Swapping Michy Batshuayi, Fernando Llorente could be ideal for Chelsea
Chelsea may be top of the Premier League and in the draw for the FA Cup fourth round but Antonio Conte still has problems to contend with. Chief among them is what to do with striker Michy Batshuayi, who remains the subject of intense speculation despite scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Peterborough United.
Batshuayi needs more minutes than Chelsea have been able to give him this season -- 398, to be precise -- but it is clear that Conte doesn't trust the 23-year-old to lead his attack whenever Diego Costa is absent. The decision to deploy Eden Hazard as a false nine against Bournemouth on Boxing Day was telling.
Recent days have seen Chelsea linked to a January move for Swansea City striker Fernando Llorente, with Batshuayi heading to the Liberty Stadium on loan until the end of the season as part of the deal, and it is easy to see why such an arrangement could make sense for all parties. Chelsea require experienced, reliable cover for Costa, who will continue to play every match as long as he is fit and performing like the outstanding footballer in England.
At 31, Llorente is a seasoned professional who has played in high-pressure matches at club and international level. It helps, of course, that Conte knows him; Llorente scored 16 Serie A goals for the Chelsea head coach when Juventus claimed the Serie A title with a record 102 points in 2013-14.
"My experience working with Conte at Juve was fantastic," Llorente told Spanish newspaper AS last week. "He's the best coach I've had in my career and I wish him the very best."
Those goals came in a highly productive strike partnership with Carlos Tevez but Llorente had already proven himself as a lone frontman in Marcelo Bielsa's high-energy 4-3-3 system during the 2011-12 campaign with Athletic. To fulfill the role of Costa's back-up at Chelsea, Llorente would be tasked with leading the line again. He offers a different kind of focal point, less mobile on the ground but far more dominant in the air: he is averaging 4.2 aerial duels won per game for Swansea City this season, compared to Costa's 1.1.
Llorente is also technically accomplished for a footballer of his size, armed with good close control as well as the intelligence and awareness to bring skillful midfield runners into play. That aspect of his game would be crucial at Chelsea, particularly as he lacks Costa's ability to stretch defences.
But perhaps the most important quality Llorente could bring to Chelsea's substitutes' bench is patience. He has already overcome adversity in his career, enduring a season in exile with Athletic before his acrimonious free transfer to Juventus and struggling to establish himself as a regular starter at Sevilla. Conte needs a quality striker who can handle long spells on the sidelines interspersed by important cameos. Batshuayi's performance against Peterborough, too desperate to impress and too often playing to prove himself rather than help the team, suggested he is not ready to be that man.
None of this is Batshuayi's fault, of course, as Conte readily admits. It's hard enough to adapt to a new country and a more difficult league without competing for minutes with one of the best strikers in the world operating at the peak of his powers. Batshuayi needs the time and space to hone his skills and find his feet in the Premier League; replacing Llorente would virtually assure him a key role in Swansea's survival plans. The fact that their new manager is former Chelsea coach Paul Clement would only strengthen confidence at Stamford Bridge that their striker's development was in good hands.
Replacing their joint-top scorer in January with a promising 23-year-old would be a big risk for Swansea, who have no margin for error in a relegation battle. On the other hand, the arrival of Batshuayi could allow them to get back to a style that has underpinned some of their biggest achievements in the top flight.
This season, only three Premier League teams average more crosses per game than Swansea, while eight of their 23 goals have come from set pieces. Llorente isn't entirely responsible for this drastic shift in style but having a tall, powerful lone striker clearly provides an incentive for passes to become more direct. Batshuayi's pace and direct running could enable Clement to mould Swansea back into a formidable counter-attacking unit, offering more protection for a defence that has looked hapless this season, as well as maximising the vision of a talented playmaker like Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Whether the south of Wales would appeal to Batshuayi after just six months in London is another matter, but these are conversations that need to happen. Batshuayi will not reach his potential by training at Cobham and watching at Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea could do with a more polished alternative to Costa if they are to maintain their charge towards the Premier League title.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.