Antonio Conte sits at his desk, slowly massaging his temples as his hair starts to fall out from stress. At one point last year, he was on the other end of international season. That regularly recurring and precarious situation where players are expected to give their all to their country, but not too much in case they come back with more than a freshly minted tan. But now, the spring-heeled Italian looks aghast at his squad post break, cursing the national side managers who dared field his Chelsea players.
N’golo Kante and Alvaro Morata. Injured.
While Morata picked up the niggle pre-break, the rest hasn’t been as effective as hoped, with some speculating that he would bounce back quickly from the slight. It turns out, so far, he hasn’t. He might be coming back in November say some, others say in a few weeks. In any case he won’t be back by Saturday and his absence may be a problem later on if he doesn’t bounce back.
But these injuries bring up an issue that has reared its head before. Chelsea’s squad doesn’t have the depth to compete on all fronts and Conte is reliant on a select few players to win results.
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In theory, the two absences are replaceable. Michy Batshuayi has been tweeting memes from the bench and picking up the odd game (and goal). While Danny Drinkwater, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko are predicted to all be ready and available to certain extents for the game at Crystal Palace.
But dig deeper and some issue emerge.
With the former—no matter how many goals he scores—Batshuayi hasn’t gelled as required in his year and a bit tenure as backup. He is still fairly young and isn’t unsalvageable, but he has progressively cut a frustrated figure on the pitch and this issue is mutual with Antonio Conte.
When Alvaro Morata initially hobbled off against Manchester City, Conte opted for Brazilian winger Willian to be substituted on, instead of having a traditional forward maintaining the front line. Perhaps this was to help with efforts in the midfield, where Pep Guardiola had set his side up to dominate. The City fullbacks were causing havoc by tucking in and the wide players doubled up on the defenders, making it hard for Chelsea to play the ball out. While the obvious move would be to ensure that Chelsea had someone to hold the ball up, Conte decided that he needed that extra player to drop back and make sure that they weren’t man-marked out of the game. Eden Hazard was to be essentially a false nine, and try to occupy the defenders whenever he could.
In other scenarios when this issue wasn’t at hand, Antonio Conte has chosen this tactic in other games and that is where it is more troublesome for Michy Batshuayi. Against Bournemouth at home last season, when Diego Costa was unable to play due to a suspension, Eden Hazard was chosen over the supposed backup as the one to lead the line. He then went on to create one of his best displays in a Chelsea shirt. Dropping deep and making cute passes to Willian and Pedro and forcing the opposition to weigh up hard decisions as to who could mark him, because they couldn’t create gaps by asking a player to follow him as you would with a typical striker.
When Diego was available, Michy just didn’t start and Conte didn’t like to rotate last season. He only started twice in the Premier League and made most of his game time through cameos at the end of the game (22 substitutions). The same could be said of this season, while Batshuayi brought a false dawn to fans during pre-season, he has since slinked back behind Alvaro Morata once the season started properly.
It seems to me, that the investment in Batshuayi hasn’t quite pulled off as hoped and while Michy is free to contribute to the odd game in cups and in the Champions League, Conte doesn’t trust him enough to lead the line when it matters most. That is an issue when injuries and suspensions start coming thick and fast during the season. Chelsea were linked strongly with Fernando Llorente before he belatedly moved to Spurs, and I think that itch will still be there until January for Antonio Conte.
Conte, Kante, enchanté
In Kante, it is a different scenario. It isn’t quite that the midfielders available aren’t up to the task in terms of quality with covering for the Frenchman, it’s just that they don’t fill the role that he uniquely inhabits. Fabregas has slowly built up experience in the “quarterback” role, spraying passes at will from deep, but is more comfortable pushing slightly forward in games; he is no longer the “10” that Arsenal fans remember but can still dictate attacking moves. Bakayoko is a modern box to box midfielder; built like a house, but can nimbly pass and bomb up the field to help out when possible. Danny Drinkwater, while his fitness is in question, is a traditional “8” and can do a lot of the dirty work required of a midfielder but also keep the ball moving and in possession for Chelsea.
Kante doesn’t really fill any of those roles. He is the energy bunny on speed, seemingly everywhere at once and always in the right place. His ability to cover so much ground will make it harder to fill when he isn’t there to do the work on the pitch, and this will be a trying challenge.
In the buildup to his game against Crystal Palace, it will be a chance to test the depth of the team, while doing so in a relatively stress-free Premier League schedule. The Selhurst side had taken a break having being humbled at the Ethihad and then across to the other side of Manchester at Old Trafford. But then again, every game without a goal is a humbling affair, regardless.
Palace host Chelsea knowing that they are unable to field Ruben Loftus Cheek, due to a rule regarding playing against parent clubs. But with their opponents weakened, will they try to break their duck and spur on a kick-start to the campaign?
With the Roma double headers in the Champions League coming up, will Chelsea risk playing a weaker squad over the next few games to ensure they have secured the best results in the preferred tournament? It looks like this will be a strong possibility, and while Watford and Bournemouth have had varying dips in form—the former, less so—Manchester United will be waiting just after the second Roma match to exact revenge for their 4-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge.
This isn’t even highlighting the lack of depth at left wing back, where behind Marcos Alonso has a converted winger, Kennedy as backup. Antonio Conte sorted out problems at right back by signing Davide Zappacosta, and hopefully a similar solution will appear for the Spaniard – who while good, has struggled slightly against the big teams. Even though he is very proficient going forward, he has been targeted by both Arsenal and Manchester City forwards as the weak link, with Hector Bellerin breezing past him twice in quick succession in the former game. Maybe crocked Baba Rahman will find a place for him, but after his poor spells at Schalke last season and for Chelsea two seasons ago, it doesn’t look likely.
This will be a tough time for Conte, and he better hope that his team is firing on all cylinders.