Why Chelsea's Premier League Title Hopes Are Down To Steven Fletcher


This may be a little bit out there, but consider this. Chelsea’s chances of lifting the Premier League title under Antonio Conte, or at least their rise back to the top four, will rest on the shoulders of Scotland international Steven Fletcher.

Ok, maybe not rest on his shoulders, but if new signing Michy Batshuayi is a hit at Stamford Bridge, Conte should definitely send the former Sunderland a thank you card and a bottle of prosecco.

During his debut season in Marseille, Batshuayi only started six games. Andre-Pierre Gignac was the starter under Marcelo Bielsa and OM briefly challenged for the title. The French striker scored 21 times and was a force of nature.

Batshuayi did amazingly well, coming off the bench, scoring nine goals. He was Bielsa’s super-sub.

Once the dust had settled last summer, Marseille were left with Batshuayi as their only centre-forward. There was no one else. The weight of 70,000 fans…which would dwindle down to 20k by the end of the season, would sit firmly on the young Belgians shoulders.

Out of complete left-field, Fletcher joined on loan from Sunderland. It finally gave Spanish coach Michel a different look and it is the type of combination that Conte will look to play this season. It’s not to suggest for a second that Diego Costa is Steven Fletcher, but they are players in a similar mould.

Big, strong, not exactly mobile centre-forward. Fletcher became the aerial focus and Batshuayi was able to play as the smaller man. The 22-year-old would make the runs, get in behind the defence and it worked fairly well.

Against Monaco at the Stade Louis II, they combined for the classic one-two punch. Fletcher picked up the ball and pushed forward, Batshuayi pulled right, the Scotsman slipped him in and the Belgian finished brilliantly.

Two weeks later, away at Angers, they worked the same move. Fletcher’s left-foot pass found Batshuayi inside the box and he did very well to finish. It may not have been the striker Marseille fans had hoped for, but it was clear that the young forward was blossoming again with the pressure shared out.

"In the dressing room, we said with the other players that we liked this new system," Batshuayi told Le Journal du Dimanche. "He and I are complementary. He's not a stereotypical British player who plays with his head. He's strong on the ground, technical.

"I'm happy to have played 90 minutes by his side because on the day he arrived I understood that he was coming to play with me - not to replace me."

Diego Costa may have to take the same attitude. There’s no guarantee the Spaniard will be at Chelsea come the end of the transfer window, but Conte will want to ensure that Batshuayi has a partner.

He may have played the majority of his 17-goal campaign as a loan forward, but it wasn’t until he was handed a partner that he started to enjoy his football again. Fletcher has to gain some praise for that last season.

“He is a player I really like. He helps me a lot – and the same for the team,” Batshuayi said of the Scotland international.

"I hope we are going to continue to play together. It is easier on the pitch for me when he is there. When I play on my own, I attract all the defenders.

"When he is there, knowing that he is strong in challenges, especially in the air, he monopolises the other defenders. Two attackers against four opponents is better.”

That last part is the basis of what Conte is going to attempt in the Premier League this season. There is a very small chance, almost non-existent, that he will move away from his 3-5-2 formation. Any problems the Italian coach had in Serie A came when the clubs matched him 3-5-2 v 3-5-2. That is never going to happen in England.

90% of the games Chelsea play will see two centre-forwards playing against a back four. That suits Batshuayi perfectly and then he just needs someone else to attract attention. There would be more risk over this move, paying £33 million for a 22-year-old, if Conte was asking the Belgian to play as the lone striker and be the main man at Chelsea. That’s not going to happen.

Be it Costa, a new signing, or even Eden Hazard, Batshuayi will not be the focal point. He will play the secondary role and he will find time and space to really cause defenders problems. Michy can play with his back to goal, twist, turn and finish with either foot.

He can also play off the last shoulder, burst in behind, cut across to the near post and use his upper-body strength to get on the end of crosses and through balls. In that perfect one-two combo, he is perhaps a perfect player for Conte’s system.

Batshuayi faced a few bad months last season, almost left to hang out to dry with Marseille’s terrible campaign and lack of support. That’s not going to happen at Chelsea and the Belgian is really going to enjoy life under Conte and hopefully the fans are going to enjoy their new season with Batsman.