Chelsea lost more than just a football match on Saturday. The injury sustained by Alvaro Morata risks wrecking a solid, if largely unspectacular, start to the new season, and has laid bare the full extent to which the champions have become so totally reliant on their record signing from Real Madrid. When they went searching for a new No.9 over the summer, they could never have imagined that their backup target would become so crucial, so quickly. Their hopes of beating Manchester City at the weekend disappeared the very moment the Spaniard – pursued only after Romelu Lukaku had been hijacked by Manchester United – limped out of the top-of-the-table clash after just 35 minutes, with the Spanish Football Federation later diagnosing a grade two myofascial hamstring injury. Typically, it takes four to six weeks to recover from, a period that would see Morata miss seven club matches over the space of a busy 23 days.
He claimed on social media that he is targeting a return for the first of those, against Crystal Palace, but that seems like wishful thinking, and the message was later deleted and reposted without such an ambitious return date. For Antonio Conte and Chelsea, his setback could not come at a more inopportune momentum. The club, largely thanks to the Spaniard’s goals, had shaken off their early season stutters and once again started to forge their title credentials. Morata has netted six times this term, second only to Lukaku in the Premier League scoring charts, though has impressed just as much in his work away from goal. He is the tenacious, bulldozing target man that Conte’s system requires without any of the histrionics that Diego Costa came with. He has stepped up in big moments, too, notably scoring the goal that kick-started Chelsea’s comeback against Atletico Madrid; his all-round display in that game should be logged and archived as one of the great examples of how to lead the line away from home in Europe.
The nine matches Alvaro Morata could miss for club and country Spain v Albania (WCQ) – Friday October 6 Israel v Spain (WCQ) – Monday October 9 Crystal Palace v Chelsea (PREM) – Saturday October 14 Chelsea v Roma (UCL) – Wednesday October 18 Chelsea v Watford (PREM) – Saturday October 21 Chelsea v Everton (EFL) – Wednesday October 25 Bournemouth v Chelsea (PREM) – Saturday October 28 Roma v Chelsea (UCL) – Tuesday October 31 Chelsea v Manchester United (PREM) – November 5 But with all those plaudits comes one major problem: what are Chelsea without Morata? The 24-year-old’s goals fired the club back into title contention, and silenced the murmurings surrounding Conte’s job safety, but they also disguised a multitude of attacking sins. Chelsea’s overall level has not really dipp The nine matches Alvaro Morata could miss for club and country Spain v Albania (WCQ) – Friday October 6 Israel v Spain (WCQ) – Monday October 9 Crystal Palace v Chelsea (PREM) – Saturday October 14 Chelsea v Roma (UCL) – Wednesday October 18 Chelsea v Watford (PREM) – Saturday October 21 Chelsea v Everton (EFL) – Wednesday October 25 Bournemouth v Chelsea (PREM) – Saturday October 28 Roma v Chelsea (UCL) – Tuesday October 31 Chelsea v Manchester United (PREM) – November 5 But with all those plaudits comes one major problem: what are Chelsea without Morata? The 24-year-old’s goals fired the club back into title contention, and silenced the murmurings surrounding Conte’s job safety, but they also disguised a multitude of attacking sins. Chelsea’s overall level has not really dipped from last season – their defence is still mean, their squad is still well balanced, and their manager is still a masterful tactician capable of out-thinking the likes of Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino on their own turf. But going forward they lack venom, their attacking play seemingly reduced to hoping Morata can bail them out.
This season they have had fewer shots on goal than Newcastle and Stoke City, while their Expected Goals (xG) – a metric that identifies the quality of chances created and conceded, and has even been introduced to Match of the Day this season – ranks them joint 13th in the Premier League alongside Watford. Incredibly, after the loss to Man City, their Expected Goal Difference is now in the negative.
