Michy Batshuayi Is A Really Bad Fit In Chelsea’s Jigsaw
What do we make of Michy Batshuayi?
Chelsea’s 6-0 win over Qarabag in the Champions League was too lopsided to provide any real context. Nevertheless, the Belgian still scored twice – his first goal being particularly well taken – and allowed Alvaro Morata a night off ahead of Arsenal’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
It was a surprise when Chelsea met Marseille’s asking price last summer. Batshuayi had enjoyed a prosperous season in Ligue 1, scoring 17 times in 32 starts, but he was never obviously suited to life at Stamford Bridge. Looking back on his goals now, it’s possible to see many of the issues which have stymied his progress since arriving in England. He was never likely to displace Diego Costa and is not now obviously intended to be a threat to Morata, but his first-team viability is undermined by perpetual hesitation and a clear awkwardness outside the box.
That’s something visible in those goal clips. Batshuayi has always looked like an old-fashioned goalscorer. A highly modern athlete, but still a stylistic throwback. He possesses a good sense for a goalkeeper’s position and certainly has the movement gene which allows a forward to anticipate play and find himself in the right positions at the right time, but those qualities aren’t supported by any real haste. Look back through his pre-Chelsea highlights and there’s generally an extra touch or a steadying moment which blights the visual. He also lacks the secondary and tertiary dimensions that most big-club forwards possess; something other than an ability to change the score.
Nothing which has happened in the year since suggests that to be a temporary limitation. In some instances, those kind of imperfections melt away with time or are cured by growing confidence. In Batshuayi’s case, however, maybe they’re just indicative of what kind of forward he is. A player who perhaps belongs at a level below the one he’s presently occupying.
A more frequent complaint concerns his role outside the box. Aside from goalscoring, one of Diego Costa’s great strengths was – is – his capacity to involve himself in the build-up play. Beyond his recycling of possession and literal integration with supporting midfielders, Costa also moves very well off the ball and his runs often create space for players moving forward from deep. Morata remains a little out of sync for the moment, as you’d expect, but that’s a quality he’ll come to provide over time. The two are different physically, of course, with Costa possessing a ruggedness which his Spanish successor will never have, but there are some obviously parallels.
Batshuayi is the outlier. His performance against Qarabag was superficially successful, but the detail within was troubling. In spite of Chelsea dominating the game and regularly infiltrating the opposition half, he completed just three forward passes in the entire game. Worse, he didn’t complete a pass of any sort inside the Qarabag box.
Against a Premier League opponent, that wouldn’t be a concern. English football is typically more basketball-esque and a lone forward’s role is as much about providing a foothold as it is progressing the play in any particular direction. But against this team, at home, and in a 6-0 win? If Batshuayi was truly suited to playing for this side – or even providing back-up to those who more regularly start for it – the additional context would probably reveal something healthier.
None of that is to say that Michy Batshuayi is a poor player. He’s not. In fact, there are times when he looks like an accomplished, opportunistic goalscorer and, at another point in Chelsea’s history, he would be a more than useful squad player. The complication, though, lies in their circumstances. Antonio Conte does not have the kind of squad Jose Mourinho benefitted from in the middle of the last decade and, to be successful, must tune a smallish group to the same purpose – and the temptation is to believe that doing that would be far easier if involving his back-up forward didn’t create such a variation. Conte’s Chelsea are very much a system-based side and each cog, even one as intricate as Eden Hazard, is to some extent reliant on the pieces with which it interlocks.
Within that context, Batshuayi is a problem. It showed in the Community Shield, it was apparent again in the opening day defeat to Burnley (1 successful forward pass, zero into/inside the box), and it was evident again on Tuesday night. He seemingly exists at Stamford Bridge to replicate the traits of players to whom he bears no relation and that isn’t an optimal situation for anyone. He seems a jovial personality and to be accepting of his role, but Chelsea still suffer a regression whenever he starts.
Manchester United will soon be able to rotate between Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Manchester City can happily rotate Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero. Even Liverpool and Tottenham have a broader set of options and centre-forward fabric which can be more easily interwoven into their respective quilts.
Come January, this will need attention. This is the one negative strike against what otherwise looks like a highly impressive side.