It’s debatable which position is the most important in a football team, though there is no doubt where the spotlight is most sharply focussed. Being a striker can bring plenty of glory, but the glare can also summon unwanted and sometimes unwarranted attention. Being a new striker at Chelsea is particularly tough due to the stature of your predecessors with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Hernan Crespo, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Diego Costa all setting the bar extremely high since the dawn of the millennium.
It is fair to say that the latest incumbent, Alvaro Morata, has not quite matched the achievements of those that have come before. Signed for an initial £58 million from Real Madrid last summer, a fast start petered out amid niggling injuries, loss of form and confidence and an increasingly rancorous dressing room. As a consequence, the rumour mill has inevitably started whirring with a return to Juventus mooted in some quarters.
But Chelsea should not be too quick to offload their misfiring hitman. Sure, the modus operandi of the Roman Abramovich era has demanded immediate success from both players and coach, though in this instance it might just pay to look beyond Morata’s statistical output. Just a cursory glance at last season’s Premier League would suggest that the Blues were more than a little hasty in jettisoning the league’s top goalscorer, Mohamed Salah, and probably the best midfield playmaker in Europe, Kevin De Bruyne.
Whether Morata will ever attain such heights is unknown, though perhaps it is time to show patience in a clearly gifted player. During the first — positive — half of the season he showed that he can be the complete centre-forward: strong in the air, quick on the ground, sharp in link-up play, possessing excellent touch, decent finishing ability as well as being able to help out defensively from set pieces.
Just because his season faded away, Morata should not be instantly written off. Admittedly, he has seemed perturbed by the physical nature of English football and the reluctance of referees to rule in his favour, but he wouldn’t be the first Chelsea striker to suffer like that.
It should not be forgotten that Didier Drogba was far from a resounding success in his first year at the club. He ended 2004-05 with 10 league goals — one fewer than Morata scored this season — and only netted 12 the following campaign. He too suffered criticism at the hands of his own fans for going to ground too easily. Chelsea winning the title in both those seasons helped him to escape too much scrutiny and the club’s patience was rewarded with Drogba evolving into one of the greatest players to have ever worn the shirt. That is not to say Morata will emulate the legendary Ivorian, though it does suggest that he should be given time and the benefit of the doubt.
Drogba was 26 when he joined Chelsea, Morata is currently 25. Perhaps it is too late to say he is still developing but having only just enjoyed his first full season of regular football, it is not an outrageous assertion. Either way, the raw talent is certainly there as seen by the different types of goals that he is able to score and some of his bewildering link-up play with Eden Hazard, notably in the 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid.
Olivier Giroud, 31, might have bagged some crucial goals towards the end of the season, but nobody really sees him as the man to lead Chelsea back to the promised land. Morata, on the other hand, possesses the exact skill set to do so as long as he is handled correctly.
The Spaniard is clearly reliant on confidence to perform at his best and he is the type of player that could thrive under the right manager. With Chelsea almost certainly about to dispense of Antonio Conte, they could do worse than appoint somebody with the ability to coax the best out of their most expensive ever signing. Under the right tutelage and with a summer off to recuperate and get ready for next season — having been omitted from Spain’s World Cup squad — Morata could yet be the revelation that Chelsea fans were hoping he would be.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Morata will fare any better next time around, though the alternative is even less palatable. With no Champions League football to tempt top-tier players to Stamford Bridge — despite fanciful reports linking Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski with a move to West London — should Morata be sold then Chelsea would be left with Giroud and Michy Batshuayi as their centre forwards, Both are decent players yet neither are of the caliber needed to fire the Blues back to their rightful position in the table.
With a £58m striker on their books, one who has scored in Champions League finals and semifinals, Chelsea might already have such a player. It is time the club showed a little faith. It might just pay off.
Phil is one of ESPN’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.