Call the Batsman: Batshuayi becoming key to Chelsea's Premier League hopes
When Michy Batshuayi first arrived at Chelsea, great things were expected of the Belgium international striker. He had just scored 17 goals for Marseille in Ligue 1 and his £31 million price tag suggested that he would be a valuable source of that commodity again in the Premier League.
So when he initially struggled at Stamford Bridge, Blues fans were left feeling cold towards their new arrival.
On Sunday, though, he will be considered Antonio Conte’s super sub, the Italian’s option to match Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, who has earned a similar reputation playing as a replacement for Jose Mourinho’s side.
Batshuayi’s greatest crime last season was not truly being given a stage upon which to shine. Indeed, given that he played only 702 minutes, his return of nine goals – one for every 78 minutes he was on the field – is an admirable one.
He might have gone nine months without a Premier League goal, yet he was restricted to just 90 minutes of football across 15 outings.
As a player who operates best as a poacher, Chelsea’s success was not necessarily a positive thing for him. As they chalked up a run of 13-straight victories, many of them narrow, the last thing that Conte needed to do was sacrifice a player to bring on a goal scorer.
It was in May, however, that he started to come to the fore. With Chelsea locked scoreless against West Brom as the season reached its climax, he was called from the bench and found the net, then he did so in a 4-3 win over Watford three days later – the goal that won the title. And on the final day of the season, he was again called from among the replacements to score twice against relegated Sunderland.
‘Calling the Batsman’ from the bench had just become a legitimate option for the manager – and this streak may just have saved the forward’s Stamford Bridge career.
Already this season, Batshuayi has earned nearly as much game time in the Premier League as he got last term. In part, this has been a symptom of the difficulties that Chelsea have faced, the uncertainty they have had in the centre-forward role with the arrival of Alvaro Morata and the departure of Diego Costa.
Instead of defending games going into the final closing stages, they have been chasing them.
The Belgian has not always been able to turn things in their favour, yet his importance to the side has certainly grown. He pinched the winner away to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League – a goal that looks increasingly valuable as the weeks pass – and kept Chelsea in the title race with a double against Watford in their last home outing.
From only 431 Premier League minutes, he has seven goals – that’s roughly one strike for every hour he is on the field.
Indeed, that record is by far the best of any player to have scored at least five goals in England’s top flight. Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, who is second in that ranking, only has a goal every 94.31 minutes, for example.
“It’s important to know I can count on him,” Conte admitted after the Watford fixture, though he has been reticent to start the Belgian, who has featured from the outset in only three Premier League games in over a year.
The Italian, though, believes that Batshuayi operates to his peak as part of a forward two – a system that is rarely employed by the Blues. Morata, who is typically supported by a combination of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian, has been the preferred option, but he has not scored since grabbing a hat-trick against Stoke in September.
“I think he's ready to start, he's ready to come on during the game and have a good impact,” Conte said. “Last season was very difficult for him.
“I think Michy is improving a lot. He's working very well and he's understanding this football and what I want from him. He's improving, he's improving a lot.”
That will have been music to the ears of the forward, who had clearly been stressed by his lack of first-team opportunities.
“It's been a difficult time for me but I’ve stayed focused, I've been training hard. I scored two goals and it's good for the team,” he said, no doubt with his disappointing performance a week earlier against Crystal Palace, when he had the opportunity to start, in mind.
With Diego Costa now a distant memory and the Blues already lagging behind Manchester City and United in the Premier League table, he has timed his return to form perfectly. Even if he is not considered a starter, Chelsea need a viable alternative to Morata in their ranks.
When the time is right, Conte knows now that he can call upon Batsman – and that he will get an answer.