his performances on the pitch. Football (at least compared to just about everything else in life) is simple. Every 90-minute confrontation ends with something resembling a definitive resolution – a win, a loss or a draw. A simple approach to the simple goal of ‘just win, baby’ is generally what is desired.
Look at the advice Morata said Buffon gave him after he noticed him crying: "(Buffon) said that if I wanted to cry, do it at home. He said the people who wished me ill would be happy to see that and the people who wished me well would be saddened by it." The subtext to Buffon’s words is that crying (and perhaps, if extrapolated further, weakness and doubt) does not have a place in football. Football is supposed to be war and war is not for the weak or those lacking in confidence.
Morata has not found the back of the net since Boxing Day and his frustration has been apparent. The second yellow card he received against Norwich City in Chelsea’s FA Cup third round replay was the direct result of him demonstrably expressing annoyance towards referee Graham Scott (who, admittedly, was very eager to show Morata both that second yellow for dissent and his first yellow for diving). Morata’s confidence is now the subject of questions directed at Antonio Conte during his press conferences.
It’s possible (likely) that many players struggle with the mental challenges football can present. Despite all of the toughness he exuded at Chelsea, Costa himself was also prone to extended goal droughts and on at least one occasion admitted a lack of confidence was the cause of a barren spell. Not many footballers have spoken on the psychological challenges of the game to the extent Morata has though, and he has thus found himself on the receiving end of increasingly harsh criticism regarding his mental state.
As simple as football can seem, the job of assessing a striker’s performance seems even simpler. In a match, a striker either scored a goal or did not score a goal. There is a lot more to being a great striker than merely scoring goals, but if you’re a striker and you aren’t scoring goals it is extremely unlikely that you’re going to be considered great. Ninety-minute stretches of your work are always going to be distilled down to what you did during the 20 or so seconds where you found yourself with the ball at your feet when the opposition defenders were tantalizingly absent. It’s cruel, and it’s a lot of pressure. Simple isn’t always analogous with easy. Morata may not always be sure of himself, but he certainly isn’t stupid for it.