It feels like a distant memory, but last summer’s Premier League transfer window was largely dominated by one debate: Romelu Lukaku or Alvaro Morata?
Manchester United and Chelsea were both in the market for a new centre-forward, a no-nonsense No. 9 to lead the line and bang in goals. Lukaku and Morata were the two options and, while both talented and relatively young centre-forwards, they were different in terms of background. Lukaku, for example, was accustomed to life in the Premier League, but lacked experience of competing for a top club, and performing in the Champions League.
Morata, meanwhile, was the opposite. He had showed glimpses of magic for Real Madrid and Juventus, reaching Champions League finals with both, but the English top flight was something new. Also new was the concept of being his side’s main striker, given he was previously part of squad rotation systems alongside other top-class centre-forwards.
Eventually, Lukaku went to Manchester United and Morata joined Chelsea. Both sets of supporters claimed they’d emerged with the better striker and, at Wembley in Saturday’s FA Cup final, the two strikers have the chance to prove it.
Lukaku has enjoyed the better campaign. Spearheading a team that has occasionally provided him with little service, he has nevertheless demonstrated his all-round capabilities. He runs the channels excellently, his finishing has been consistent and he has improved in two areas previously considered a weakness.
His link play has been outstanding at times, although he could use extra support from midfield, and his heading ability, a question mark in his early days, has brought three of his 16 league goals. He also contributed well in the Champions League, with five goals, while in the FA Cup he has scored five goals in as many games and had the assist — albeit somewhat fortunately — for Ander Herrera’s semifinal winner vs. Tottenham.
Morata has endured a frustrating campaign. After netting six goals in his first six league appearances, his form slumped badly after Christmas. That has been something of a common problem for La Liga imports, who find the physicality of the league draining after a few months and are unaccustomed to the sheer number of fixtures over the festive period.
The 25-year-old has not really recovered, hitting only one league goal in 2018 despite constantly finding himself in good positions. Chelsea’s January signing of Olivier Giroud was, on paper, the recruitment of a Plan B, yet the French international has often appeared the better option upfront, in part because his back-to-goal play encourages others into the box to provide extra threat.
The statistics show relatively little difference between Lukaku and Morata’s strike rates: Lukaku has managed a league goal every 179 minutes, Morata is at one every 188. This weekend, therefore, it’s all to play for in the debate bas to which club got the better deal.
Assuming, that is, the two actually play.
Lukaku is a doubt because of a recent injury problem and, while it appears likely that Jose Mourinho will risk the Belgian international and deploy him upfront with Alexis Sanchez drifting inside from the left in support, his participation is uncertain.
Morata’s place, meanwhile, is under threat from Giroud, who was surprisingly omitted from Arsenal’s 2015 and 2017 FA Cup final lineups by Arsene Wenger, losing his place to Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck respectively.
Giroud, as so often, provided major contributions as a substitute in both, scoring Arsenal’s fourth goal vs. Aston Villa in 2015, then providing the assist for Aaron Ramsey’s headed winner last season against his current employers. Giroud has always been desperate to show that he’s more than simply an alternative, yet is so effective from the bench that it appears his natural role.
The nature of Chelsea’s semifinal victory over Southampton, with Giroud opening the scoring as a starter and Morata adding the second as his replacement, demonstrated that manager Antonio Conte can play his two forwards the other way round. But a Plan B might be crucial this weekend, in a contest between two managers likely to focus on defending in numbers with a deep block,
In that vein, United have their own ready-made player: Marouane Fellaini. The 30-year-old might be playing his last game for the club he joined in 2013, but his recent headed winner against Arsenal demonstrated the value of his aerial prowess, which allows United to lob the ball hopefully into the box when more considered passing moves are no longer appropriate.
Fellaini’s overall midfield contribution is probably not good enough for a club of United’s caliber, but should he depart, there will be doubtless be matches next season when Mourinho’s men need a goal against defensive-minded opponents and the Old Trafford manager wishes he had the six-foot-four-inch Belgian international at his disposal.
The Plan B concept is considered almost synonymously in relation to tall players adept at winning aerial battles, but that wasn’t always the case: The likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Javier Hernandez were considered excellent substitutes, with styles based around speed. Indeed, the only player with more goals as a substitute than Giroud is Jermain Defoe, another in the small-and-quick mould.
The starting battle upfront at Wembley should be Lukaku vs. Morata but, later in the game, the key duel could be between Fellaini and Giroud. This tight, tense, tactical final will be decided in the penalty boxes.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.