Thirty five minutes into a pulsating match between Chelsea and Man City on Saturday, there was a collective intake of breath around Stamford Bridge.
Alvaro Morata, Chelsea’s new golden boy with 7 goals in as many games, pulled up limping near the centre circle. Clutching the back of his leg he indicated to the Chelsea bench that he needed to come off.
Perhaps the groan around Stamford Bridge articulated the fear that, only a handful of games in to the season, facing perhaps our sternest test in the league to date, we would be without our main goal threat. The realisation dawned that the ‘chickens were coming home to roost’.
Up until then Chelsea were still very much in the game, creating chances against a superb Man City side who, somewhat unexpectedly, have added defensive discipline to their high pressing game and talented attacking play.
Curiously, in many supporters’ eyes, Antonio Conte did not turn to Michy Batshuayi, the only other recognised striker at his disposal. Instead, Willian was brought on and whilst Hazard was pushed further forward, we had no out and out striker on the pitch.
Perhaps for Antonio Conte the chickens were also coming home to roost. One wonders if the penny was also dropping for those who sit in the ivory towers at Stamford Bridge.
Over the protracted transfer window this summer many briefings and counter-briefings by the manager and the Chelsea board focussed on the lack of additions to and strengthening of the squad. The reality of course is that Chelsea did strengthen and the first few games of this season have proved that this is a squad with more depth and quality than last year.
Questions remained however, as to whether it was good or deep enough to challenge for both the Champions League and the Premier League. In some respects, taking on a very good Man City side three days after a stunning victory away to Atletico Madrid was the first real test this season. However, it would be all too easy and somewhat presumptive to assume that in losing 1-0 to City on Saturday that Chelsea failed that test.
For many seasoned Chelsea supporters the biggest issue during the transfer window was our inability to sign a third striker to provide back up to Morata. The rumours seemed to indicate that Antonio Conte shared our concerns.
Michy Batshuayi is without doubt a promising young striker. He clearly has an eye for goal if one looks at his strike rate and there is no doubt that he put the goal against Atletico away with aplomb. Like all good strikers he was in the right place at the right time and finished it well.
But doubts remain about his control on the ball, his ability to lead the line, hold the ball up to support the midfield runners and the effectiveness of his all round game. If Conte was unwilling to bring him on to replace Morata, when arguably what we needed most was a striker to come on, then that speaks volumes for his manager’s faith in him.
Whatever one thinks of Willian’s performance when he came on, it was clear that Chelsea lacked an out ball. Under constant pressure from City’s pressing game, Chelsea desperately needed to get the ball up to a striker who could not only hold the ball up to provide us with some respite, but have the ability to create chances on his own or to link with Hazard to create a chance.
It appears that Chelsea have only one striker capable of doing this and with Morata going off injured our deepest fears about our lack of striking depth were realised.
One can conclude that club have taken a big gamble with this season by not adding another striker to supplement Morata and Batshuayi. It is true that Willian, Pedro and Hazard can adequately cover Morata being injured or be used as an option against lesser opposition, where Chelsea are more likely to have greater ball possession, but against the top sides like Man City it simply is not good enough.
The concern is that Chelsea’s ‘Achilles heel’ has been exposed in that an injury to Morata will leave us vulnerable, particularly in the big games against the top sides.
Luckily we are early enough in the season for the loss to City not to be too damaging. However, the prospect of losing Morata for one to two months this season means our chances of retaining the Premier League or going a long way in the Champions’ League will be severely damaged.
If that is the case, the finger has to be pointed at whoever was responsible for not providing Conte with adequate back-up in his forward options.