Batshuayi: Patience and Promise
Going into the 2016/17 season with limited expectations, the majority of Chelsea fans would say the season is going way better than expected. Leading the league and advancing comfortably in the FA Cup, along with the utilization of young players, doing good transfer business, and the handling of all of the off pitch controversies, Chelsea are having a wonderful first season under Antonio Conte. While we did lose to Arsenal and Spurs, their fans still know better than to get in a banter war, as we have too much ammunition to destroy any other EPL fan. The only real question is, what is going on with Michy Batshuayi?
It is hard to say from the outside looking in, but there are a few things holding Batshuayi back. First, let’s dispel the idea that Conte doesn’t rate him. I do not think Conte is doing much of the work in scouting, but he would not have sanctioned the move if he didn’t want to work with the player. If you look at Conte’s Juventus teams, every player purchased was for a specific role. Not to say they all worked out, but you knew why they were purchased. This is an important part of what has held Batshuayi back. Conte did not plan on using this formation when taking over the team, but it was always his 2nd option. He was planning to play the 4-2-4 which would have given Batshuayi much more game time even if only rotated in.
Looking at Batshuayi’s background you’ll see he was naturally temperamental as a youth. He has clearly gotten his temper under control before heading to Marseille and has never had an outburst at Chelsea. Those characteristics do reflect an emotional player though, which isn’t a bad thing. He isn’t sad or depressed, but he is also not in the best mood or mentality to show his best. This clearly has shown in his confidence. Compare his performances from early in the season coming in and assisting the winner in our opening match and scoring an equalizer in the 2nd match of the season to now, and the difference is clear. This would be a great start to a career if he were leading the line, but these were both appearances off the bench. After those appearances, he hadn’t played more than 10 minutes in a match in the league until the last 20 minutes of the Arsenal match in which we were trying a new system already 3-0 down. Next thing you know, we win 13 straight and he was basically left on the bench for 15 league matches. His misery hit a new low with being left on the bench in two matches with Diego Costa absent. These are highly paid professionals but humans are emotional and these emotions affect everyone differently.
Next, who he plays with when he gets a chance in the Cup matches also impacts his performance. Without going into a major tactical and personnel discussion, there is a big difference in playing with Pedro and Hazard flanking him compared to Loftus-Cheek and Willian. Not that the latter pair are not quality, but they do not open up space the same as Hazard and Pedro. Hazard obviously gets a lot of attention because of his dribbling ability but Pedro is the key and we got to see the difference in the way he plays vs. Willian in our win vs Brentford. With Pedro at Wingback and Willian ahead of him Pedro still ran in behind the opposing back 3 more often than Willian. It works, but is an interesting dynamic for the centre forward. When Pedro plays beside Costa, his running in behind the defense is key to Costa getting the ball to feet with space and getting space in and around the box.
On on the other side with Loftus-Cheek, he is trying to score as badly as Batshuayi. And fair play to both for being selfish at times, but they should realize their success can be built together. Forget price tags and media pressure. These two are in the same situation. If they want to make it they should be training together 30 minutes to an hour every day after training. Maybe asking Fabregas or a few other senior players to help them also. You see a clear understanding between Hazard and Costa and their success has been built on their partnership. It is tough to stop either player when in form, but nearly impossible to stop their partnership when it’s at its best. Then, add Fabregas to that and they are unplayable. Batshuayi and Loftus-cheek should be building the same and they’ll both become better players.
Lastly, I want to start with saying Conte has been brilliant in his management of Batshuayi, and this is in no way a negative towards his method. Batshuayi is clearly over-thinking on the pitch. He looks like a dancer counting out the rhythm in his head when he gets the ball. This wasn’t the case at all early in the season. He was more instinctive and lethal. A moment in the Watford match when the ball rolled to him about 16 yards out, and he turned in two touches and smashed the ball off the crossbar without ever picking his head up. I think he partially is struggling because his confidence is down, but I also think he is being over-coached. Again, I think this is the right approach in this stage of his development. He is being drilled on all the areas the manager and coaches want him to improve. An information overload you could say. If he were starting week in and week out they would not employ this method, but they are trying to get him ready for the future. Over-coaching him until his movements, technique, and adjustments become natural and instinctive is the idea Conte has in mind for the Belgian. When we truly need him he will be ready. Repetition is something you’ll hear mentioned often(not as much as ‘work’), but it is really the key to players being ready in that one occasion you are in that situation when it matters most. This is how Lampard became a world class finisher. He took more shots between games than any player, so he didn’t have to take as many in games to score on a regular basis.
The fact Batshuayi is still happy and feels very involved in the team is down to the manager. Conte seems an astute man manager, and from Batshuayi’s body language he does get along with the manager on the pitch and is in constant conversation about how to improve. He knows how important he is now and in the future. Continued work, patience, and trust in the manager will take Batshuayi to a top EPL striker and this initial period will be soon forgotten. He was always purchased with potential in mind. He had a good goal return for Olympique Marseille but also scored lot of scrappy goals and got more touches than you’ll get in the Premier League. Watch the player and manager throughout the weeks, and you’ll see a healthy relationship.
B. Stewart & J Cooperstein