Injuries to Morata and Kante stretch Conte's already-thin Chelsea squad
After the disappointment of seeing his Chelsea team completely outplayed in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City with record signing Alvaro Morata limping off in the process, Antonio Conte will have been looking for some positives. Yet the news that N'Golo Kante suffered a hamstring injury on international duty with France will only have darkened his mood even further.
Conte has already had to do without Eden Hazard, the club's most naturally gifted footballer, for the first month of the new season. Now he faces the prospect of facing at least one match, though quite possibly many more, without the services of arguably his two other most important players. Morata and Kante have been the two star performers for Chelsea in this nascent season, so doing without either of them for any substantial period will be a hindrance, let alone both of them at the same time.
This represents a new scenario for the Italian during his time in London. Last season Chelsea were blessed by the lack of injuries incurred, a situation that allowed him to shun rotation and retain a familiar side on a weekly basis. The only real long-term casualty last season was John Terry, who was injured early on at Swansea and never reclaimed his regular place. For all the exemplary service that Terry gave to the club over his 22 years at Stamford Bridge, that knock was arguably a blessing in disguise for Conte. He could now implement a new defensive system with a higher line without seeming to deliberately compromise the club's high-profile captain.
The squad's relatively clean bill of health was cited by most observers as a major factor in the Blues winning the title along with the absence of any European football. So far Chelsea have only faced two additional games to those they did last season, though it is instructive that Kante started them both and played all but 19 of the 180 minutes across the games with Qarabag and Atletico Madrid.
The Frenchman sat out the 5-1 Carabao Cup win over Nottingham Forest but has still played 12 games in 56 days. Initially that workload might not appear particularly intensive, especially seeing as it is effectively the start of the season. But considering the all-action manner in which he plays and that he has started every single one of those fixtures being substituted just once, perhaps it isn't surprising that something in his body has finally given up.
That both Morata and Kante have suffered similar knocks might also be a concern to their manager. Hamstring problems are particularly troublesome and can be down to many things. It can be a reflection of the type of training, warm-up and warm-down routines, the type of medical attention, workload or quite simply how an individual player's body reacts. Conte will be hoping that the two injuries are mere coincidence and not symptomatic of anything more. For several seasons in recent times, Arsenal suffered with players being absent for long period through muscle injuries and saw their ambitions curtailed as a result. Conte will not want to see a repeat happening at his club.
Historically, Chelsea's medical department has always a done a sterling job, irrespective of Jose Mourinho's misplaced criticism of Eva Carneiro two years ago. There is currently nothing to suggest that either the club doctors or Conte's training methods have contributed to Morata or Kante's ailments. But the manager's obsessive nature in pursuit of perfection means that he is sure to pore over every possibility in his search for the truth.
Conte might even be privately revisiting his complaints during the summer that the squad was not being strengthened sufficiently to cope with the situation he now faces. His argument risks being borne out though will only be proved correct or otherwise in the coming weeks once the length of the respective injuries are known and Chelsea's progress is assessed. In fairness, Danny Drinkwater was secured as midfield cover, even though he has been out with injury and is only just approaching full fitness, and should be ready to step into the breach left by his former Leicester teammate. How Conte chooses to fill Morata's shoes is another question entirely.
The fact is that injuries happen. Chelsea got pretty lucky in that regard last season and nobody realistically expected them to have another campaign that was physically so benign. Conte has shown himself to be an innovative coach and one that positively thrives on problem-solving. If Kante and Morata's injuries are more severe than they first appear, then the Italian will once again be pressed into finding an answer to a difficult question.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.