From his pre match press conference to his substitutions via his starting selection, David Wagner could not have signalled his thoughts on Town’s chances against the current Premier League Champions much more clearly.
Following a comfortable victory over a mediocre Brighton, which provided a little breathing space after a difficult period, the manager’s acute pragmatism when faced with a fixture pile up came roaring to the fore.
It is beyond serious question that playing both Van La Parra and Depoitre would have increased the admittedly slim chance of gaining 3 points – the Dutch winger would have provided pressure relieving trickery and pace, while the rambunctious Belgian would have been a more disruptive choice up front.
Difficult away trips to Watford and Southampton clearly offered greater prospect of points to the strategic mind of the German, even considering Town’s horrible away form, and trust was placed in the side from Saturday but with Williams in for Quaner.
Conté, similarly challenged by the rigours of an even more crowded schedule, was able to rotate his squad with significantly superior footballers – he was able to rest the “tired” Morata, bring in the tireless Brazilian international Willian, World Cup winner Pedro and the experienced Moses.
To the surprise of no one, Town adopted the deep block which had seen them run Manchester City close and provided the basis of their home win over Manchester United and, for a while, the home team seemed to be building a decent foundation. For all their possession, Chelsea found their route through the middle – where they often excel through the genius of Hazard – hideously congested and unyielding while their attempts to spread the game wide was thwarted by inaccuracy.
Sadly, the outlet of Depoitre was missing for the home team. Mounié doesn’t look suited to the role and Town’s forays in to Chelsea territory were rare and unsophisticated – while comparisons with the visitors’ array of talent may be cruelly unfair, the Terriers were lacking in composure, basic passing ability and guile. Some of the skills on display in the home side were more akin to a plucky lower league side in the cup and rather embarrassing at times.
Mooy proved the exception to the rule with some rangy passing to the right wing partnership of Kachunga and Smith (so dominant against Brighton but rather easily subdued against much higher quality) – resulting in a blocked effort from the German and a corner won by the Englishman making his 150th appearance.
Such play offered rare relief for the home side as Chelsea’s effortless control of the football, somewhat marred by their inability to make use of a pitch they had stretched wide with Alonso and Bakayoko (Moses took up the wide mantle once the youngster had messed up some opportunities on the right), gave them almost complete control.
For 20 minutes, Town’s defending was relatively comfortable and, like City and United before them, Chelsea found space difficult to find, other than out wide, and the objective of frustrating illustrious opponents was being achieved only to be undone by the naivety of Lössl and Zanka.
With Williams chatting to Wagner on the half way line, getting some instructions, Town’s custodian took a dead ball to Zanka only for the Dane – who was otherwise one of Town’s better performers – to put Lössl in a little difficulty compounded by a slip. The keeper’s weak clearance was picked up by Willian and Chelsea’s ruthless edge clicked in to gear; receiving the ball, Hazard smartly moved the ball back to Willian with a deft header and Willian fed Bakayoko to lift the ball over Lössl and past the desperate clearance attempt of Löwe in to the net.
The game was up. Although the crowd tried to urge Town on, as usual, the night’s plan, already fragile through team selection, was shattered and, rather disappointingly, self inflicted. The recriminations continued for a long time as Löwe was treated for injury.
Although Town continued to frustrate the visitors, they looked increasingly fragile and devoid of threat. By this point, they seemed to be being held together by the energy and commitment of Hogg – made all the more remarkable as the aggressive midfielder was revealed to be suffering from migraine which prevented him returning for the second half.
Any residual hope hinged on restricting Chelsea to a one goal lead – though seasoned Town observers knew that we rarely come from behind, even against massively inferior teams than Chelsea – and that was extinguished just before half time as, finally, Chelsea’s exploitation of width paid off. A superb cross by Alonso was met by the unmarked Willian and it was now a question of how heavy the defeat would be, and how damaging.
The sight of Whitehead replacing Hogg hardly inspired confidence of restricting the damage Chelsea could inflict on their lacklustre opponents and confirmed Wagner had pretty much turned his thoughts to Watford. As it happened, Whitehead performed reasonably well in an uninspiring second half display which only perked up for a very brief period when, presumably, Chelsea took a breather.
Buoyed by the near certainty of victory, the Londoners played with a freedom which threatened to overwhelm their hosts and some of the slick movement and awareness of space was breathtaking.
Within 5 minutes, Chelsea trebled their lead with their best goal of the night and humiliation became a distinct possibility. Less than robust defending allowed the irrepressible Willian to set up Pedro for a clinical and easy on the eye finish past Lössl.
Suffice to say, Chelsea’s comfort reached a serene level. The utter implausibility of a comeback allowed them full license to practise one touch football in and around Town’s area which sometimes bamboozled deflated Town players and should have resulted in a much bigger winning margin.
The Pensioners’ ability to pounce on the smallest of errors by their beleaguered opponents was impressive but rather undermined by a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal which kept the score line respectable if not reflective of the huge gap in ability.
Perhaps indicative of a thus far under achieving Premier League campaign, considering the depth of talent in their squad, there was also an air of complacency about the visitors which Town briefly, and none too convincingly, exploited for a short time towards the end. Ince made a couple of promising runs, including forcing Courtois in to his first meaningful action of the night, coming out to halt his progress, Zanka fired a decent effort over the bar from range and Hadergjonaj had a decent cameo on the left in place of the harassed Löwe who struggled all night to contain Moses.
Even during this period, Chelsea had the better chances – both falling to Pedro who couldn’t hit the target with either of his efforts.
As the game petered out to a conclusion determined within 20 minutes, Chelsea were content to see the game out while Town’s forlorn efforts to reward the crowd for their support was characteristically tepid.
The referee – the second decent one in the space of a few days – took some mercy by only adding two minutes on but, out of the blue, Town grabbed a consolation when an excellent Hadergjonaj cross was excellently headed home by Depoitre (perhaps Town will take note that the Belgian could thrive on such service).
The goal put an undeserved gloss on a disappointing night. While it is difficult to compete against Chelsea’s riches and abundance of talent, there is a big difference between honourable defeat and this display. It may have been different had the first goal not been handed on a plate but this seems fanciful.
David Wagner faced some rare flack over his team selection and tactics. The latter, however, have been reasonably successful before but the margins involved preclude major errors handing control over technically superior opponents.
In his defence, Wagner has been known to play the long game before – Town could have gone to Derby and won last year but the fixture was used to practice the deep block needed in the play offs, for example – and harnessing of relatively limited resources becomes a greater burden when games are coming thicker and faster than normal.
There is a danger, however, of losing the crowd with a philosophy of pragmatism which invites defeat at the hands of hugely experienced Premier League teams. With plenty of good will in stock – and deservedly so – Wagner’s approach will be tolerated, but it is to be hoped that he and his team will make up for this capitulation in the face of overwhelming might by storming the citadels of Watford and Southampton, rather than produce more tepid football on the road.