Chelsea and their hunt for a target man

Match of the Day 2 analysis

Wanted: Target man. Must be over 6ft 1in. Premier League experience necessary. Age/mobility not important. Short-term deal considered.

Chelsea have not quite gone as far as putting that advert in the window of a west London newsagents this January, but there have been times when their search for a new centre-forward has almost appeared to be that desperate.

Andy Carroll, Ashley Barnes, Islam Slimani and Peter Crouch are among the surprise names to have been linked with a move to the defending Premier League champions.

The Blues’ approach to finding a target man – seemingly the taller the better, and on loan or permanently – has prompted disbelief on social media, and led to some legendary (for various reasons) names ruling themselves out of a move to Stamford Bridge (with tongues firmly in cheeks).

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Adebayo Akinfenwa tweet<!–<!–[if lte IE 8]><![endif]–>

Roma’s former Manchester City frontman Edin Dzeko emerged as a more plausible target than Lineker and Akinfenwa.

But his age – he is 32 in March – his ineligibility to play in the Champions League and his price, as part of a reported £44m double deal with left-back Emerson Palmieri, led people to question the wisdom of that move too.

Among the doubters are Chelsea players themselves.

Eden Hazard, who has filled in up front at times this season, says his side do not need a new striker, especially a “target man”.

The Belgium playmaker said: “Who is the best team this year? Manchester City. Their strikers are not big.

“It’s simple. If you want to play with long balls, you need a target man. If you want to keep the ball on the floor, you need a small guy.”

So why is Chelsea boss Antonio Conte seemingly so determined to sign a big striker as back-up for Alvaro Morata, and why are there so many surprising names on his list?

BBC Sport asks former Chelsea striker Chris Sutton who is the best option – and what it means for the club’s future.

Which target men are in Chelsea’s sights?
Player Club Height Age Games Goals* Shots* Shot accuracy*
Ashley Barnes Burnley 6ft 1in 28 23 3 26 42.31
Christian Benteke Crystal Palace 6ft 3in 27 18 1 34 44.12
Andy Carroll West Ham 6ft 4in 29 12 2 18 38.89
Peter Crouch Stoke 6ft 7in 36 19 3 9 44.44
Edin Dzeko Roma 6ft 4in 31 20 9 90 36.70
Islam Slimani Leicester 6ft 2in 29 12 1 7 57.14
*All stats from 2017-18 league season

Dzeko has scored nine goals in Serie A for Roma this season but of the five Premier League strikers linked with Chelsea, none have managed more than three in the league. Christian Benteke is the only player to have started more than eight league games too.

“I have got to say I am surprised with the names that have been mentioned,” Sutton told BBC Sport.

“I don’t know where the Ashley Barnes story came from but I don’t think he even plays regularly for Burnley so why would that help Chelsea? With the greatest respect, he is hardly going to take them to the next level.

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“As a Chelsea fan you want to see signings coming in that are going to improve the team but that does not seem to be the thinking.

“They were meant to be in for Alexis Sanchez at the start of last week but they are a million miles away from that sort of statement signing with the people they are being linked with.

“Crouch and Carroll have been very effective in the past but they are just bit-part players at their own clubs now.”

Who will make movement behind the defence?

Conte insists he does not make decisions on transfers and has said nothing about any of his supposed targets, either to confirm or deny his interest.

But he has underlined the sort of player he would like to have as an alternative to Morata – who has not scored for six games – to help lead the line.

“In my idea of football, we need a striker who must be a point of reference,” Conte said after his side’s win over Brighton at the weekend.

By that he means having the option of a player who can hold the ball up and link play – and it does not sound like good news for Michy Batshuayi.

“I actually thought Batshuayi’s link-up play was pretty decent on Saturday,” said Sutton. “But Conte’s comments tell us everything about whether he thinks he can do that job. It seems like the end of the road for him.”

What it means for Chelsea’s style of play is less clear.

Just as Morata offers a different threat to the bustling menace of Diego Costa, whose protracted return to Atletico Madrid finally went through at the start of January, none of Chelsea’s potential signings have much in common with the strikers already at the club.

“Crouch and Carroll are not all-round number nines because they do not offer a threat in behind defences the way Morata does,” Sutton said.

“None of the players mentioned are like-for-like for Morata, which is another reason it makes all of this a little bit odd for the likes of Hazard, who create the chances for their strikers.

“Crouch, Carroll and Benteke thrive off crosses when the way Chelsea play, they want their centre-forward to make those little movements in behind the opposition defence.

“If you are Hazard and you get your head up on the half turn, then you don’t want a focal point all the time, you want that movement in behind. At the moment Morata gives them that.

“I think Dzeko is the one who offers the most in that respect, so he would be the best option for them.

Morata must forget missed chances to succeed

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Morata’s loss of form means there is speculation over the 25-year-old Spain international’s future too.

The £60m club record summer signing from Real Madrid has been criticised by some fans, harshly according to Sutton, who knows what it is like to struggle as an expensive Chelsea signing.

“I still think Morata can be a great player for Chelsea,” Sutton said. “He was never going to be another Costa, because there is only one Diego Costa – but Morata has his own style.

“People are critical of him because he has missed a few chances but I just think he has lost a bit of confidence.

“I think Conte should persevere with him and the player himself is experienced enough to bounce back.

“I read an interview with him at the start of the season where he admits he goes home after games and thinks about chances he has missed, but to succeed at Chelsea he will have to wipe that from his mind.

“All strikers go through periods like he is – even the very best I played with, like Alan Shearer and Henrik Larsson, but their mental strength meant it never seemed to bother them when the goals dried up.

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“I had periods where I doubted myself, though, such as during my season at Chelsea.

“I think the worst thing you can do as a striker is hesitate in front of goal – when that seed of doubt is planted in your mind as happened to me then. I lost a bit of confidence and I missed a few chances.

“I probably let it affect me at the time even though I tried to delude myself into saying I was all right. I wasn’t, and it showed.

“At that level, when your head is not right as a striker then you get found out and I think that is what is happening to Morata. He looks hesitant at the moment.

“But he scored some really quality goals earlier in the season and I do not think he has suddenly become a bad player – he just needs to find the mental strength to get through this difficult spell.”

Alvaro Morata’s declining Premier League form
First 10 games Past 10 games
Minutes played 722 800
Goals 7 3
Mins/goals 103.1 266.7
Assists 3 1
Total shots 28 31
Shots on target 13 13
Shot conversion 25 9.7

How long will Conte be in charge?

Conte has come under scrutiny of late, and his future beyond the end of the season appears uncertain.

Sutton thinks the striker situation will only add to the speculation the Italian will soon exit Stamford Bridge, despite his impressive record there.

“It has been a pretty turbulent season but they have still done pretty well in the Premier League in terms of the points they have put on the board,” Sutton added.

“They are still in with a chance of winning three trophies – the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Champions League – so Conte must be doing something right.

“But what is happening in the transfer market is hardly going to get the fans excited – and then it just leads you to ask where the club is going with this.

“Surely this is not the way for Chelsea to progress, push for league titles and major trophies and really grow as a team.

“It is short-term thinking and that does not suggest Conte will be there long-term.

“If he was, I think Chelsea would be linked with the sort of players they have tried to sign in the past, that Conte wants – the likes of Sanchez, or Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain from Juventus – not people who are coming to the end of their careers.

“So, at the moment, it is anyone’s guess what will happen in the summer, on every level.”

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