Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata have a lot in common. Both sought their fortunes in England at Chelsea, both chose Atlético Madrid for their return to Spain, and the similarities don’t stop there.
At their best, the two Atleti strikers are hard-working, mobile, intelligent in their runs, formidable in the air and a handful in front of goal. It’s no coincidence Morata was earmarked as the man to replace Costa at Chelsea, nor is a surprise that Diego Simeone singled him out as the striker he needed at the Wanda Metropolitano to provide competition for the older attacker.
Yet what has happened since both moved back to the Spanish capital defies the logical predictions. Costa left Chelsea as someone who had scored 20 league goals in his final season in London, matters off the pitch rather than on it accounting for his departure. Morata, meanwhile, left Stamford Bridge with his confidence shattered, regressing rather than progressing from an encouraging start to life in the Premier League. Chelsea fans were happy to see the former Real Madrid man sent out on loan to Spain, while plenty still reminisce fondly about Costa.
A reversal of roles has occurred since. The 31-year-old’s highest LaLiga goals tally post-return is a measly three, coming in Costa’s first campaign back at Atleti, and all three of the strikes scored between January and February before a long barren stretch until the end of the 2017-18 LaLiga season. Rather than improving, last year things worsened. Costa only managed two league goals in 2018-19, rounding off the season in the worst possible way with a needless red card in the league title decider against Barcelona. His eight match suspension left the Rojiblancos in a difficult position and meant he missed the 2019-20 LaLiga opener.
Like Costa, Morata had to wait until winter to play his first minutes back in Spain, but his impact was more sustained. The former Atleti youth player ended last season with a respectable six goals from 15 league appearances, and were it not for a couple of questionable VAR decisions in his opening matches, could have had more. A beautiful chip from distance over Thibaut Courtois in the Madrid derby was controversially ruled out for offside.
Fast forward to the present, and the differing trajectories of the two last season have continued. Suspension and fitness issues meant neither Costa nor Morata had a straightforward start to the season, but with those matters out of the way there is no doubt over who is performing better. With 13 games in all competitions in 2019-20 Costa still only has one goal from open play. Morata conversely is having a resurgent Autumn, scoring four times in his last four games to take his tally to five in 11 appearances – all from open play.
For a low-scoring team like Atlético, having a centre-forward who is efficient in front of goal makes the difference when competing for a league or Champions League, so Morata’s form has consequences. His most recent goal, an important equaliser away at Sevilla, was the latest in a brilliant burst of scoring that started on October 22nd when he came off the bench to win a vital Champions League match with Bayer Leverkusen. Four days later he put a tricky league clash against Athletic Club out of sight. Then, the following Tuesday, the 27-year-old again entered as a sub to score Atleti’s only goal away at Deportivo Alavés.
Costa had just been withdrawn following a dismal 70 minutes when Morata found the net in the Basque Country, and to his credit, the veteran celebrated his teammate’s strike as much as anyone. Deep down he must know however that the way the evening unfolded summed up the opposite directions the two players are moving in. While Atleti looked blunt and unable to make any meaningful progress with Costa on the pitch, Morata gave them an instant energy injection. The younger player brings pace, link-up with his teammates, and now, confident finishing. Costa struggles to even register a shot.
Costa drew blank once more last Saturday, and the evidence suggests that if Atlético are going to win something it will be with Morata as a starter, then the older player earning minutes from the bench. Simeone, loyal to a striker who won him a dream league title, has long tried to delay but can no longer avoid that call. Perhaps as a substitute the number 19 can recover some of the form with which he departed Chelsea. He need only look Atleti’s other striker recruited from London for proof of how things can be turned around.
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