Alvaro Morata’s poor form is making headlines at Chelsea, but scoring droughts and confidence issues affect strikers everywhere. So how do you overcome them? Nick Wright finds out how psychology is being used to help manage the extreme pressures of playing up front.
In the early stages of last season, it seemed Alvaro Morata would be more than capable of filling the void left by Diego Costa at Chelsea. The 25-year-old, a £70m recruit from Real Madrid, started with six goals in his first six Premier League appearances. There was a hat-trick against Stoke and even a vital goal in a Champions League win over Atletico Madrid.
Morata proclaimed his delight at the fast start, but it wasn't long before his fortunes changed and he started spurning chances he would previously have taken. As the misses stacked up, his confidence suffered. Since the turn of the year, when he blew a string of glaring opportunities in a 2-2 draw with Arsenal, he has only scored twice in 19 Premier League games.
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Morata's struggles were compounded by tragedy in his personal life, and after what he described as a "disaster" of a debut season, the problems have persisted in the new campaign. Chelsea fans are on his back and Maurizio Sarri feels powerless. "I am not able to give him confidence," he said recently. "Alvaro has to gain confidence with one, two, three goals."
Morata's poor goal return now threatens to derail his Chelsea career, but the loss of form is not uncommon among strikers. Confidence and conviction can be fragile attributes. When your primary role in the team is to finish off chances, it can be difficult to accept a failure to do so.
"Along with goalkeeper, I'd say striker is the most pressured position on the pitch," Bradley Busch, a sports psychologist and director at Inner Drive, tells Sky Sports.
"It's obviously not this simple, but essentially, strikers can feel it is up to them to win the game while goalkeepers can feel it is up to them not to lose it, whereas in defence or midfield, there is always someone behind or in front of you to share the burden of responsibility.
"The way we explain it is that strikers fail much more than they succeed. Last year, the top shot conversion rate in the Premier League was only around 25 per cent, so even if you are a top striker, three out of four shots aren't going in. The key is to have the persistence and resilience to keep trying things and the belief that next time it will be better."
Inner Drive have been working in football for over a decade now, providing psychological coaching services to a growing number of clubs and players in the Premier League and beyond. The majority of their clients are attackers, Busch says, and while their techniques vary from player to player, the ultimate aim is always the same.
"We generally work in two areas, the first being mindset," says Busch. "So that's how you deal with feedback during the week, how you respond to hitting goals, and making sure you are learning as effectively and efficiently as you can. The other area is performance under pressure. Can you execute your abilities on match day? Can you manage nerves and maintain focus and confidence? And what strategies can help you with that?"
Inner Drive count players from Manchester United, Tottenham, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Fulham and Southampton among their clients.
One popular strategy is to shift the focus from goals to overall performance.
"I never really felt determined by goals," former Liverpool, Manchester City and Newcastle striker Craig Bellamy tells Sky Sports. "For me, it was just about playing well. If I play well, I'm going to get chances and hopefully I'll be able to put one or two of them away. But I always saw goals as a bonus. My job was just to help the team win."
That attitude was invaluable for Bellamy throughout his career, and Busch encourages his clients to think the same way. "If you look at the way the game is going now, with strikers having to defend from the front and close players down, you can come up with a list of between five and 10 jobs a striker has in his team," he says.
"Are you encouraging your team-mates? Are you tracking back? Are you winning your aerial battles? Are you holding the ball up well? There is no denying that scoring is a key part of being a striker, but it's definitely not the only part. So at least if you're not scoring, you can make sure you're doing all of the other stuff as well as possible."
I would tell myself it was only a matter of time. I was conscious that form would go up and down, but if you're a good player then it doesn't leave you.
It is difficult for any striker to maintain composure when things are not falling for them, but a level-headed approach can also be crucial.
"You have to try not to get too down when things aren't going well and not to get too high when they are," says Bellamy. "There was always stuff I needed to work on, but I tried to keep that evenness. If it wasn't going well, was I doing everything I could to give myself that opportunity? I would tell myself it was only a matter of time. I was conscious that form would go up and down, but if you're a good player then it doesn't leave you."
Busch calls it "trusting the process".
"After missing a chance, a lot of players' thought processes won't be constructive and they will talk to themselves in a negative way," he says. "They tend to try and overcompensate. They think it's vital that they do something right next time so people forget about the previous miss. But by forcing it, they deviate away from their natural thought process.
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"Really, they should be focusing on continuing to make the right runs and the right movements, even if they don't finish the chances or their team-mates don't find the right passes. If you start changing those things, if you start forcing it and don't trust your instincts, you are almost certainly going to start a downward spiral.
"What's interesting is that the very best strikers we work with actually don't talk about the number of goals they are going to score or set themselves arbitrary targets. They talk about behaviours and performances. They know that if their movement is good, if they are getting into the right spaces and connecting well with their shots, then the goals will eventually follow."
Repetition and visualisation are other valuable psychological tools for strikers. On the nights before games, Wayne Rooney would lie in bed and picture himself scoring - even going as far as to ask the club's kitman what colour shirts the team would be wearing the next day. "You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself," he explained.
Bellamy used similar techniques during a distinguished career in which he scored 81 Premier League goals for seven different clubs. "For me, sometimes it could be as simple as getting a feel of the net," he says. "I'd just go back to the basics in training, making sure I hit that target. Even from close range, I'd just continuously pass it in."
Bellamy would then adopt the same approach in matchday warm-ups, ignoring the temporary nets erected at the side of the penalty box and instead drilling the ball into the goal itself. "I used to drive the groundsmen mad but it was just my way," he says. "It was about getting into that habit of hitting the net."
Visualisation is an element of Busch's work too, but rather than goals or standout moments, he asks his clients to focus on what exactly it is that helps them perform to their best.
"For example, I will ask a player to think of their best performance in the last year," he says. "What would I have seen in that match? What were your behaviours? What were you saying to yourself at the time? Getting a player to picture those sorts of things - behaviours as opposed to outcomes - probably leads to better results overall."
According to Busch, it is also important to replicate match situations in training. "It can be difficult to fit it in but we encourage extra training. We know most match-winning goals are scored in the final 10 minutes, for example, so it makes sense to do shooting practice when you are fatigued at the end of a session. Then you can add elements like a goalkeeper and a defender to ensure you're not going through the motions."
Of course, there is no training drill which can replicate the pressure of playing in front of packed stadiums at the highest level. "Imagine doing your job not only in front of 50,000 people, but then with the whole world messaging you on social media to tell you you're not doing it well - all while your confidence is low and you're trying to learn how to improve.
"The classic example often used in sports psychology is that if you had to walk along a plank of wood you would be okay, but what about doing the same task 100 meters up in the air? The consequences of failing are so much worse that they can make you nervous and make you doubt yourself.
"That's basically what strikers have to cope with. They have to perform while being judged and knowing that the consequences of failure will be bad. It's about being able to have the confidence to shut that out and focus on the task at hand. A lot of guys can master that without a sports psychologist, but more and more now there is a recognition that confidence and concentration are things which can be developed."
The significance of psychology will not be lost on Morata, a thoughtful character who once complained about footballers being viewed as machines, but the question is how he harnesses it. Can he shut out the noise and focus on what matters? Can he put his struggles behind him and tell himself that next time it will be better?
It's a familiar challenge for strikers everywhere.
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