The inside story of Alvaro Morata's Chelsea malaise
The alarm bells started ringing before the first ball of the Premier League season had been kicked and Alvaro Morata claimed in the Spanish press "they're already killing me".
Morata had missed a penalty in Chelsea's Community Shield shoot-out defeat by Arsenal and did not like the gentle pre-season analysis that followed.
That marked Chelsea's £57m record signing as potentially being a bit flaky for the rough and tumble of English football and suspicions from outside the club that Morata is weak, both mentally and physically, are growing by the week.
The defeat by Manchester United was the 10th successive match Morata has failed to score in this year. The fact Romelu Lukaku had one of his best games and netted for the hosts, and Diego Costa was on target for Atletico Madrid on the same day, only made it worse.
Chelsea insist Morata is happy and settling well, but there is also word from around the dressing room that the Spaniard likes a good whinge. Whether it is caused by the English referees, opposition defenders or his aches and pains, Morata is described as being a man who too often gives the impression his glass is half-empty, and that has manifested itself in his performances.
Without a goal since St Stephen's Day, and having struggled with a back problem, it is understandable that Morata has not been feeling his best. He has also had to contend with the death of a close friend in his native Spain.
But Chelsea fans are beginning to lose patience with the ease at which he goes to ground and how he allows missed chances to get to him, and there is a feeling that he looks like a man ready to give in.
Morata now needs much broader shoulders to deal with the criticism and analysis of his performances than when he thought he was being "killed".
Although the 25-year-old hit the bar at Old Trafford and had a late effort ruled out for offside that Chelsea believe should have stood, Graeme Souness ripped into him. "I think he's a near-miss man," said Souness. "Can they give him another year to settle? Can big teams wait that long? His general play wasn't good enough. You swap those centre-forwards around today and Chelsea win the game."
It is well known that Conte's first choice to replace Costa last summer was Lukaku and that may be part of the issue for Morata who, for the first time in his career, has to live with expectation. He was never the main man at Real Madrid and was not one of the more expensive signings at Juventus, where he enjoyed his best spell.
Morata started well at Chelsea, scoring seven times in his first seven appearances - including a Champions League goal away at Atletico Madrid. But just a month after scoring in the Wanda Metropolitano, Morata was quoted in La Gazzetta dello Sport as describing London as "too much stress" and claiming he should never have left Italy.
The storm blew over within a day that ended with Morata's denials and a rather ludicrous claim that he would be happy to sign a 10-year contract with Chelsea.
Conte has remained supportive of Morata, but admitted it would have been "suicide" to start him ahead of Eden Hazard, Willian or Pedro for the Champions League draw against Barcelona last week. That eye-catching comment reflected the tactics Conte wanted to employ, but it would still have disappointed Morata that he was not picked to start Chelsea's biggest game of the season.
Conte must this weekend decide whether to stick with Morata for the trip to Premier League leaders Manchester City, ask Hazard to play as a "false nine" again or give a chance to Olivier Giroud, who showed more grit during his 12 minutes as a substitute than Morata did in 90 against United.
Morata's first job is to show Conte he is up for the battle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)