Álvaro Morata: How Does Conte Survive His Absence?

Álvaro Morata has picked up an injury that may or may not sideline him for six weeks. It’s a significant blow to Chelsea and Antonio Conte’s plans as the Premier League prepares for its last period of normalcy before the insanity of the Christmas fixtures. Chelsea certainly won’t want to fall any further off the pace with the two Manchester clubs if they still harbour any ambitions of retaining their title – but what does Conte do when he doesn’t fancy Batshuayi?

It was made incredibly clear last season that Batshuayi is far from Conte’s first choice. In fact, he’s somehow found himself in a place where he’s one of only two strikers at Chelsea but also about the fourth choice in that position. It’s hardly the dream scenario for a footballer about to enter their prime, even if he’s also managed to leave a mark on the team with arguably their two most important goals of 2017 – the goal that clinched the title, and the goal that beat Atletico.

Both of those came as a substitute, however, and that’s been Batshuayi’s place in the Chelsea squad from the time he debuted. Even with everything surrounding Diego Costa for so long, no one ever seriously thought that the Belgian would be stepping up to fill the void. Instead, that was Morata, a player who came in with a few doubts about him but has filled the space left by Costa as well as anyone could have – and it’s a very important space.

Conte’s switch to his preferred back three last year saw a reshuffle up top. The primary beneficiary of that was Diego Costa, who suddenly found himself as not just a striker but the key player who everything depended on. He was the physicality going forward that Hazard and Pedro lacked, he was the threat in the box that Alonso and Moses could look for, he was the pivot from which the whole team switched from defence to attack. That kind of complete forward proved vital to the Conte style, making all the other parts click together. Costa thrived, too, scoring for fun once the change in system was made.

Morata stepped up to that plate better than anyone imagined, racking up seven goals and two assists in his first eight games. He’s not going to be there for a little while, however, and Batshuayi isn’t stepping up himself.

So what will Conte do? There was no second-choice forward signed this summer, even if they reportedly tried to find one in Fernando Llorente. Not having another player in the Costa/Morata mould – that physical, athletic forward who can link everything together – means something else will have to change.

The game against City gave the first glimpse into Conte’s plans. For one thing, there might be a change anyway – Cesc Fabregas has been deployed in a new role now, sitting deeper in front of the defence as Conte looks for his Pirlo. This dropped a front three for a front two, with Hazard and Morata being trusted to attack with a little more space than usual while making the runs for Fabregas to look for.

This change just seemed to isolate the two, leaving them without a link between themselves and the midfield. After all, Bakayoko and Kante are defensive players – can they really be relied upon to bridge Fabregas and Hazard? Morata’s injury also gave the latest indication (if any were needed at this point) that Batshuayi isn’t considered reliable – he remained on the bench while Willian stepped off to replace the Spaniard. Not that much changed. Something else will have to shift if this is the route for Conte, for his current selection of midfielders just doesn’t look completely suited to the style.

Working on the assumption that the back three will remain in place, as it should, then there’s really only one other obvious option for Conte to run with – stick with the front three, but play it differently. Costa missed Leicester away last season after a row with the fitness coach (and talk of a very, very, very lucrative move to China), forcing Conte to try something a little different. That little something was a Pedro/Willian/Hazard attack, and it’s one that worked wonders for Chelsea. Yes, Leicester were awful at that point and went into the game trying a new system, but you can only beat what’s in front of you, right?

Hazard led the line, Alonso scored twice with Pedro adding a third – it certainly seemed to give Chelsea what they needed. And maybe that’s enough to see Chelsea through the next month, should Morata be as injured as first thought.

Their first game is against Crystal Palace, so there’s the option to play ten up top and really go for goals, and then a home game against Watford and another away at Bournemouth round up their league action in October. At home against Everton in the League Cup offers some room for changes (maybe even letting Batshuayi start a game), although back to back Champions League matches against Roma will prove the toughest test.

Perhaps the more disciplined approach of the front two will work in those games though, the slower pace and Italian atmosphere very much lending itself to Conte’s classic 3-5-2. November 5th though, at home to Manchester United, is a game that they’ll be desperate to have Morata for, however.

Chelsea have a bit of getting-by to do until then though, fortunately finding themselves with literally the easiest opponents in the country to begin with as they try to find something that will see out the month. Maybe they’ll even start Batshuayi.