Manchester United are tipped to sign at least one of Alvaro Morata and Andrea Belotti this summer, but with Wayne Rooney potentially on the way out they could even get both.
United badly wanted to avoid a saga over Morata, but Real Madrid are in no rush to sanction a sale of the striker while they believe the Red Devils can be rinsed of a few extra euros. And why should they be?
Despite United’s optimism of finding common ground at around £68million for Morata, Real are still holding out for an extra £10million, all for a squad player who made only 14 league starts last term.
Belotti, meanwhile, may cost even more than Morata and be even harder to prise away from his club, Torino.
United have reportedly started the bidding for Belotti at the £70million mark, some way below the Italy international’s £87million buy-out clause, which Torino currently claim is the only way to prise the 23-year-old away. Ed Woodward has work to do.
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Should United decide to sign both, the pair would likely cost between £130million-£165million, but given what Mourinho has to remedy and replace, the Red Devils know they must spend big.
As it stands, the United boss will be without his top scorer from last season and quite possibly the club captain.
Should, as expected, Rooney depart this summer, his limited contribution under Mourinho means the skipper’s absence will not be too keenly felt.
But the void left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose knee injury means it is unlikely he will play for United again, is far greater.
Ibrahimovic was a huge success in his debut season in the Premier League, making fools of anyone who doubted his ability to deliver at Old Trafford at the age of 35. As well as finishing as the club’s top scorer with 28 goals, had he not been forced to sit out the final month of the season, he would likely have finished top of the appearances chart too.
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Ibrahimovic enjoyed the level of involvement Morata can only have dreamed of over recent years, and the prospect of such game time is what Mourinho has apparently led his sales pitch on in his attempt to persuade the striker to swap Madrid for Manchester.
Since making his senior debut in 2010, Morata has averaged just 11 starts per season. Over the last three years, two of which were spent at Juventus before Real activated a buy-back option last summer, the striker has averaged 22 starts in all competitions per season. Of his 188 career appearances, 109 have come off the bench.
United were also heavily linked with Romelu Lukaku this summer, and despite being the same age as the Spaniard, Lukaku has accrued 24,119 minutes’ worth of action since his senior debut – almost three times Morata’s total of 8154 minutes. At Everton, over the last three seasons, Lukaku has made 124 starts – 53 more than Morata.
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Despite Morata’s comparitive lack of involvement, it is hard to dispute that the striker does not do the business when given the opportunity.
By scoring 47 goals, Morata has averaged a goal every 140 minutes during the last three seasons – only Lionel Messi has a more impressive minutes per goal rate in La Liga last season – while Lukaku has a goal for every 158 minutes he has been on the pitch over the same time period.
There are certainly no fears of burnout with Morata, and like Ibrahimovic, his trophy haul is mightily impressive, especially for a player who has a decade and the best days of his career ahead of him.
Possessing a couple of winners’ medals in each of the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A and Spanish and Italian cups, Morata is used to being part of successful squads and around serial winners, which is a quality Mourinho recognised in Ibrahimoivc prior to last season.
Another asset Zlatan offered United was his aerial prowess. The Swede gave United the physical presence in attack which they had previously lacked, and Morata offers a similar threat, with six of his 15 La Liga goals last term coming from headers.
However, like Lukaku, Morata worries opponents because he can receive the ball deep and bring others into play, while also possessing the pace to run in behind and stretch defences – something Ibrahimoivc at 35 was happy to allow others to do.
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Morata now needs the trust and confidence of a manager who will make the Spaniard his main man, which is what Mourinho is reportedly willing to do.
The striker has always been left to feel like a stand-in during his time around the Real Madrid first team, while during his time at Juventus, when he still had to play a supporting role to the likes of Carlos Tevez, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, the threat of being summoned back to the Bernabeu always lingered, which is something Morata admits played on his mind, especially when the goals weren’t flowing.
“I was a bit lost. It wasn’t just the goals; I was arguing with people who are important to me, not bothering with things that truly matter,” Morata told the Guardian in a refreshingly honest interview in April.
“It was a bit of everything. I’d left home young, I’d fought to play for Juventus and I was ‘conditioned’ by Madrid having a buy-back option that didn’t depend on me. I didn’t know my future. All that affected me and I let myself slide a bit, became distracted.”
Morata credits much of his fightback to meeting his partner, who he married in Venice over the weekend. He has also spoken of his desire to play for a coach who truly believes in him.
“I need to play more and for someone to really back me. Either I take off or I end up in a position of comfort, playing games occasionally. I’m no longer the youngest, I’m 24, it’s a big moment.”
If United can reach an agreement with Real Madrid, then Mourinho will be getting a multi-decorated goalscorer who has demonstrated he can cut it at the highest level but remains hungry to prove a point.
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Still, though, Mourinho wants more, and given United’s struggles in front of goal last season, it is easy to understand why.
They netted 54 times in the Premier League last season – 34 fewer than champions Chelsea and one fewer than ninth-placed Bournemouth – as a procession of draws, especially at home, killed off their top-four hopes.
According to Opta, United ranked fourth highest in the Premier League for chances created, and also for shots taken, but fourth worst for shot conversion. They also missed more big chances than anyone else in the division.
Like Morata, Torino centre-forward Belotti has demonstrated an eye for goal, netting 26 times in Serie A. Ten of those were headers, with 11 coming off his right foot and five more from his left.
Both he and Belotti bring a vast range of finishing capabilities, especially aerially.
Mourinho will have identified attacking from crosses as one of the simplest routes to improving their striking output, with United having attempted the second-highest number of crosses from open play last season, so he needs a forward to capitalise on those deliveries.
With a goal every 117 minutes in Serie A, it is no wonder Europe’s top clubs have courted Belotti, just as it is no surprise that Torino are desperate to keep the 23-year-old for at least another year.
The Italy forward is not just a goalscorer either; he can conjure up opportunities for others too. Belotti created 55 chances for Torino team-mates last season. Among his prospective new United team-mates, only Paul Pogba can say he created more.
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Both Morata and Belotti can operate in various positions across the frontline, and with both in the team, United would appear far more potent.
After all, not only does Mourinho have to replace Ibrahimovic, the manager must also find ways to improve the output of the rest of his attack. After Ibra, Juan Mata was United’s second highest Premier League goalscorer with just six goals. Marcus Rashford, Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba all contributed five.
In contrast, Tottenham’s second and third-highest goalscorers, Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min, chucked in 18 and 14 respectively, supplementing Harry Kane’s 29. Spurs’ top three scorers scored seven more than the entire United squad.
Eyebrows have been raised at the prospect of United being willing to pay in excess of £130million for Real Madrid’s reserve striker and another forward who’s never played in the Champions League. But such figures reflect the market United and their rivals are now operating in.
And if anyone can afford the outlay, it’s United. Indeed, Mourinho will have told Woodward they can’t afford not to.
By Ian Watson
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