Chelsea's dearth of attacking options exposed in scoreless draw at Norwich
NORWICH, England -- The most memorable moment of Chelsea's forgettable goalless draw with Norwich City at Carrow Road arrived in the 72nd minute. Michy Batshuayi, having dropped into his own half in an attempt to link play, dallied on the ball and was dispossessed. On the touchline, Alvaro Morata was swiftly summoned from his stretching and told to ready himself to come on.
It would be unfair to single out Batshuayi's anonymous display; the best attack Chelsea mounted all evening was Antonio Conte's withering post-match takedown of Jose Mourinho. But the Belgian's latest underwhelming audition for Morata's starting spot was a timely reminder that the Premier League champions are navigating a gruelling season with attacking resources that compare poorly to most of their top-six rivals.
There is a commitment from the Chelsea hierarchy to try to bolster Conte's squad with January signings, and the cut-price acquisition of Ross Barkley from Everton this week was an encouraging start. When fit, the 24-year-old is capable of being another option either in central midfield or as one of the two creators behind Morata. But there are broader issues his arrival alone will not fix.
Chelsea are a shadow of the attacking force they were last season, when they won the Premier League title scoring 85 goals -- a tally bettered by only five English top-flight champions in 25 years. The 2017-18 campaign has yielded 41 goals in 22 games, the worst tally in the top five. The stalemate against Norwich was the sixth time Chelsea have failed to find the net in all competitions. By this time last season, it had happened only twice, against Arsenal and Tottenham.
The departure of Diego Costa was always going to leave a void, and his absence is felt more keenly with every gilt-edged chance Morata misses; after a sparkling start to his Chelsea career, the Spain international has scored five goals in 19 games since September, and his confidence looks shot.
He could perhaps do with a break, but when the alternative is Batshuayi, a man who wasn't signed to be a lone striker -- Conte arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2016 with 4-2-4 in his mind -- and who remains ill-suited to the role, rotating him out of the firing line is not considered a realistic option.
Nor is this simply a striker problem. Pedro, the deadliest natural finisher in Conte's squad, has been directly involved in just six Premier League goals this season (four goals, two assists), having registered nine goals and nine assists -- many of them crucial as well as spectacular -- in 2016-17.
Willian continues to blow hot and cold, and Cesc Fabregas, forced by injuries elsewhere in Conte's squad to abandon his best role as devastating substitute, has four assists and one goal to his name in 19 appearances. Nemanja Matic's seven Premier League assists last season have not been replaced; N'Golo Kante, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater have just two between them.
Eden Hazard, forced to shoulder an unreasonable burden since returning from a broken ankle in September, has a relatively modest return of six goals in 18 Premier League appearances -- as many as Marcos Alonso. Apart from Morata, no other Chelsea player has more than four.
Perhaps the increased workload is taking its toll; Norwich was Chelsea's 33rd match this season, 10 more than they had played this time a year ago. It is a situation that will not improve with six more games in the remainder of January.
There might also be an element of tactical stagnation. Chelsea's 3-4-3 formation no longer catches opponents by surprise in the manner that it did during the 13-game Premier League win streak that virtually secured the title last season, and the more conservative 3-5-2 system Conte now favours in bigger matches is a slight tweak rather than a marked shift in approach.
But squad depth is clearly also a significant factor, and the one that Chelsea can most easily address midseason. Conte's substitutes' bench against Norwich included three teenagers and two 20-year-olds with fewer than 15 senior Blues appearances combined, and it is clear that he does not trust any except Ethan Ampadu to make an impactful contribution against top-tier opponents.
The positive aspect for Barkley is that he will have seen nothing from Chelsea's attackers at Carrow Road to suggest he will not be able to get significant pitch time for his new team sooner rather than later, regardless of Conte's reluctance to rush signings into competitive action.
January is a notoriously difficult time to make good signings, particularly at the price paid for Barkley. But if Chelsea hope to redeem a poor Premier League title defence with glory in the domestic cups or the Champions League, Conte will need more weaponry than he has now.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.