For all of the beauty of Spain’s passing game, orchestrated through their teenage prodigies Gavi and Pedri, there is always the suspicion that their brilliant work does not get the finish it deserves.
They scored seven times against Costa Rica in their opening group game, with six different scorers and an astonishing 1,045 passes, but possession and dominance has not always been translated into goals.
Against Germany they weaved their pretty patterns and unpicked the defence for an hour – and spurned chances until the arrival of Alvaro Morata, who may just be about to propel himself from expensive Chelsea misfit to the spearhead of a challenge to win this World Cup.
Spain are undoubtedly in contention and the deftness and confidence (something he is so often accused of lacking) that Morata showed in scoring his second goal in two games at this tournament – both after coming off the bench – suggests he could provide the purpose to the prettiness.
Those goals mean he has now scored 29 times for his country, taking him two above Fernando Morientes on the all-time Spanish scorers’ list. Morata is still some way short of the record, held by David Villa, who scored 59 times and was in the crowd here alongside Carles Puyol, but he has drawn level with Fernando Hierro in fifth place.
As ever, Morata is a striker who divides opinion. Not just at Stamford Bridge, where his £60 million move turned sour amid accusations that he was mentally too fragile and could not cope with the pressure. For Spain, also, he has been criticised, admitting he was “losing sleep” after being whistled by fans when he missed a gilt-edged chance against Sweden at last year’s European Championships.
“The ball going in or not can take you from the front page to eating all the s--- in Spain,” Morata famously once said as he snapped at all the scrutiny he was under, feeling he was the whipping boy for his country’s failings.
But, in Luis Enrique, Morata has a manager who believes in him. “I must be the coach who knows the least about football,” Enrique spikily proclaimed after being questioned about why he kept picking Morata.
It is a familiar theme in this Spain squad. Enrique has shaped it and his team’s style of play in his own image. It is unmistakably 4-3-3, high-pressing, brave and with the intention to pass positively rather than for the sake of it. But it needs a finisher and that was not proving to be Ferran Torres, who Morata replaced here.
Enrique has blooded youth – the faith in Gavi and Pedri, who are generational talents – but also kept faith in others, like Morata, who are not playing regularly for their clubs.
Morata has striker’s instinct Spain often lack
It was evident with Spain’s goal as the pass from which Morata scored was delivered by left-back Jordi Alba, who is arguably now third choice for Barcelona but still starts for Spain. Similarly, Enrique has rejected big names such as Sergio Ramos and David de Gea and picks players who suit his plan.
Morata has never stayed more than two successive seasons at any one club – from Real Madrid to Juventus to Chelsea to Atletico Madrid – which tells its own story, but the 30-year-old has earned 58 caps for Spain and keeps on being selected. Maybe his demeanour does not help.
Morata can appear hang-dog, with slumped shoulders, while his remarkable honesty when answering questions about his performances has been used as a stick to beat him or suggest he is not up to it.
But what a finish it was against Germany. He had been on the pitch for only eight minutes and there was still much to do to convert the opportunity that Alba created. The low cross from the left was inviting but Morata had to not only steal ahead of his marker, Niklas Sule, but guide the ball with the outside of his right boot from close range so that it was high enough to beat the formidable Manuel Neuer and low enough to go under the crossbar.
Maybe it was because he did not have to think about it. It was not a particularly Morata finish – some would say they are few and far between anyway – but it showed a striker’s instinct that Spain often lack.