Atlético Madrid on Monday won a throwback game at Granada, grinding out a 1-0 victory away from home for the first time since last March. The decisive moment came 10 minutes into the second half, when Rodrigo de Paul found Antoine Griezmann in a pocket of space on the right and the Frenchman fed Álvaro Morata for a bullet header from eight yards out. Despite a lengthy VAR check — and it was a banner weekend for VAR shenanigans — Morata’s goal was upheld, his 13th in LALIGA and his 19th in all competitions.
During this league season, only Jude Bellingham and Artem Dovbyk have outscored Morata, whose 55th-minute goal on Monday handed Atlético its first league win away from the Cívitas Metropolitano in three months. Spain’s number-nine has already equalled his goal tally from last year and will set a new personal best for league goals in a season if he scores three more times. In addition, the 31-year-old isn’t too far away from a new career-high for goals across all competitions in a single season — he needs two more goals to surpass the 20 he scored for Real Madrid during the 2016/17 season.
1️⃣9️⃣ del 1️⃣9️⃣— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti) January 22, 2024
19 goles esta temporada.
Don Álvaro Morata. pic.twitter.com/IiZXzfe7rd
Morata’s 13 goals have come across a span of 1,339 minutes — a rate of 0.87 goals scored per 90 minutes, the second-best tally in LALIGA behind Girona star Dovbyk. Just three other players in Primera have a better non-penalty expected goals per 90 mark (0.61) than Morata, who is scoring with nearly every other shot on target (13 goals from 24 SoT) — a success rate that he statistically has not come close to achieving since the 2020/21 season, the first of his two campaigns on loan at Juventus.
Morata has always had the characteristics and the look of an elite forward — but his club career has been defined by inconsistency and upheaval from one country to another (there’s always money to be made). Morata’s improvement relative to his respectable 2022/23 campaign can be traced to a conversation in Seoul over the summer between the player, Diego Simeone, and coach Gustavo López. During this 20-minute chat in July, Simeone is said to have emphasized to Morata that he would be counted on as Griezmann’s strike partner during the forthcoming season, and that he shouldn’t return to Italy or move to Saudi Arabia for tens of millions more in wages.
So Morata stayed, and his partnership with Griezmann has taken off like never before. The duo has been arguably Europe’s most lethal this season, combining for more than half of Atlético’s goals across LALIGA, the Champions League, and the Copa del Rey. Both men scored against Madrid in the Copa last Thursday — Griezmann rather sensationally — and they have kept Memphis Depay (280 league minutes this season) and Ángel Correa (570 minutes) glued to the bench.
(Correa, a player Simeone has consistently relied on over the past nine years, has not exceeded more than 45 minutes in any of his past six appearances, and El Cholo came very close Monday to confirming that the World Cup winner will complete a transfer to the Saudi Pro League before the winter window shuts. The club is keen to replace him with the speedy and somewhat goal-shy Moise Kean, who would arrive on loan from Juve.)
Atlético’s most successful seasons under Simeone — the ones that have ended in silverware — all had one thing in common: a “killer” at center-forward, an efficient nine that scored in excess of 20 goals. Radamel Falcao (34 goals in 41 games) was that player when Atleti won the Copa del Rey and returned to the Champions League in 2013. Diego Costa (36 goals in 52 games) was that player the following year, when Los Rojiblancos won a miraculous league title and came within 120 seconds of actually winning the Champions League. Luis Suárez (21 goals in 32 league games) was the driving force behind their triumph in 2021, a personal revenge tour for the Uruguayan that delivered collective benefits.
Morata is in line to continue that tradition as Atlético prepare to face Sevilla in a cup quarterfinal — a competition that, all of a sudden, appears winnable. If Morata can hold his decisive form and fire Atleti into the semifinals on Thursday night, Los Colchoneros will have a great chance to win the domestic cup for the first time in 11 years. Morata has dealt with a lot of harsh criticism in his career, and this season is his chance to silence those doubts once and for all.