Watching two top-six Premier League teams play each other in a two-legged tie is unusual. This was the first since March 2016, when Liverpool and Manchester United met in the Europa League knockout rounds. We are used to making sweeping and damning conclusions based on the results of these high-profile matches, sometimes as many as 16. That was not possible on Wednesday.
Still, an unfamiliar scenario does not guarantee freshness. If last week’s draw between Arsenal and Chelsea was raucous and thrilling, here was the yin to that yang. Both teams were cagey, unwilling to overload in attack and thus risk being caught on the counter. Like many matches in the 2014 World Cup, there was plenty of quality on show but very little oomph.
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger will leave the happier, of course. There was no Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Sead Kolasinac, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, and Wenger may argue that few Premier League teams could cope without those absentees. Sanchez’s omission raised rumours that his move to Manchester City could be close, but Wenger also picked a side without him in the league game at Stamford Bridge. The result was identical.
One player who did start was Alex Iwobi, the day after the Nigerian had been fined for partying late into Friday night and Saturday morning. Many remarked that Iwobi starting so soon after the incident meant he had not been punished. The way Arsenal performed against Nottingham Forest on Sunday, that’s open to debate.
Arsenal did at least find some defensive calm after FA Cup storm. Wenger went back to a back three to match Chelsea’s defensive shape and immediately found solace. Ainsley Maitland-Niles continues to be the good news of their last three months amongst a collection of short sob stories.
Antonio Conte, on the other hand, will be frustrated at his side’s prolonged attacking inefficiencies. Wednesday’s result makes it three consecutive draws and three 0-0s in their last six matches, against Everton, Norwich and Arsenal. There was a clunkiness to Chelsea in possession that usually coincides with Eden Hazard not quite being at his peak. Wednesday also brought further rumours of Real Madrid interest in Chelsea’s star attacker; that would be potentially disastrous.
Chelsea did spend more than £50m on an attacker last summer, of course, and broke their transfer record in the process, but this was another night of frustration for Alvaro Morata. After his three missed one-on-ones against the same opponent seven days previously, Conte insisted that his striker was guilty only of misfortune. But there is inadequacy at play here too.
Morata has had a strange season. Patience was urged when he moved club, league and country to join Chelsea, but the Spaniard scored eight goals in his first nine Chelsea games and appeared to be thriving as a first-choice striker at last. Since then, the goals and performances have dried up. Morata has five in all competitions since the end of September.
Morata missed gilt-edged chances against Arsenal last week, with most pundits relying upon the cliche that at least he was getting into the positions to miss. On Wednesday, Morata had three shots (one on target), completed fewer than half of the passes he attempted, won one header and lost the ball three times through a poor touch. There is truth in the defence that every striker needs service, but in Hazard and Cesc Fabregas he has two of the best in the business.
This might be merely a confidence issue. With 84 minutes played, Morata ran with the ball down the wing and simply kicked it into touch. He looked up to the heavens as if to ask for divine intervention, but the groans from the Stamford Bridge stands confirm that he must find his own way out of this rut. There are odd similarities to Romelu Lukaku’s own debut season with his new club.
Morata could also be tired, not just physically but mentally. He may be 25 years old, but in football terms Morata is far younger. This is the first season that he has led the line for any top-flight club. By half-time in Chelsea’s next league game (assuming he starts), the striker will have passed his highest ever top-flight total of minutes in a league season.
Conte’s problem is that he has few other options. Hazard has been an effective false nine but cannot do the job of creator and finisher. Willian’s form has tailed off this season while Michy Batshuayi’s has barely got going. The Belgian was anonymous against Championship Norwich and may have had his final chance.
Instead, Conte must cross his fingers, persevere and trust that Morata will come good. There is sometimes no rhyme nor reason to a forward clicking in and out of form, and Chelsea are reliant on a change in seasons bringing a change in competence. Chelsea’s EFL cup final participation, and perhaps even Champions League qualification, depends upon it.