With this year’s transfer speculation starting to intensify, it would appear that United have three likely options to fill the vacant Number Nine position: Romelu Lukaku, Andrea Belotti and Alvaro Morata.
All three players are of a similar age and had impressive seasons for slightly varying reasons with Belotti scoring 28 goals, Lukaku scoring 26 and Morata managing 20 in his fringe role at Real Madrid.
Because of the influx of cash in the market and the lack of top quality strikers around right now, any one of these three strikers would cost £60-90 million. It’s a huge investment so it’s important that if United do take the plunge, they make the correct choice.
The former Chelsea and Anderlecht man continues to prove year after year that he’s capable of firing in goals and for the third consecutive season he scored 20+ (26, to be precise) in all competitions. This year he also broke the 20-goal mark in a league campaign for the first time.
In many ways, he would be the safest purchase. He is a known quantity at this stage and everyone from the manager down to the casual fans would know roughly what to expect from him. He’s physical, he’s a dependable finisher and he openly states that he would back himself to out-muscle and turn any Premier League defender in a one-on-one situation. He has an ambition to establish himself as one of Europe’s top strikers and in a better team he might just have a chance of doing so.
There are doubts over him though. Firstly, there’s a belief that he doesn’t score enough important goals or contribute enough against the best teams. His 25 league goals were against Sunderland (4), Bournemouth (4), Leicester (3), Watford (2), Hull (2), Manchester City (2), Middlesbrough, Palace, West Ham, Southampton, Spurs, West Brom, Arsenal and Burnley.
I’m a firm believer that almost all goals are important but it’s worth stating that only four of his goals were against teams that finished above Everton, and they only won one of those matches. Further to that, many of his goals came in Everton’s more comfortable victories and rather than providing the game-defining moment in those matches he’d sometimes just round off the scoring. However, there is a valid argument to be made that Everton simply lack the overall quality of the teams above them so he can’t realistically be expected to score a huge amount of goals against them. He will need to improve his record against those teams but at United he would be provided with better conditions and opportunities to do so.
The final doubt is over his link-up play or ability to hold the ball up. It was widely believed that his shortcoming in this area was one of the key reasons behind Mourinho agreeing to sell him to Everton and, although he’s improved, it’s something that requires ongoing work. His first touch can still let him down slightly more frequently than he would like and he can at times make poor decisions in possession. However, his more straightforward playing style could actually be of benefit to United as he would stretch defences more than Ibrahimovic and and provide other players with more space to work in.
He’d be a safe bet as a regular goal source, we know what we’d be getting and he has the physicality to continue making a big impact in the Premier League but he still needs to prove he can become one of Europe’s genuinely elite strikers. Objectively speaking he is not as “good” as Ibrahimovic but there is no doubt that United could benefit from his presence in the team as long as they can create chances for him.
Estimated Cost – £80 million
Player Rating – 7.5/10
Likelihood – 6.5/10
I barely knew a thing about Andrea Belotti before the start of the 16/17 season but as soon as he started to started to score so consistently it was impossible not to pay attention. He then got linked with a big money move to Arsenal in January and continued to score at impressive rate in the second half of the season to provide more than enough evidence that he could be the real deal.
Perhaps the most impressive thing has been the even distribution of his goals. While the majority have been close range finishes, he scored almost equal amounts with his right foot, left foot and even his head. There are no significant weaknesses in and around the penalty area for him: he scored as many headers as anyone else in Europe’s major leagues, he scored the fastest ever hattrick in Serie A and for a long time he looked like he may do the unthinkable by scoring 30 league goals for a mid-table team. He finished just short with 26 goals in 36 appearances but it was a pretty remarkable explosion onto the scene. He’s demonstrated that he can do it under more testing conditions against the likes of Milan, Napoli, Inter and Roma, and his excitable “rooster” celebration brings back memories of some of the great poachers of the 90s and 2000s.
The word “poacher” is probably key here though. It’d be unfair to call him a one-dimensional player because, as mentioned, he can score in just about any conceivable way and he’s a furiously hard worker on the pitch but he’s yet to show that he can be a top footballer in a more general sense. It’s not that he’s poor with the ball but there’s a certain lack of skill and grace in his play – he resembles a bull trying to power his way through challenges but it can cause him to run down blind alleys and get bogged down in physical confrontations rather than releasing the ball early or using a subtle change of direction to beat a marker.
I get the impression that Mourinho would love to work with him though. He’s aggressive, he fights for every ball and once he gets a sight of goal he’ll fly at it as though nothing else in the world matters. His game almost resembles Diego Costa’s at times but he’s a more natural, clinical finisher. His enthusiasm and goals would make him extremely popular with fans too but I would have some slight concerns over his ability to make a significant impact on more intense, ferocious Premier League matches. He’s also going to be horrifyingly expensive considering he’s only emerged as a potential top player over the past year but with the market as crazy as it is, any talented player is going to cost an arm and a leg.
Estimated Cost – £75 million
Player Rating – 7.5/10
Likelihood – 5/10
I tend to find people’s opinions of Alvaro Morata quite amusing. There’s a feeling that because he didn’t score masses of goals for Juventus and because he tends to be backup to Benzema that he can’t be particularly good. Both of those situations are easily explainable though: he went to Juve to as a 21-year-old after just one season with fairly regular first team football and they already had Tevez and Llorente who were two established, senior forwards in the prime of their careers. The following year he had to cope with the arrivals of Mandzukic, Dybala and Zaza so there was always fierce competition for places. Despite those obstacles he was always terrifically popular with the Juve supporters and played an important supporting role to help them in winning five trophies in his two seasons there. He was also particularly impressive in the Champions League and produced some top performances against the likes of Dortmund, Sevilla, Bayern and Real Madrid.
Another myth about Morata is that Juve didn’t want to keep him. In reality Real Madrid had a pre-agreed option to buy him back for 30 million Euros and they exercised that option in 2016. There were two key reasons for this: they knew they’d be able to sell him on for a huge profit but they were also impressed by his performances, including in the two games against them in Europe.
The decision to bring him “home” has proven to be an excellent one. He scored 20 goals in his comeback season and he scored four more league goals than Karim Benzema despite starting nine fewer matches. He had the second best goals per minutes ratio in la liga behind Messi and his conversion rate was 12% better than any United forward.
What separates Morata is his all round game. When Mourinho brought him into the Real Madrid team he tended to play him out wide a lot to help develop him as a footballer and then at Juventus he had to fit his game around the demands of his more senior team mates which often required him to run the channels, play in deeper areas and put in a lot of defensive work. All of that helped his development enormously and now he’s on his way to becoming the complete centre forward: he’s tall, relatively strong and can hold the ball up well but he’s also technically gifted and capable of dribbling past opponents in tight areas. He can make pro-active runs ahead of the ball and over the past 12 months for club and country he has proven that he’s clinical in front of goal too.
Estimated Cost – £65 million
Player Rating – 8.5/10
Likelihood – 7/10
Any of the three players could prove to be a quality signing for United and none of them can be ruled out at this stage but Morata is the most complete footballer and I’m firmly of the belief that he would surprise a lot of people with his quality if he happens to come to the Premier League next season. However, if Mourinho is looking for a more straightforward, traditional Number Nine’s contribution he may favour Lukaku and the Belgian’s Premier League experience will probably consolidate that preference.