It was set to be the transfer saga of the summer, but in the end it was over before it had really begun. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to uphold Atletico Madrid’s transfer ban, Antoine Griezmann elected to stay with the club for another year rather than join Manchester United, feeling it would be unfair to leave Diego Simeone’s side while they could not replace him.
With that, United switched focus and will instead look to bolster their attacking options with the addition of a more conventional No.9. Romelu Lukaku and Andrea Belotti have both been mentioned as potential targets, but it seems the Red Devils are closing in on the capture of Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.
Morata, who was handed his professional debut by Jose Mourinho in 2010 when the pair worked together at the Bernabeu, has divided opinion among United fans. Some see the 24-year-old as a high-quality striker capable of sharpening an attack that was far too profligate last season, others think that the 20-time champions of England should not be forking out a reported £64m for a player who struggled to crack the Madrid starting XI in 2016/17.
The truth is, however, despite the fact that he may not have been the main man for Zinedine Zidane’s European champions, Morata is absolutely perfect for both United and Mourinho.
Throughout his managerial career, Mourinho has always favoured totemic frontmen to lead the line in his team – think Benni McCarthy at Porto, Diego Milito at Inter, as well as Didier Drogba then Diego Costa at Chelsea. Tall, physical and athletic strikers, strong in the air and not afraid of a challenge.
Though far from a brutish battering ram, the 6ft 2in Morata is a physical presence in the opposition’s penalty area, while his tremendous athleticism and mobility gives him an edge over the man who acted as the figurehead of the United attack last season.
For all his many virtues, Ibrahimovic, at 35 years of age, is no longer able to get around the pitch as he once did. The towering Swede brought leadership, a winning mentality and goals – 28 of them – to Old Trafford last season. His contribution to the club’s League Cup and Europa League successes cannot be overestimated.
But Ibrahimovic could also be a frustrating figure. Lacking movement and mobility in forward areas, the former Milan and PSG superstar would often slow attacks down and, tied to his advanced central station, became a funnel through which all of United’s attacks ran
That meant that if Zlatan wasn’t scoring, United as a whole struggled to find the net. Having arrived on the red side of Manchester with no shortage of doubters writing him off, his 17 league goals in 28 games silenced the critics. But the fact that the second-highest Premier League goal-scorer for Mourinho’s men was Juan Mata with just six strikes shows that Ibrahimovic had become a vacuum for scoring opportunities.
With Morata, that wouldn’t be the case. Willing and able to run the channels and unselfish inside the penalty area, he would all but guarantee a more democratic spread of goals throughout the team.
Anthony Martial, the 21-year-old French forward who promised so much in his early United career but delivered disappointingly little last term, could stand to benefit most from Morata’s presence. The Spaniard is accustomed to playing alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale at Madrid. Although he may be the team’s striker when he starts, his remit is just as much about accentuating the impact of his superstar colleagues as it is scoring himself.
With an average of 24.2 passes per 90 minutes last season to Ibrahimovic’s 38.5, the Madrid man isn’t as used to dropping from the frontline to link play as the veteran Swede, but the Spaniard’s movement off the ball is key to how he aides those around him.
By pulling wide, Morata helps stretch the space between the opposition’s full-back and centre-back and creates more defined openings for the wingers to move into than would otherwise be the case. As a converted striker, Martial – and indeed Marcus Rashford, as and when he’s deployed on the flank – loves nothing more than to cut inside onto his stronger right foot and look to threaten the goal.
All things considered, Morata would be a perfect fit for United next season.