Antonio Conte finds himself with a severely restricted selection of attacking players for tonight’s Premier League match against AFC Bournemouth.
Álvaro Morata and Willian are injured. Michy Batshuayi is in Dortmund and his replacement is not only not eligible, he hasn’t actually been signed yet. Meanwhile, Charly Musonda Jr has gone off to Celtic, even if he wasn’t likely to ever start. That leaves Eden Hazard, Pedro (both of whom started on Sunday) ... and ... Callum Hudson-Odoi, who’s all of 17 ... and of course Ross Barkley, who has yet to come up to speed since signing for Chelsea at the start of January.
For Barkley, the issue apparently isn’t physical, which was everyone’s main concern when we signed the player who had not played all season due to injury. The issue is between the ears.
“I thought I’d find a player who was not in good physical condition. Instead, I was surprised to find a player in good physical condition. Yes, yes, a positive surprise. You saw that during the Arsenal game [in the League Cup last week]. He played. He was my first substitution after the Willian injury.
“My worry is not about his physical condition, but only to go into our idea of football, to understand the movement without the ball and with the ball. For this, he needs a bit of period to go into our idea of football. To understand this. My worry is not about his physical condition, but to get into our idea of football.”
Conte’s never one to quickly integrate new players into his “idea of football”, but the way he talks about Barkley, it sounds like the 24-year-old is having a tougher time than most. He wouldn’t be the first to struggle — Batshuayi arguably still couldn’t quite do it after 18 months and it’s taken Tiemoué Bakayoko at least 4-5 to start getting truly comfortable — but with the options thus restricted, Barkley needs to start making significant strides in this regard.
“For sure, we have to put a part of the risk to push the player, to push the player to come into the team quickly. Because we need to do this. When you have [Alvaro] Morata and Willian out through injury, we don’t have many solutions. I’m very happy because the player has great potentiality, and for sure he’s changing his way to play. Now he has to think, to think with the ball and without the ball.”
Given the likelihood of Conte having to go with three attacking midfielders as the three forwards in tonight’s game, Barkley is still very much in contention to start.
“Every player is desperate to play every game. I have to try to make the best decision for the team. Sometimes I’m forced to take decisions. But, I repeat, in this case I’m very happy. In my mind I thought that his physical condition was worse than the situation I found [when he came].”
“The way we are playing, he can play like a No10, like a striker, on the right or on the left. Or, if we decide to play with three midfielders, he can play on the right or the left.”
“When you arrive from a bad injury and didn’t play for six months, it’s not simple to recover very well the best form. But my players are working very well and I gave him the chance in the Carabao Cup against Arsenal, maybe because I was forced to do this. In a normal situation, I’d take more time with him. But the player is working very well. The player is working to come into our idea of football. [He] could be in contention to play.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Independent
Perhaps “learning on the job” will be the best way for Barkley, who can certainly use the motivation of a potential World Cup squad spot with England, to pick up what he needs to learn to be an effective player for Conte and Chelsea.