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Michy Batshuayi: can the Belgian rise to Premier League prominence?

Michy Batshuayi’s life has been one of a journeyman, full of unpredictability and change.

Even his youth career saw him partake in five different academies throughout Belgium over a span of eight years. At just 17 years old, ‘Bats’ debuted for Belgian Pro League side Standard Liege in a 4-1 loss, playing only seven minutes but kicking off what would become an undeniably impressive career for the youngster over the following eight years.

Continued development season after season and a heavier integration into the first team at Liege saw 2013/14 become the breakout season for the Belgian. 21 goals in 34 league games was enough to finish second place in the race for top scorer and see his side dominate the regular season, eventually losing the title in the Championship play-off by two points to Anderlecht.

Interest was piqued by many clubs around Europe and £4.5m was enough to send Bats over the border to freshly appointed Marcelo Bielsa’s Olympique Marseille. What a brilliant season it was for him and his new club in the South of France, helping them to a 4th place finish and a Coupe de France final, eventually losing both the league and cup to perennial winners Paris St-Germain, despite leading the league by three points halfway through the season. Batshuayi was extremely efficient through limited appearances, scoring nine league goals in only 897 minutes due to his use as a super sub for Bielsa’s side.

Continuing his upward trend of marked improvement, then 21-year-old Batshuayi solidified himself as the undroppable centrepiece of Marseille’s attack once Bielsa departed the club. Apart from his absolutely lethal finishing inside the box, Batshuayi’s positional awareness and unrelenting strength were the focal points of his game.

His versatility and decision making was that of a seasoned veteran too, often holding the ball up for his side to burst forward and playing a teammate into the channel; earning nine league assists in the process. He was a nightmare for Ligue 1 defenders that season. His utilisation of sudden bursts of pace, brute strength and unorthodox movement was reminiscent of an elusive NFL running-back. Batshuayi would finish the season with 21 goals and 10 assists across all competitions, seeing further ascension of his footballing stock.

Similar to his first season with Marseille, Batshuayi found himself as second choice behind Diego Costa at Chelsea after earning a £39m move to the Premier League. Despite being Antonio Conte’s first signing as the Blue’s boss, Batshuayi never got a true opportunity to shine. He was included 46 times in the Chelsea squad across all competitions that season, only making seven starts, his most important one coming in the final stages of the season when he scored the winner against West Brom that sealed the league title for Chelsea ahead of Spurs.

It became clear over the following summer that Batshuayi wasn’t favoured as Conte’s main man up top, even with the departure of Diego Costa. The Blues spent big in July of 2017 – £66m for the former Juventus and Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata sealed the fate of Batshuayi. Despite 12 goal contributions (ten goals, two assists) in 996 minutes across all competitions leading into the winter window – a tidy rate of one contribution per 83 minutes – Batshuayi was shipped out on loan.

Replacing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Borussia Dortmund after his move to Arsenal in the same window, Batshuayi got off to a flying start with two goals and an assist in his debut, even having his hat-trick goal disallowed by VAR for being in an offside position. Batshuayi fitted the system at Dortmund perfectly as his integration into the team was almost seamless.

Helping Dortmund to a seven match unbeaten run and scoring six goals in the process, it seemed as though Batshuayi may have found a home for the future where he could get the opportunities he deserved. Unfortunately, an injury to his ankle ligaments in April ruled him out for the rest of the season and halted his progression with Dortmund at an impressive nine goals in 14 appearances. Dortmund weren’t keen on making the transfer permanent either, as Chelsea’s asking price didn’t fit the spending habits of the club.

Another new manager at Chelsea in Maurizio Sarri meant a new tactical outlook and evaluation of how well each member of the squad would fit his system. After returning from the World Cup and upon the realisation that he would again be behind the likes of Morata and winter window signing Olivier Giroud, another loan move was imminent for Batshuayi. This time, Valencia of La Liga was the destination for the Belgian, but he wouldn’t find his time there as successful as any of his previous ventures.

Only starting 10 times out of 23 appearances for the Spanish side, Batshuayi was again misused as a super sub and never got off the ground. The only takeaway from his time with Valencia was scoring in a 1-1 draw against Celta Vigo, making him the first player in the 21st century to score in four of the top five leagues (England, France, Germany, and Spain). His season-long loan was cut short and upon his return to Chelsea, Batshuayi was back on the market.

West Ham, Tottenham and Real Betis were only a few of the clubs reportedly interested in taking on the Belgian as the deadline drew nearer. Tottenham and Betis were ruled out fairly quickly as the former could only seal the deal on a permanent basis for a reported £35-40m asking price and the latter due to Batshuayi’s desire to remain in England. Ultimately, Crystal Palace proposed a rest-of-season loan for a fee of £1.15m and the forward would remain in London, finally seeing a return to Premier League football.

Only two appearances and a mere 38 minutes thus far isn’t quite enough to evaluate the performances of Batshuayi for Roy Hodgson’s side. However, it has been a fairly promising start for him in South London. His late debut against Fulham included a beautifully curled effort that was palmed straight to the feet of Jeffrey Schlupp, who found the back of net, securing all three points in a vital 2-0 win against one of their London rivals.

Palace fans have been desperate for a consistent goal scorer outside of Wilfried Zaha and penalty specialist Luka Milivojevic. Benteke’s lack of fitness and the degradation of Jordan Ayew’s ability have been only a couple of the persistent issues that have seen them remain in the relegation battle, capturing a mere 27 points from 26 matches. Uncomfortably positioned three points out of the drop zone, Batshuayi’s contribution will be welcomed as the side are barely scoring more than a goal per game and are about to enter a crucial run of fixtures that include the likes of Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle and Huddersfield in the coming months.

Batshuayi will likely do his best work as part of a three-man front line, supported by Zaha and Townsend on either side, with a strong midfield feeding the attack going forward. His strength and physical hold up play will draw defenders toward the ball, freeing up space for either wide men to run into, putting them in an advantageous position to take a defender head on or swing the ball back into the box for Bats or a trailing midfielder to knock home.

The most important part of Batshuayi’s integration into the side will be the manager maintaining confidence in him, starting him in the bulk of the remaining fixtures and building on that confidence game by game. His persistent use as a substitute over the course of his career as well as being unsettled by multiple loan spells has had a detrimental effect on his consistency and confidence and hasn’t allowed him to fully exemplify the entirety of his abilities.

One can only imagine how difficult it is to try and play for three different clubs with completely different aspirations, tactics and styles over the course of 12 months. Batshuayi and his family have had their lives turned upside down far more frequently than anyone could have imagined due mainly to Chelsea’s inability to make a concrete decision on his future at the club.

His time at Dortmund could have been the beginning of a prosperous relationship but it’s almost as if the success of his limited appearances there inflated his price tag to the point where the German club was put off. Eventually, the Blues are going to have to either accept a reasonable fee for the forward or integrate him back into the first team and give him an actual opportunity to show them just how talented he is.

Either way, Batshuayi’s performances could be one of the main factors that influence which division Crystal Palace are playing their football in next season, alongside providing a golden opportunity to influence the trajectory of his career going forwards; be it in South London or elsewhere. 

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