When the list of players released by Premier League sides was published on Friday, it wasnâ€™t too great a shock to see Zlatan Ibrahimovicâ€™s name. Yes, the Swede â€“ a free signing from PSG last summer â€“ has scored more Premier League goals (17) than any other Manchester United player since August 2015,
But the 35-year-old is sidelined until the new year with a knee problem. A sentimental value would be the only reason for United to exercise the option of extending Ibrahimovicâ€™s contract by a further year, yet his release leaves manager Jose Mourinho short of striking options.
Marcus Rashfordâ€™s continued development means Mourinhoâ€™s attack isnâ€™t lacking in quality, but rather quantity. As one might expect, United are set to spend big to boost their attack this summer, and for a while, it seemed anyoneâ€™s guess as to who they would pursue, particularly as the Antoine Griezmann saga ground to an unforeseen halt in light of Atleticoâ€™s transfer ban.
The stand-out candidate now is Alvaro Morata, though Andrea Belotti, Alexandre Lacazette and Romelu Lukaku continue to be linked with moves to Old Trafford. The move for Lukaku looks to be dead in the water, with the Belgian favouring a return to Chelsea, but reports of Unitedâ€™s interest came as little surprise. Mourinho favors a powerful forward to lead the line for someone to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind defenses. Rashford rarely got a look in as the lead striker before Ibrahimovicâ€™s season-ending injury, while links with Morata and Belotti suggest the United boss will adopt a similar approach.
The difference between Ibrahimovic and Morata, say, is the latter is a far more mobile forward. The Spain international is renowned for his defensive contribution and tireless work off the ball, two traits Mourinho looks for in a striker. Morata averaged one tackle per 90 in Spainâ€™s top tier last term and while not a return to shout from the rooftops, itâ€™s worth noting that Real Madrid would often dominate teams, meaning the 24-year-old would rarely need to exhibit this side to his game. Often used from the bench â€“ 12 of Morataâ€™s 26 league appearances last season were as a sub â€“ means heâ€™d come on against tiring teams, thus minimizing his need to hound the opposition into sacrificing possession.
The Spain internationalâ€™s willingness to pull to the flanks would also be a huge benefit to a United side that often deploys pacey wingers. Morata is not only prepared to remain stationary in the final third, but work hard to run the channels to provide another outlet. With the likes of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all routinely deployed out wide, they can use their speed to occupy the space Morata vacates to pull teams apart. With the Real Madrid frontman offering 1.1 key passes per 90 in La Liga last season, if he can get on the end of passes out wide, he has the means to create for his teammates.
Yet for all the needs of a modern-day striker, they still have to put the ball in the back of the net, which is another aspect of Morataâ€™s game that is improving. Of the 26 players to score 10 or more goals in Spainâ€™s top tier last term, only Isco (31.3%) had a better conversion rate than Morata (27.3%). With 15 league goals to his name â€“ only a certain Cristiano Ronaldo (25) bagged more of all Real Madrid players â€“ he certainly made his time on the pitch count as he scored once every 88.7 minutes, a return bettered only by Lionel Messi of those to have netted five or more goals, who scored every 76.5 minutes in La Liga last season.
That being said, the jury remains out on Morata. During his two seasons with Juventus, he managed just 15 league goals, yet balanced that out with a number of strong showings in the Champions League, particularly in the Old Ladyâ€™s run to the 2014/15 final, where he scored five goals in six knock-out games and hit the back of the net in the 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the final. This experience in Europeâ€™s elite club competition will be vital for a United side returning to feast at the main table following their Europa League triumph and is perhaps a reason why Morata is a more viable target that Belotti.
As impressive as the Italian was in Serie A last term, netting 26 goals for Torino, it was his first prolific campaign of his career. A lack of experience in European competition means the 23-year-old may struggle to balance both league and continental duties for a team of Unitedâ€™s stature, where success is demanded with each passing campaign. What’s more there is a Â£87m release clause in Belottiâ€™s contract that can only be triggered by a non-Italian side. Torino is understandably keen to sell him abroad for this very reason, yet itâ€™s a fee that has deterred United, while the pressure of playing up to such a price could impact Belottiâ€™s development. There is no denying that the Italian striker has a bright future ahead of him, but a move to a team of Unitedâ€™s stature may come too soon for Belotti.
Lacazette, meanwhile, offers a differing approach. Heâ€™s familiar with playing as the lone striker but lacks the physical qualities that Morata and Belotti would bring. Despite Atletico Madridâ€™s transfer ban, he still favors a move to Spain, though that is unlikely to deter potential suitors at this point. A conversion rate of 33.3% means that the France international has the goalscoring quality to improve Unitedâ€™s attacking options.
Mourinhoâ€™s side missed more clear-cut goalscoring opportunities (50) than any other Premier League side last season, and so a striker boasting Lacazetteâ€™s finishing ability would certainly appeal to the fans, yet you get the impression that the Frenchmanâ€™s capture would go against the grain for the United boss, with his style more similar to that of Rashford than a Mourinho-style forward.
With the options narrowing, Morata is perhaps the best available to United and Mourinho, but that is by no means a bad thing. The Spaniard continues to improve and with sufficient playing time, has the means to better his goalscoring record. Yet it isnâ€™t just his goal return that appeals to Mourinho, with the mobility and hard work off the ball being crucial traits for the Portuguese manager. In a system to suit the needs of Morata, he could prove to be an inspired signing for a United side striving to re-establish itself as the best in England.