Luis Enrique has been hard at work instilling a unique tactical identity with Spain. Fluid, possession-based football has been the name of the game, reminiscent of their Golden Age in the early 2010s. In this style of football, pure number nines are optional, and are often replaced by players more involved in build-up.
Despite Luis Enrique’s attempts to forego the striker position, Álvaro Morata keeps finding a way to get minutes. In Spain’s group stage games at the 2022 World Cup, against Germany and Japan, Morata was the sole goalscorer in both of them, which helped Spain advance from Group E to the Round of 16. So, why is it that a number nine with a clumsy run and an inconsistent first touch is playing such a crucial part in a system which is ill-suited to his style?
Firstly, and most obviously, Morata scores goals. This is easier said than done. Morata has a poaching instinct, and knowledge of attacking positioning. He’s the top scorer for Spain at the World Cup with three goals, despite only playing 126 minutes so far, giving him an average of a goal every 42 minutes. He has also scored 30 goals in 60 appearances for his country.
While other players in his position can contribute more to build-up with passing and rotate across the front line more easily to confuse opposition centre-backs, slotting the ball into the back of the net under pressure from defenders and goalkeepers is something that not everyone can do. Morata is also better in the air than his fellow forwards, adding a dimension of aerial danger to Spain’s game, the importance of which was seen against Japan.
Morata plays a more discrete role beyond being a direct goal-scoring threat. In playing a traditional striker role, he stays pressed against the opposition defence instead of dropping back to collect the ball. This forces the back line to play deeper to prevent runs in behind, thus preventing the opposition defence from pushing up to compress the space between them and midfield. This gives more space for Spain’s own’s midfield to operate in. While Morata may not always be contributing directly to playmaking himself, he facilitates his team-mates’ creative work.
A tall number nine may not always seem appropriate for Spain’s game, but Morata plays a crucial role in attack for La Roja. It gives Luis Enrique an option as they look to progress beyond the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup.
GSFN | Nicolás Antúnez de Mayolo