What is Expected Goals? Expected Goals – also abbreviated to ExpG or xG – measures the number of goals a team would score based on the amount and quality of the shots they create. Each scoring attempt is weighted depending on a number of factors, predominantly shot location and shot type, but can also include the type of assist (though-ball or cross?), the speed of the attack and other factors. Opta, for example, have analysed over 300,000 shots to work out the likelihood of a chance being scored. Expected Goals essentially rates how good a chance is, and how likely it would be to result in a goal, and attributes a value accordingly: 0.51xG means a goal should be scored 51% of the time. It is an excellent way to ascertain whether a team were knocking on the proverbial door, or struggling to trouble the opposition keeper and simply trying their luck from range. Of course, that doesn’t mean a bad chance can’t produce a goal – Frank Lampard made a career out of doing that! Thirteen appears to be the magic number for Chelsea, because that is also where Morata ranks for his individual xG, sandwiched in between Richarlison and Javier Hernandez. Both Lukaku and Harry Kane’s Expected Goals are double that of Morata, yet the Spaniard has matched them – give or take – for goals. It underlines his ruthlessness and clinicalness in front of goal, but also the relative scarcity of chances, and the poorer quality of those presented to him, compared to his peers. ‘Big Six’ Expected Goals Player Rankings Harry Kane (6 goals) 4.70xG Romelu Lukaku (7 goals) 4.40xG Sergio Aguero (6 goals) 3.60xG Mohamed Salah (4 goals) 3.10xG Dele Alli (2 goals) 2.80xG Gabriel Jesus (4 goals) 2.70xG Alexandre Lacazette (3 goals) 2.70xG Raheem Sterling (4 goals) 2.50xG Alvaro Morata (6 goals) 2.30xG It is, partly, why he has scored so many goals with his head. High crosses into the box are one of the less effective ways of scoring, and it feels much more like Chelsea are resorting to pumping the ball into the box rather than merely playing to their striker’s strengths. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, for example, and now his City team too, owed much of their potency to low crosses into the danger zone (the six-yard box, essentially), while Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning gameplan centred on cutbacks. But Chelsea’s attacking gameplan looks a little messy right now, and Morata’s lay-off will only compound that issue. At least they could rely on him to convert the few chances they created, but now that luxury is stuck on the treatment table. Percentage of team’s total ‘big chances’ received Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) 75% Harry Kane (Tottenham) 53% Romelu Lukaku (Man Utd) 44% Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) 36% Sergio Aguero (Man City) 30% Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) 29%
Alvaro Morata (Chelsea) 75% Harry Kane (Tottenham) 53% Romelu Lukaku (Man Utd) 44% Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) 36% Sergio Aguero (Man City) 30% Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) 29% After Morata, you have to scroll all the way down to 73rd place to find the next Chelsea player, David Luiz, on the Expected Goals list, the Brazilian having scored once from his 0.8xG. The first of the Blues’ other attackers, Pedro, comes in at 99th position (0.6xG), while Willian’s appearance (0.4xG) comes after the club’s two full-backs. The former Shakhtar Donetsk man really embodies Chelsea’s struggles, with his none of his nine shots really threatening to open his account. Although Eden Hazard is still working his way back, and looked electric alongside Morata in Europe, there is little to fear about Chelsea’s attack beyond the Spaniard. Five of the club’s six Premier League goals since the transfer window closed were scored by Morata – the other by defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante – while no big-six striker has received a higher percentage of his side’s ‘big chances’, with Chelsea almost three times as reliant on Morata as City are on Aguero.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Morata’s absence is whether Conte will continue to shun Michy Batshuayi. Against City, the Italian opted to bring on Willian rather risk the young Belgian. Although a scorer of some important goals, not least against Atletico, he lacks the trust of his manager and does not possess the physicality required to lead the line single-handedly. Moreover, Chelsea’s system as it is right now, with its attacking shortcomings, needs a truly elite finisher to prosper. Without Morata, Chelsea face a very difficult period despite the relative easiness of their upcoming fixtures. They remain well organised and hard to beat, but compared to their top-four rivals they lack goal threat. Now they have been robbed of the cutting edge that was compensating for that lack of fluidity and chance creation up top. Unless Conte can find a solution fast, they may find the gap to the Manchester clubs is insurmountable by the time Morata returns.