Manchester United’s need for a new striker was evident long before the decision to discard Zlatan Ibrahimovic was announced last Friday.
Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata is the man Jose Mourinho wants but to explain exactly why United fans can gain so much encouragement from this prospective transfer, it serves to look back further than last season at the Bernabeu, when he scored 20 times but was a back-up to Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and when fit, Gareth Bale.
In the summer of 2016, United were not the only side to shell out on a player they had let go to Juventus without disquiet. While Pogba secured a return to Old Trafford for a world-record transfer fee, Madrid shelled out £23million to bring Morata back to Spain only two years after they sold him.
Unlike United, it was actually quite savvy business from the Spanish side as they had inserted a buy-back fee into his contract.
Reports in Spain suggested Madrid bought him back only to sell him on for £50m-plus but Zinedine Zidane thought otherwise. Morata had just helped Juventus to their second straight Serie A title and Coppa Italia double. His goal tally was a modest 12 but that took nothing away from how influential his displays were.
And it was Pogba who reaped rewards of playing alongside Morata as much as any other Juve player in the Spaniard’s two-years in Serie A.
Twice in his club career has Pogba reached double-figures in a season and both of those came when Morata was leading the line in Turin.
They developed their taste for silverware together. As well as the two Serie A Italian Cup medals, they could have had a Champions League triumph. They lost 3-1 to Barcelona in the 2015 final in Berlin, Morata scoring for Juventus.
Pogba even revealed that Morata helped convince him to head back to England, saying that the Spaniard told him Mourinho ‘is the coach for me.’
Morata’s 2016-17 goal return at Madrid is the highest in his career to date and helps outline why he is considering his future – he is ready to be the main man at a major club although United will hope he will reprise a role and share centre stage with Pogba.
Like all good partnerships at the elite level, there has been a bit of a competitive edge between them.
When Juventus drew 0-0 with Borussia Monchenglabach in October 2015, Pogba openly criticised Morata for not passing to him when he was in a position to score.
‘I was angry with Morata and I hope that in the next match he will pass me the ball in the crucial moment,’ Pogba said after the match, amid claims he was struggling to cope with pressure of playing as a No 10.
‘I’m not weighed down by the shirt,’ he added. ‘It’s just a number, if it had been anything else nobody would say anything.
‘I always want to do well and follow what the coach asks me to do. I’m not interested in anything else, as I’m 100 per cent focused [on improving].’
The Frenchman’s first season back at United was less encouraging than Morata’s at Madrid.
He was a regular under Mourinho, playing 51 times and scoring nine goals, but he did not produce one display that explained the £89m transfer fee. It is not his fault United paid what they did but it will always play a part in how he is judged.
Furthermore, despite winning the League Cup to go with the Europa League, there is no escaping just how underwhelming United’s first Premier League season under Mourinho was.
At his unveiling, he scoffed at the idea of solely returning to the top four.
‘I was always much more aggressive in my approach, with the risks that can bring, and it would be easy and even honest and pragmatic to focus on the last three years – on the fact that we don’t qualify for the Champions League and so on,’ he said.
‘I could be quite pragmatic to say “let’s work and try and be back to the Champions League, try and be back to the top four”.
‘I prefer to be more aggressive and say we want to win. .. finish fourth is not the aim.’
Instead, they were forced to focus on qualifying for the Champions League via the Europa League after losing touch with the top four, as much as Mourinho tried to paint it as the preferred route into Europe’s elite club competition.
Another season like that will not do.
Morata is likely to follow Benfica central defender Victor Lindelof through the arrivals door as Mourinho moves swiftly to bolster obvious areas for improvement.
And if Morata helps elevate Pogba’s level, then there would be no reason United could not compete for the glory Mourinho says he craves.
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