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Ross Barkley vs. Arsenal: Forced into early action, improvement needed

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Things did not quite go according to plan for Antonio Conte and Chelsea yesterday, with Arsenal striking lucky against the Blues to secure a spot in the League Cup final against Manchester City.

Chelsea started well enough, and continued to apply pressure even after Arsenal’s equalizer, but it all started unraveling with a crucial injury to Willian, who strained his hamstring. Willian has been ever-present for Chelsea for over a year, either as starter or as a sub, appearing in 50 straight Premier League games and 68 of the last 69 games in all competitions. The injury was most unexpected and threw Conte’s gameplan into disarray.

The obvious move was to replace Willian with new signing Ross Barkley, which is exactly what Conte did. Unfortunately, Barkley has not played in over eight months, and that rustiness, not to mention lack of match fitness and unfamiliarity still with the system, showed. After the match, Conte included Barkley in his praises of the team’s commitment, but also made it clear that the 24-year-old needs to improve — though it should be noted that Conte says that about every single player every single time he’s asked such a question.

“I think Willian’s injury was decisive. We don’t have many players to make [attacking] substitutions. I was a bit forced to play with Barkley. He’s a really good player and important for Chelsea but needs bit of time to get used to playing for us.”

“He has a lot of space for improvement. He’s working with us only two weeks. For sure today I was forced to make this substitution, but at the same time he can improve a lot.”

-Antonio Conte; source: ESPN

It is of course Conte himself who picks the bench (and thus chose to leave our Charly Musonda, for example) and who makes the decisions (and thus chose to not use Michy Batshuayi at that early juncture). But it is also easy to say that had he made either of those choices intead, the outcome would’ve been better. We simply don’t know. It’s not like Batshuayi lit up the tie when he did come on later in the second half though.

There will be better days. For Barkley, too.