Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 38 league goals this past season. Robert Lewandowski notched 30. Romelu Lukaku put in 18. Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, and Daniel Sturridge all averaged 0.7 goals per 90. Oh, and Cristiano Ronaldo broke the 30-goal mark for the sixth season in a row.
But after the group stages, one of the leading goalscorers at Euro 2016 is a 23-year-old backup who scored seven times in Italy this season and could get sold by two separate teams this summer. That might sound surprising — except, this is what happens when Álvaro Morata plays soccer: He makes goals happen.
Goals can be in short supply when the Spanish national team plays. They’re the dominant international side of this era — two European championships and one World Cup — and they’ve done it by making the “pass” the defining soccer move instead of the “goal.” Part of that is by choice: They use possession as a defensive tactic, only moving the ball toward goal when a high-quality chance might open up. Part is by necessity: Since the beginning of the decade, they haven’t had a finisher as consistently good as their passers.
At the last Euros, the way Spain got all of its best players on the field was to play with six midfielders. An early tie against Italy and a scoreless shootout victory against Portugal in the semifinals made it seem like the possession obsession might fatally blunt their attack. Then, Vicente del Bosque started Cesc Fábregas, who is now a holding midfielder, as the formation’s de facto striker, and they beat Italy 4–0 in the final. But come the 2014 World Cup, del Bosque tried to give his passers something to aim at with Diego Costa, a jerky striker who plays soccer like he’s climbing Half Dome, and it briefly all went to shit.
The team at this Euros is roughly the same as the one that got blown up in Brazil, but now Morata’s leading the charge, and through three games, their attack has been dominant:
You could be cynical about Morata’s performance thus far — tied for the lead in actual goals, second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in expected goals. Justin Bieber could probably score at least three times if he had Andrés Iniesta and David Silva feeding him the ball. But while there’s always some bump from playing with a bunch of creative geniuses, consistently finding high-quality shots for yourself is the most important skill a striker can have. Just look at Morata’s first goal against Croatia:
First, he tries to get on the end of a through ball, but once that move dies, he shifts himself toward the most dangerous part of the field, and he times his second run with Silva’s pass to Fábregas. The goal won’t go on Morata’s sizzle reel, but a handful of innate movements allow the end product to look simple.
If you want some more traditional highlights, he’s got those, too:
In his first semi-consequential professional season with Real Madrid in 2012–13, Morata averaged 0.7 goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes. A year later, that number shot up to 1.3 (all goals, no assists), which set off alarm bells across Europe: If you produce at that rate as a 21-year-old, superstardom is typically within reach. In his past two years at Juventus, Morata played more than he had in either Madrid season, and his goal production (goals and assists combined) settled in at 0.8 per 90. It’s a drop-off, sure, but it’s also better than Kane (who led the Premier League in goals) averaged this season.
Madrid sold Morata to Juventus two years ago for £16 million, but the deal included a buy-back clause of £23 million, which the Spanish club just activated. Except, they still might sell him later this summer. If they do — and they probably will because his last name won’t move enough jerseys — he’ll likely become one of the most expensive strikers ever. (Troy Deeney, a 27-year-old journeyman with one slightly-better-than-average Premier League season under his belt, might go for £30 million.) Goals matter more than anything, and teams will pay crazy money for them — even if a guy has started only 30 games over the past three seasons.
So, the biggest issue with Morata is his usage: He’s never played a full season as a team’s definitive no. 1 option, so we don’t know if (1.) his body’s equipped for such a heavy load or (2.) if more playing time will drag down his production rates. But if he can keep it up while playing a starter’s minutes, Morata is the ideal all-around modern striker: He can stretch the defense like he does for Spain, he can whip together a tasty goal despite an empty cupboard, or he can lead the fast break by himself:
Morata does have a knack for scoring in big games. And with a match against Italy, potentially followed by a quarterfinal against Germany, a semi against France, and then the final, he could be playing in plenty of them. Seemingly every team in the Premier League wants him, but if Morata keeps scoring and Spain keeps winning, then who knows? Come July 10, Madrid might already have their star.