Chelsea’s problem is striking – they are lacking options
Morata injury exposes Conte’s lack of attackers as he fields seven midfielders. Matt Law reports
Antonio Conte was accused of sending messages during the early weeks of the season when he loaded his substitutes’ bench with youngsters and fringe players as the clock ticked down towards the end of the transfer window.
In reality his hand had largely been forced by fitness issues and suspensions back in August, but there was no room for misinterpreting Conte’s message when he opted to replace striker Alvaro Morata with Willian.
Morata pulled up with a hamstring injury in the 35th minute and Conte’s change meant Chelsea effectively had seven midfielders on the pitch against Manchester City, while the midweek Champions League hero Michy Batshuayi sat on the substitutes’ bench with his hood up.
Batshuayi eventually got on with just under 20 minutes remaining, but he was once again the last throw of the dice for Chelsea.
Conte doesn’t mind looking towards Batshuayi for a vital last-gasp winner, as he provided against West Bromwich Albion, to clinch last season’s Premier League title, and Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.
But he does not appear to trust the Belgian for any prolonged amount of time against the very best teams and Morata’s injury highlighted the fact Conte feels he is short of striker options after missing out on Fernando Llorente.
Llorente would have certainly been relied upon to take over from Morata, but Chelsea were beaten to his signature by Tottenham Hotspur.
Just as Mauricio Pochettino would overlook Vincent Jansen to ask Heung-Min Son to deputise for Harry Kane last season, Conte put a round peg in a square hole in Chelsea’s biggest game of the season so far.
Pochettino now has Llorente at his disposal if Kane suffers an injury or needs a rest, but Conte simply cannot afford to lose Morata for any length of time between now and January, when he can try again to get a deputy he trusts.
Morata had scored seven goals in his first seven games after arriving at Chelsea for a club record £57million from Real Madrid, but Conte took a risk starting him against City.
The Spaniard had limped his way out of Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium and was caught by television cameras feeling his hamstring before kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
That in itself underlines how heavily Conte and Chelsea will rely on Morata during the first half of the season. Batshuayi’s best performances for the Blues have all come from the bench, rather than as a starter.
How Conte must have envied Pep Guardiola, who could call on Gabriel Jesus after Sergio Aguero had been ruled out after suffering broken ribs in a car crash. With no focal point in attack, Chelsea were very much forced into smash-and-grab mode and were unable to dominate the game as they had done so impressively in the Champions League.
Willian attempted to relieve some of the pressure on Chelsea’s defence by trying a pass over the top, but there was simply nobody there to chase it.
Batshuayi had already stripped off to go on when Kevin De Bruyne opened the scoring in the 67th minute and when he eventually trotted on the pitch it was with Pedro, as Conte looked to inject some attacking intent into his team.
But, as has so often been the case, Batshuayi barely touched the ball and when he did he failed to hold it up. Conte must hope Morata comes back quickly and stays fit.
Conte does not appear to trust Batshuayi for any prolonged amount of time against the best teams
Off day: Alvaro Morata limps off in the first half with a suspected hamstring injury