LONDON — Antonio Conte insisted on Friday, albeit with a hint of resignation, that he is “very calm” about Chelsea’s efforts to bolster his squad in the January transfer window.
“I’m happy to work with these players,” he insisted. “Then, if the club wants to help us, we’re happy. Otherwise we’ll continue in this way.”
It is a philosophical attitude that jars with the prevailing mood around Stamford Bridge. Reports this week suggesting that the Premier League champions had enquired about the availability of West Ham striker Andy Carroll and Stoke City’s veteran target man Peter Crouch had many Chelsea supporters asking, justifiably, what on earth is going on with their club’s recruitment strategy.
Carroll is an inconveniently fragile battering ram of a centre-forward who has completed 90 minutes just three times in the Premier League this season. Crouch has at least done it on seven occasions, but he turns 37 at the end of the month and is less mobile than ever. Combined, the two men have five goals in 30 Premier League appearances in 2017-18.
There are reasons why two such underwhelming targets have come into view in the winter window, but they are unlikely to go down well with indignant fans.
Conte’s stance is simple: He has wanted a big, physical striker — or as he calls it, a “point of reference” — in his squad for the best part of 18 months. His first choice was Fernando Llorente, halfheartedly pursued by Chelsea in each of the past two windows before joining Tottenham for bigger wages and a longer contract on transfer deadline day.
Now Chelsea are working their way down the list and, as he has pointed out many times, Conte is not the one who devises it.
“The club sometimes asks me my opinion about the transfer market, about our situation, the way we can improve,” he reiterated on Friday. “But, at the same time, the final decision is for the club.”
Chelsea are operating with a variety of considerations. The fact that Carroll and Crouch were both proposed loan deals highlights the first: Given that Conte is far from certain to still be in charge next season, is it wise to sink long-term money and resources into a player — or even a type of player — that the next head coach may feel completely differently about?
Conte has little trust in Michy Batshuayi, who has proved ill-suited to a lone striker role and struggled mentally with life on the bench since arriving from Marseille in 2016. He in turn would like to leave this month, in search of regular football and a pathway to Belgium’s World Cup squad. A loan move to Sevilla offers both, but Chelsea need a fresh body before they can let him go.
Tammy Abraham has impressed in difficult circumstances on loan at Swansea City, scoring four Premier League goals in the worst attacking team in the division. Due to the terms of the loan agreement, however, a January recall to Chelsea would have been a realistic option only if he had not been getting the expected amount of playing time in south Wales.
With so many of their best academy prospects gaining experience elsewhere in the Premier League, Chelsea also need to be mindful of homegrown restrictions.
No more than 17 names on the 25-man squad list can be players who do not meet the criteria, and Chelsea currently have 16. The other eight spots must either be filled by homegrown players or left as blank squad spaces; the Blues have five of the former (Gary Cahill, Danny Drinkwater, Cesc Fabregas, Victor Moses and Ross Barkley) and three of the latter.
Chelsea can only really sign a non-homegrown player in the January window if another leaves, which is why Kenedy will be allowed to depart if a reported deal for Roma left-back Emerson Palmieri goes through. Batshuayi’s exit would also create space, but a homegrown target like Carroll or Crouch could (at least in theory) provide cover without complicating future squad decisions.
Any benefit that a homegrown player could provide, however, depends on his being good enough to play for Chelsea. Barkley is a low-cost gamble who showed flashes of immense talent at Everton and is still only 24; it is a lot harder to build a credible case for signing Carroll or Crouch, even as temporary backups.
Ultimately, the biggest striker problem that Conte and Chelsea have to solve is the form of Alvaro Morata. The Spain international has scored three goals in the past two months, and unless he rediscovers the version of himself that terrorised the Premier League in August and September, the chances of his team claiming domestic silverware or upsetting Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16 look slim.
Conte must decide whether rest or repetition is the way to get his star striker scoring again. But it is Chelsea who have a responsibility to adequately equip their head coach for both options, and in order to do so they may have to look beyond the uninspired names that provoked this week’s backlash.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.