The best athletes are often considered arrogant people. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But one thing seems universal, an athlete who doesn’t have outsize confidence in his ability usually gets left by the wayside. That perceived arrogance is one of the most important tools in his toolbox.
Which brings us to the most expensive player that Chelsea have ever bought, Alvaro Morata. After a banging start to last season, eight goals in the first ten games, the £58m-man’s form vanished. He bagged just three more after Christmas, only one in the Premier League. He fell and complained and then fell and complained some more. He seemed overwhelmed, psychologically and physically, by the Premier League.
A back injury was blamed, though he was also dealing with the death of a close friend in a car crash. He was held out for three weeks. When he came back in mid-February, the magic had gone. Combined with his introspective nature and his “too nice” reputation, that led to speculation about how mentally strong he was.
In a wide-ranging and emotionally honest interview with The Mirror — the same in which he also recommitted himself to the club — Morata has now shared some significant insights into how he felt and how he tried to cope.
Chelsea striker Morata talks exclusively to @MirrorDarren about his new twin boys, new determination after a tough debut season, new manager — and new shirt number #CFC https://t.co/Ej7tuWYUQb pic.twitter.com/HL1fa7R3YL— Mirror Football (@MirrorFootball) August 4, 2018
“I had a block in my head and I didn’t want to speak with anyone. I didn’t want to listen to anyone. I only wanted to stay at home. Probably it’s not depression, but it’s similar.
“In football it’s all about the head and in the last year I suffered in this aspect because I came here with a lot of expectation, a lot of pressure.
“I began well, but after I had these things. I had pain in the back. I don’t know why. I did a lot of things to try to recover but I couldn’t and I didn’t know why. It was hurting in my head.”
Frankly, that does sound a lot like depression. And it wasn’t helped by a phone call he got as the World Cup call-ups were underway. Then-Spain manager Julen Lopetegui told him he wasn’t going to Russia.
“I don’t mind admitting there were a few tears. The manager called me at midnight and told me, ‘You are not in my plans.’ I am 25 years old. The World Cup was everything for me.
“I lived Real Madrid, with all the perfect things to grow up. I came to Chelsea to be in the squad for the World Cup — to get the chance to play in the starting eleven. But these things only make you grow up and make you stronger.
“The next day, I had a publicity shoot with Hugo Boss in a square in Madrid and I couldn’t put the right face. I knew there would be a lot of journalists asking me about the World Cup. I was supposed to be with Harry Kane and Philippe Coutinho, but I escaped.
“I went to Italy with my wife.”
If all of that sounds like an athlete who is the opposite of mentally strong, the opposite of the man he replaced, Diego Costa, well, who can disagree? In his own words, Morata was a broken man.
But no longer, he says. His life has changed and so has his attitude. He vows to fight back this season. Despite the parade of rumors, despite his (reported) meeting with brass from Juventus and AC Milan in the summer, he denies he ever wanted to leave Chelsea and the Premier League.
Alvaro Morata: "All the people said I wanted to leave, that I was not happy in London but its not true. Now I have taken another house, a bigger one, near to Cobham." #CFC— Bridge News (@cfc_wale) August 3, 2018
“The easiest thing would have been to leave Chelsea this year. I could have gone back to Italy. My wife is Italian. It is one hour to her home.
“I could have gone back to Spain, I had a lot of offers. More money. But I want to fight. I want to change the past.
“I’d have had low pressure [in Continental Europe], because I’d already played in Italy and Spain and done good things. But I decided to stay here. I wanted to.”
What’s changed? When he was at a similar low-point at Juventus, he relied on friends, teammates, family, and a new relationship to help center his world.
This time, it’s three things that he says will help him regain top form. The first is his physical health.
“Today, in 2018, if you don’t have 100 per cent power, you are in trouble. You have the best strikers in this league and if you come here as the most expensive player you need to be 100 per cent.”
The second thing that’s changed is the manager. Antonio Conte famously tried to mold Morata as a target man and it never took. But with Maurizio Sarri, a coach whose Napoli scored more goals than any other team in Serie A during his three-year tenure, the Spaniard sees a chance for a fresh start in a system that should suit his skills.
“My father, when Sarri was announced as manager, said to me, ‘All the strikers with Sarri score a lot of goals, so don’t worry. This will be your year.’
“Now it’s time to be an important player. To score a lot to goals. To help the team to get trophies and to give back all the things that Chelsea put on me — confidence. Their will to make me a top player. I want to give back this confidence.”
But the third thing that’s changed may end up being the most important thing. Humans often perform better when they’re fighting for a bigger cause. For Morata, the watershed moment, the bigger cause, his new source of power is the birth of twin sons last week, on the 29th of July. He’s rededicating himself to his game in their honor, beginning with changing his shirt number from 9 to 29, the day of their birth.
Following the birth of his twins last week, @AlvaroMorata will wear the number 2️⃣9️⃣ shirt for the Blues this season!https://t.co/sXjFms1Cni— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) August 3, 2018
“My first number is the one I chose to show when I started my professional career at Real Madrid. But now I have my two babies on my shirt and they give me a lot of power for the year.
“It’s the best feeling in life. When you see a little human and they look to you, to learn something in life. It’s a responsibility but it’s the best feeling in life.
“Now I am ready. A lot of things have changed in our lives and the only thing I have in my head now is to score, score, score! Then to come back home and stay with my babies and my wife.”
Ironically, it were the babies who also played a big role in his poor performance against Arsenal midweek. Sarri wasn’t worried, given the circumstances, and it turns out he wasn’t just making excuses when he blamed the childbirth for his striker’s woes.
“I needed to be there with my wife. But the only thing was I ended up with pain in my back, as the bed was too small. After I came back and I played against Arsenal, so it was a bit difficult, but now we have finished the travelling and the pre-season. Now we are ready for the season.”
And he’s even ready for a re-do on that penalty kick he missed in the shootout against the Gunners.
“For sure. For sure. I have now missed two penalties against Petr Cech, but if the coach gives me the chance I will take one again. I need to try to do it again, no problem. I have a lot of pressure but when the ball goes in I won’t fail again.”
-Alvaro Morata; source: Mirror
Talk, as they say, is cheap. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. All this introspection, this self-realization may be good for the soul but as far as Chelsea are concerned it will be for nought if it doesn’t turn into goals.
Still, it’s right to believe in giving people second chances. This is Alvaro Morata’s. Let’s watch him seize it.