By any stretch of the imagination, it has been a far from ideal start to Chelsea’s title defence.
Last season Antonio Conte’s side were relentless on their way to another Premier League triumph, losing just five matches and embarking on a mid-season run of form that saw them win 13 matches on the bounce.
Despite keeping hold of the majority of their title-winning squad – minus Nemanja Matic, who left for rivals Manchester United – and making a few summer additions of their own, the west London side have found the opening nine matches of the 2017/18 campaign a different proposition.
The opening day reverse to Burnley shocked most but, after showing character in the way they saw off London rivals Tottenham at Wembley, it seemed the defeat against the Clarets was merely a false-start.
It also seemed that Conte’s men were firmly back on track after winning five of their next six top-flight matches – with the only blot on their copybook coming from a frustrating stalemate with neighbours Arsenal at Stamford Bridge – keeping them firmly in the hunt behind both Manchester sides.
That was as good as it has got for the Blues lately though, and consecutive losses to both Manchester City and basement boys Crystal Palace have seen them gradually fall further and further away from the top.
Last week there were rumours of unrest in the Chelsea camp as a result of Conte’s allegedly tough training regime, with The Sun claiming that players were finding it ‘exhausting’ and that it was leading to injuries and fatigue, with the Italian refusing to give players a day off following matches.
How much truth is behind those claims is yet to be seen but, after 70 minutes of Saturday’s home clash with Watford, Conte was staring down the barrel of a third consecutive Premier League defeat, with goals from Abdoulaye Doucoure and Roberto Pereyra turning the game in the favour of the visitors.
Summer signing Alvaro Morata looked anything but sharp after returning from injury during the week and a distinct lack of cutting edge, allied with an excellent Watford display, left the champions devoid of any inspiration.
As time ticked away you could see the desperation etched on the face of Conte, who knew that a third successive loss in the league would have increased the talk of his job being under fire. As a final roll of the dice he turned to his bench and introduced forwards Michy Batshuayi and Willian.
It is not often that somebody can only play 30 minutes of top-flight football and still walk away with the man of the match accolade, but that is exactly what Batshuayi did after a game-changing display.
With his first proper sniff at goal he brought the scores level, peeling off his marker in the box before putting in a darting run across the near post and glancing a powerful header into the far corner beyond Heurelho Gomes in the Watford goal, giving Chelsea a sense of hope out of almost nowhere.
It was his goal that lifted the noise around Stamford Bridge, a noise that the Chelsea players on field responded to, and there was an air of inevitability when Cesar Azpilicueta clinched the winner in the 87th minute.
The three points may have been all-but secured by the time Batshuayi notched a late fourth, his second in a 35-minute cameo, but you could tell just how hungry the striker was to make an impact.
Everybody knows that strikers get judged by goals, not just their performances, and the way he bullied his way through the Watford defence and tucked home was of a man desperate to impress.
The Chelsea manager was quick to praise the 24-year-old following his contribution on Saturday and deservedly so too, telling the Evening Standard:
“I think the substitutions sometimes work, sometimes it doesn’t work. I think every coach during the game it’s important to understand the right moment. If there is a situation to improve and to change.
“I am pleased for Michy because he scored two goals but his impact during the game was also amazing. I think it was the same for Willian and [Davide] Zappacosta.”
It was a much-needed contribution from the Belgian after an unconvincing performance at Crystal Palace last weekend, failing to take advantage after being awarded a rare start in Morata’s absence.
On that occasion he only had 19 touches against the Premier League’s bottom side, managing just one from inside the box, and he failed to have a single shot which led to him being hauled off just shy of the hour mark.
But after Saturday the question now is, can Batshuayi kick-on? And will he be given the chance?
Since arriving from French side Marseille for £33.1 million back in 2016 he has found it consistently tough to find a route into the starting line-up, leading to regular speculation over his future at Chelsea .
It seems that Batshuayi is currently walking a very fine tightrope under Conte, with reports from the Telegraph last month suggesting that he could have been on his way out over the summer, had Chelsea been successful in their pursuit of Swansea City’s – now of rivals Tottenham – Fernando Llorente.
There have even been recent claims that Conte is patiently waiting for the January transfer window to unleash himself in the market, desperately looking for a proven back-up for main forward Morata.
For whatever reason there is a sense of distrust emanating from Conte towards the young Belgian international, and he seems to overlook Batshuayi against the best teams or in pressure situations.
Against Manchester City, when Morata picked up an early hamstring injury, it would have been assumed by most that Batshuayi was the natural replacement but instead midfielder Willian was turned to.
It was little surprise that the Brazilian had an ineffective match playing out of position and Conte’s decision just begged the question as to where Batshuayi fits into his plans. If, that is, he does at all.
The problem for Batshuayi at present is that his Chelsea career seems to be going around in circles, scoring goals from the bench but consistently failing to leave a lasting impression when given a rare starting role. Conte was quoted back in March seeming unsure about his credentials as a starter:
“At the end of the season we’ll look at the situation of every single player. Now he’s working very well for us. He must continue to work and anything can happen. If he shows me he deserves to play, I’m ready to put him in the starting XI. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll continue this way.”
Seven months down the line, 12 games into the new season, the Belgian has managed just two starts in all competitions – one at home to FK Qarabag, and the recent defeat away at Crystal Palace.
For all intents and purposes it appears that Conte is more than content at the minute to consider Batshuayi as nothing more than an impact-sub. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-esque. A man to alter the outcome of games.
Whilst this is working in the meantime – Batshuayi’s record speaks for itself – it is hard to deny that Conte is currently stunting the growth and development of one of Europe’s most promising young talents.
Across all competitions this season the 24-year-old has averaged a goal every 60.57 minutes, including the critical brace at the weekend and the dramatic last-gasp winner away at Atletico Madrid in European competition, and the Belgian has managed to score six goals in his last nine league games.
There is little doubt over his potential to be prolific in front of goal but there is only so many times Conte can turn to him only to see him crash and burn, and he cannot afford many performances, similar to that he turned in at Selhurst Park a fortnight ago, if he sees his long-term future at Stamford Bridge.
Batshuayi may be becoming a cult hero with the Chelsea fans – not least because of his lovable character on social media – but the self-proclaimed ‘Batsman’ needs to continue to do his talking on the football pitch, rather than from his phone, if he has any aspirations of competing with Morata.
With the Spaniard returning to action after his injury there’s not likely to be any starting roles for Batshuayi anytime soon but, if he can continue to score from the bench, how can Conte ignore him?
The relationship between manager and player has been frayed since his arrival from Marseille, not helped with the ongoing speculation over his role in west London, but the simple fact of the matter is that Conte is a footballing man driven by results, and if Batshuayi delivers those he will be played.
The fixture list will begin to pile up heading into Christmas and the Italian will need every resource possible in his limited squad, and now’s the time for the young Belgian to stand up and be counted.