If one picture can say a thousand words, one decision can tell us a whole lot more – and Antonio Conte opting to bring on an attacking midfielder for the injured Alvaro Morata against Manchester City on Saturday instead of centre-forward Michy Batshuayi told us everything we need to know about the relationship between the Chelsea manager and the Belgium international.
In theory, there were some valid reasons to give Willian the nod instead – most particularly, the need to more ferociously close down the space between a City backline and midfield that had dominated proceedings both with and without the ball.
And yet, Chelsea were at home, hosting the biggest threat to their Premier League title defence with nearly an hour left on the clock, knowing their rare few chances of threatening goalkeeper Ederson had all stemmed from their central striker using power and pace on the break. Choosing to play without a conventional spearhead owed as much to the chess match between two world-class tacticians as Conte’s distrust in Batshuayi, who was eventually allowed to enter the fray forty minutes later when the Blues were already a goal down.
Batshuayi doesn’t quite come across Conte’s kindred spirit. ‘Intensity’ is one of the Chelsea gaffer’s most used soundbites and although suggesting the former Marseille man is unprofessional would be hard to justify, he’s clearly more of a jovial, relaxed character – one who may give the impression of being unfocused, unreliable and immature.
Perhaps to an extent he is, and we know Conte was on the lookout for alternatives during the summer, not least including now-Tottenham man Fernando Llorente. That was likely also a consequence of Batshuayi’s primary weakness as a centre-forward, often lacking the shrewdness, power and first touch to adequately hold up the ball, which potentially factored into Conte’s decision not to bring him on so early against City.
It’s telling that most of Batshuayi’s Chelsea appearances have consisted of final 15-minute outings from the bench, usually when the result is either decided already or the Blues are in desperate need of a goal; two scenarios when consistently holding up the ball and bringing the midfield into the game isn’t quite so instrumental.
But the simple fact of the matter is that, until January at the very earliest and probably until the end of the season, Batshuayi is the best second-choice strike option Conte has to work with. In fact, he’ll be the first-choice in the coming weeks as Morata continues his recovery from a hamstring problem. It’s a case of necessity that Conte finds a way to trust him.
We’ve already seen how ruthless Conte can act towards players he doesn’t want – Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa representing the two most obvious examples – and overlooking Batshuayi on Saturday gave the impression of him suffering a similar fate had Chelsea got another striker through the door in the last transfer window. It also creates doubts over the relationship between Conte and Batshuayi, whether there is a long-term rift or lack of communication between the two.
Bizarrely though, when Chelsea have needed Batshuayi most, he’s usually delivered. The Belgian’s strike-rate stands at a goal every 76 minutes of action and five of his goals for the Blues have been game-winners (defined as goals that put Chelsea into a lead they manage to hold onto), not least including the famous title winner at the Hawthorns last season and a stoppage-time strike past Atletico Madrid last week – even more bafflingly, just days prior to Batshuayi being left on the bench against City.
Perhaps in an ideal world, Conte wouldn’t have the 6 foot 1 striker as part of his squad this season, or at the very least would place him lower down the pecking order behind a summer signing. But with fixtures against Manchester United, Liverpool, Roma and Atletico on the horizon before the transfer window reopens – and at least 19 games in total depending on Carabao Cup progress – Conte needs to find a way of rediscovering his faith in the ten-cap international, simply because he can’t afford not to. The aforementioned record of scoring once per 76 minutes should be a decent enough source of inspiration.
That’s not only a matter of Chelsea’s results in the next few months, for some will surely hinge on Batshuayi’s ability to impact from the bench or allowing Conte to rest Morata against lesser opposition, but also looking in the long-term. During his final two seasons at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho provide a classic case study in the effects of distrusting the depth at his disposal, eventually paying the price for burning out key players and not providing enough game-time to maintain the confidence and sharpness of those behind them in the pecking order – unquestionably one of the underlying factors behind the Blues’ sensational implosion in 2015/16.
It would be hyperbolic to suggest Conte’s reluctance to utilise Batshuayi will lead to a similar downward spiral in another title defence for the west London club. With the likes of Andreas Christensen, Charly Musonda, Antonio Rudiger, Davide Zappacosta and Jeremie Boga already featuring this season, it’s clearly a matter of Conte being unconvinced by one individual rather than a sizeable cohort of his entire squad.
Yet, it just so happens that Batshuayi fills arguably the most important position on the pitch, certainly the position with the most direct correlation to how many points Chelsea will pick up this season, and the only alternative is dipping into the youth squad.
Whether Conte likes it or not, Batshuayi’s importance to the Blues’ campaign must be appreciated and strikers always thrive on confidence. A little more trust in a player who has averaged just 30 minutes per appearance throughout his Chelsea career thus far could go a very long way. Fortunately, he has a chance of demonstrating that trust while Morata is sidelined.