Antonio Conte right to be angry as Alvaro Morata injury highlights lack of depth
So much for the suggestion that all was now well at Chelsea. Antonio Conte may have responded superbly to the defending champions’ opening day shock defeat to Burnley, going on a run of seven wins and one draw in eight games, but after a difficult weekend in the Premier League the cracks appear to have opened up again.
Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, courtesy of a scoreline that did not reflect City’s dominance, was only the start of the problems. An injury to Alvaro Morata has cost Conte the only striker he seems to trust. A grade two tear of the hamstring generally results in an absence of four to eight weeks and, though a lot can change in football in that timeframe, Conte has made no secret of his displeasure.
According to a report in The Times, the former Italy boss is still angry that he wasn’t able to pursue Fernando Llorente in the summer because the board felt that the striker was too old. Llorente, a sprightly 32, ended up at Tottenham providing much needed back-up to Harry Kane.
The Chelsea board may make the point that Michy Batshuayi, the likeable £34 million Belgian who signed from Marseille in 2016, stands ready to take his place, but Conte doesn’t seem to rate him. The 24-year-old didn’t start in the Premier League last season until after the title was won in May, ironically thanks to his winning goal against West Bromwich Albion.
When Morata limped off in the 35th minute on Saturday, Batshuayi was pointedly left on the bench — with Conte choosing instead to deploy attacking midfielder Willian up front — and did not make an appearance until the final 15 minutes when Chelsea were chasing a goal.
But this is not the first time that there has been transfer disagreement between a Chelsea manager and the board.
Former manager Jose Mourinho was reported to be dismayed that his request for a quick new centre-back resulted in the acquisitions of Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector. Managers at Stamford Bridge tend to have less control in the transfer market than their rivals, with owner Roman Abramovich, executive director Marina Granovskaia and technical director Michael Emenalo all having a say. And this is not the only grievance that Conte holds.
Because of Chelsea’s policy of sending dozens of their most talented young players out on loan, there are very few back-up options to the main squad. Tammy Abraham, who sparkled in the summer with the England under-21 team, was dispatched to Swansea; Dominic Solanke felt that his chances of playing first-team football were so limited that he left to join Liverpool on a free transfer.
Young footballers improve when they play sustained football at the highest possible level. Harry Kane looked little more than a hard-working English No. 9 when he first appeared for Spurs and that only changed because Spurs were willing to offer him more than just a handful of minutes in the League Cup. Of course there’s no guarantee that Solanke or Abraham would have made similar strides, but there was only one way to find out.
And then there is the elephant in the room: The treatment of Diego Costa. Even Conte’s most ardent apologist would have to accept that there were better ways of dealing with the Spain striker’s future than by texting him at the end of the season to say that he was surplus to requirements.
It was sensational business for Chelsea to eventually land around £57m from Atletico Madrid for a troublesome striker who turns 29 next week, but you can’t play a sack full of cash up front when your first-choice striker is injured.
Costa’s departure makes fine commercial sense, but it’s just another example of the muddled thinking at Stamford Bridge. A team with designs on silverware, domestically and in Europe, can’t start a season with just one trusted striker on the books.
There is a chance that the Chelsea board will make up for their failings in the January transfer window and reinforce in the way that Conte would like. There is also a chance that Conte will take this on the chin redouble his efforts and shut down the leaks in his camp. But on previous history, neither outcome looks particularly likely. There is a reason why Chelsea have had 12 managers
In the last month Conte made it known that he misses Italy and that he intends to return soon. AC Milan, beaten soundly by Lazio, Sampdoria and Roma in recent weeks, are reported to be eyeing him up as a successor to Vincenzo Montella. And they are a club who spent over £200m on new players this summer to bolster every position. You don’t need a crystal ball to see how this one ends.