Misfiring Álvaro Morata struggles to block out the sound of Spanish jeers

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<span>Photograph: Pierre Philippe Marcou/EPA</span>
Photograph: Pierre Philippe Marcou/EPA

Álvaro Morata knows better than anyone, which may just be part of the problem. In the days leading up to Spain’s first game at Euro 2020, sitting in the sunshine at their Las Rozas training base, the former Chelsea player gave a graphic description of how fine the line can be for a striker, particularly one like him. “The ball going in or not can take you from the front page to eating all the shit in Spain,” he told the sports daily AS.

As it turned out, it can end up with both. During a Euro 2020 opening night when Spain set a tournament record for the number of passes completed, when they took 17 shots on Sweden’s goal but failed to score and were instead held 0-0 by a team that their coach, Luis Enrique, said came to “defend, defend and defend”, Morata found himself whistled by a significant portion of the 12,517 fans at La Cartuja in Seville. He also found himself on the front pages.

Related: Euro 2020 day five: France v Germany buildup after Spain misfire – live!

At least he was not alone this time. Morata was on the cover of Sport, looking forlorn. Dani Olmo was on front cover of Marca, head in hands. And Koke was on the front of AS, frustratedly gripping the net the ball never met. At least they did not sing this time, either. At La Cartuja, Spain’s supporters had whistled their frustration at Morata, roaring when he was replaced by Gerard Moreno; when Spain had played at the Wanda Metropolitano 10 days earlier, they had chanted: “Morata, how bad you are!”

And, yes, that does say Spain’s. Yes, it does say supporters. And no, it is not really much of a consolation. Olmo might have scored. Moreno might have scored. And Koke certainly might have scored. But it was Morata who was the target, the man singled out to eat all the shit in Spain.

The first time it happened, Koke could be seen trying to get fans to support Morata – and some did, attempting to drown out the whistles with applause. The last time it happened Luis Enrique stood and made a point of applauding as he left the pitch, his ears burning. Which, again, some did. Too many, though, did not. And that matters. Not just because of the noise itself, not even just because of what provoked it – and Morata should indeed have scored – but because of the impact it may have.

Alvaro Morata is thwarted by Sweden&#x002019;s Marcus Danielson.
Alvaro Morata is thwarted by Sweden’s Marcus Danielson. Photograph: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Olmo, asked whether he could understand the whistling of Morata, said: “Well, no.” Marcos Llorente said: “We all know how important Morata is. I don’t think [whistling him] is good. There are two games left and I would encourage people to support us and help us.”

When it had happened to Morata after the Portugal pre-tournament game, Luis Enrique insisted that his final run and shot against the bar should have seen supporters “clapping their fingers off”. Instead they attacked him. “I must be the person who knows the least about football,” the coach said.

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There was something in that, repeated again after this match when Luis Enrique noted: “Morata gives us a lot – a lot more than you think.” He had played well, a key part of what worked in the first half. There is genuinely a sense that what he contributes is overlooked, a kind of: do they not get it? But more importantly, there is an awareness that he does get it, a recognition of the impact that missed chances and the reaction to those missed chances can have on him. May already be having, in fact.

Few players are entirely impervious to the pressure, let alone criticism and still less this kind of fierce reaction from their own fans. Think again about the cruel simplicity of that song: “Morata, how bad you are!” How could it not affect you? How could it not affect him of all people?

Related: Spain and Sweden rue missed chances after Euro 2020 stalemate in Seville

Introspective, thoughtful, a hint of vulnerability about him, Morata is certainly not impervious. If there is a player affected by it, perhaps it is he – a forward of very different moments, of very good runs and occasionally bad ones too. A player acutely aware of the pressure and that the mind affects performance. Too aware, perhaps. Too prone to thinking. He and others have admitted as much.

As he has previously told the Guardian, with remarkable honesty: “Sometimes I go home, put the game on and think: ‘How can I miss that?’ It affects you; it also affects you to know that your career also depends on the opinion [of others] not really qualified to judge. ‘Did he score goals? No? A shit game.’”

Now Luis Enrique has a decision to make, he admits, and it is a complex one. Because this is not just about Morata, and yet it is about Morata. Spain improved when Moreno, arguably the country’s outstanding player over the past 12 months, came on – although they still didn’t score and had Moreno’s late header been missed by Morata the reaction would surely have been different. The coach must decide how best to manage this, without sentimentality yet knowing that sentiment is part of it.

Asked directly whether he would keep Morata in the team against Poland and how he would resolve Spain’s failure to finish the chances that make sense of everything else, he replied: “That’s my job and I will think about it. I like to support and strengthen my players, especially when they’re having a bad time of it. It’s easy to go: ‘OK, you out the team, put someone else in.’ We have to think about it. I am happy with Morata.”

Nor is it as simple as replacing Morata with Moreno, whose best performances this season have come just off the front and slightly to the right. “I have no problems playing lots of strikers,” Luis Enrique said, swiftly dismissing suggestions that to play them both he would have to change formation. “No, no, no I can play 4-3-3 with Gerard on the right coming inside. We’ll see next Saturday.” We will hear, too.

“No one should have doubts about a striker like Álvaro,” Aymeric Laporte said. “He’s proven so much already. Maybe next time he’ll score and shut everyone’s mouth.”

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