Sometimes, the saying goes, the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.
That one doesn’t end well.
Other times, though, the light at the end of the tunnel is hope, direction, new life — all the good things we associate with it.
Álvaro Morata is seeing the light — and it’s the good one.
Fresh off two goals (and one glaring miss) against Crystal Palace, Morata, in classic Morata fashion, decided to go on a deep dive of his own mind once again, opening up about his inner demons, reflecting on how he’s managed to kick himself out of a rut and back into the goals, while inadvertently revealing that what Maurizio Sarri called “a little bit of fragility” is still lurking in there.
Morata remains rather unique in the world of professional football (and sports, even) in talking about such issues and concepts, things that we probably should be paying more attention to, in general. Mental health, as the world is slowly learning, is just as important as good physical condition, even when, from the outside looking in, you’re living the dream of playing football, making millions, and having a beautiful family.
“The most important thing is that, finally, I have found the right way and my head is OK. In football, physical condition is very important, but the head is the most important thing. If you don’t have the head, if the mentality is not good, then you are in trouble. I had a period where everything... If it’s raining, I’m angry because it’s raining. If I miss, it’s because the pitch is too wet. It was only excuses. It was not good.
“Everyone can have a bad period in their life. But we are famous, we have a lot of things. Sometimes people think we are not human, with no feelings, with no problems. The important thing is to find the right balance. Now, I have, and I am very happy.”
There was a stretch there, at the end of last season, and even the beginning of this one, when just about the only people who still had faith in Morata were his coach and his teammates. And even his coach was beginning to have doubts, with Olivier Giroud contending for the first eleven job.
Morata heard it all, felt it all.
“I know that sometimes I am in the middle of all the critics when the team drops or when the team loses. But it doesn’t matter. I’m better. I think no one, only my wife, knows how big the last year was. Now, it’s OK. In the last month of last season, I was down, down, down, down. I cannot be more down.
“When you touch the limit, the only thing you can do is to come back. It takes long because I had an injury, I was not fit when playing, but now I feel good. The important thing is the team. I want to win with this team and I think we have a very good chance this year.”
Although he’s a bit of a man reborn, he is still who he is ... and probably always will be.
Like on Sunday. With two goals under his belt he should have been flying. Instead, he was trying too hard. That hat-trick took on disproportionate importance in his mind.
“I suffered a lot in the past and I need to score three for myself, for my team and for the supporters. It was very important for me.
“Honestly, I think I missed because I had only this in my head. If I don’t think, probably I score. In the last 10 minutes, I only have in my head ‘I want to bring the ball home’ and I think that’s why I missed. But I’m improving and this is the important thing.”
Everyone has their theory about why Morata’s tenure at Chelsea has been such an up-and-down struggle. There are of course the injuries, physical and mental (including the passing of a close friend). But last season, it seemed obvious that he didn’t turn out to be the physical target man that Antonio Conte wanted (thus: enter Giroud) — yet most of his goals were with his head. This season, the play is more dynamic, more fluid, and all his goals are with his feet, something that he struggled with so desperately last season.
So what kind of striker is he? Maybe no one knows. Former Chelsea player-manager and current BBC pundit Ruud Gullit certainly is vocal about his own theory, that Chelsea don’t play to Morata’s strengths (i.e. heading). But that’s basically all Chelsea did last season!
Gullit finally pointing out what I've been saying for so long pic.twitter.com/8cc8o8S5VV— KG (@ElMagoCF4v2) November 5, 2018
That said, Morata now has five goals in the Premier League. That puts him level with Mohamed Salah, one behind Harry Kane and two behind league leaders Eden Hazard, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Sergio (assaulter of David Luiz) Aguero.
He has the ambition (and the confidence?) to catch them.
“This is the league with the best strikers in the world. There is Hazard, there is Mane, Firmino, Aguero, Harry Kane. I need to work a lot to be like them. For sure, I always want to score because it is good for me. Sometimes people think that I don’t like to score or that I want to miss. Now I think I’m having more chances than I did last year. Last year I could only score with headers, but now I can score with different things.
“In Spain and Italy there are good strikers but here you have 10 strikers who can score every weekend and it is very hard. At the end of the season the important thing is to be in first place. It doesn’t matter if you score 15 or 20. Of course we are strikers and you want to score, but we need to win also.”
Of course, team goals always take precedence over individual goals.
“I want it. Of course I want it, but it is not the most important thing. At the end of the season, if we want to fight for the Premier League, I need to score many goals, Eden has to score many goals, the other strikers, Willian, Pedro, Ross Barkley… We need goals to win.
“But it is not the most important thing. Sometimes you play good, you give a lot of things for the team and you don’t score, and it seems like you played bad.”
Professional athletes tend to play it safe in interviews, regurgitating the same old banal cliches, not addressing any issues beyond the most cursory of takes, sounding shallow and one-dimensional, and non-controversial.
Not Álvaro Morata.
For better or worse, Chelsea have a fantastically interesting, complicated, articulate and open human being playing center-forward. As long as he’s around, it’s never going to be boring.