Opening day shellackings can be portentous.
The idealistic but flawed Mark Robins was forced to accept he was out of his depth when his baffling team selection was systematically deconstructed by Bournemouth a few short years ago, ushering in Chris Powell’s dynamic era of narrowly avoiding the drop.
Brian Horton’s days were numbered after an extremely flattering 2-0 defeat at Oxford where he was seen berating any full back who got within 10 yards of the opponents half and Neil Warnock’s first season started with a 3-0 reverse against Reading, and considerable doubt about his suitability among fans for a long while.
This defeat, against a high quality Chelsea side who belied pre season turmoil, is not one of them.
Utilising a side of last year’s team bar the goalkeeper, Wagner’s pragmatism was on full display, and his insistence that new players be introduced when he feels they are ready was only strengthened by the nature of the opposition.
With Chelsea suffering from an interrupted pre-season, uncertainty over major players and a manager introducing a new philosophy in and amongst the disruption, it was reasonable to assume that their approach would be less clinical, potentially confused and vulnerable.
Rather admirably, the new man at Stamford Bridge – who appears significantly more likeable than some of his predecessors – has risen above the underlying problems and an opener against tricky but clearly inferior opponents provided a good opportunity to inject some much needed positivity, and he took that chance.
For half an hour, Wagner’s hope that the miracles at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge could be repeated with an identical formation and, largely, the same personnel, seemed to be justified, and it was being achieved a little more expansively.
Chelsea’s comfort in possession, finding space between the lines and calm defending was all in evidence – Kanté, Willian and Pedro shone on the ball, even if Town’s five man midfield made life uncomfortable for them at times – but debutant Hamer wasn’t being troubled unduly and the home side were able to apply periods of pressure in a first half which was encouraging despite a deficit which was not fully deserved.
Pritchard – sacrificed at half time for either injury or tactics – showed his quality on several occasions and will be key against the lesser sides. How he was penalised when Luiz climbed all over him in the area can only be answered by the generally awful referee, but you suspect such a challenge in the other area would have seen a different decision.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what was a facsimile of last season’s team were unable to create chances and decent approach play floundered in the final third – the fear of Chelsea’s ability to punish any disruption of the defensive shape inhibits the midfield three getting far enough forward to any real effect.
As always with Town, the first goal is crucial, and Chelsea delivered the blow on 34 minutes with a move which was irritatingly banal. Missed tackles in central areas allowed Willian too much room down the left and the Brazilian picked out an unmarked Kanté (Billing was asleep) who shinned a bobble past Hamer to establish a lead they were unlikely to relinquish.
Three minutes later, however, a corner flicked on by Zanka was met by Mounié for what looked a certain equaliser but his header bounced off the post and the game was up.
It was probably a bigger turning point than the opening goal – against the highest opposition, Town must take the rare opportunities available to them.
Just before half time, the bulked up Barkley flicked a ball from Jorginho in to the path of Alonso. Schindler’s challenge was fractionally late and upended the Spaniard. In real time, the tackle looked fair but not on closer inspection. Jorginho left Hamer on his backside with deception and trickled the penalty in to seal victory.
The least said about the second half, the better. Chelsea assumed complete control as they took advantage of the visibly deflated Terriers. Wagner’s introduction of Depoitre to accompany Mounié worked as well it always does and without Pritchard’s invention, Town resorted to basic, fruitless strategies easily contained by the now hyper confident visitors.
With Chelsea slipping down a gear and having life far too easy, the second period was offering very little entertainment, as foregone conclusions tend to do.
The chasm between the resources of the two clubs was brutally emphasised with 15 minutes to go as the visitors introduced one of the world’s best players in to the game; replacing one of the world’s best players.
Hazard’s future remains uncertain and perhaps unsettling, yet he could have been mistaken for an 18 year old prodigy desperate to make an impression as he tormented the tired, demoralised hosts.
Within minutes, the Belgian was skipping past three attempted tackles before laying a ball through to Pedro to stick the dagger in with a clinical finish.
A reasonably encouraging first half hour, followed by a comprehensive undressing for the rest of the game could be dispiriting, but the familiarity of the team sheet – in hindsight – points to Wagner’s pragmatism against the top six while he saves his new weapons for more likely pursuits of points.
Diakhaby was given a run out for 20 minutes, replacing Löwe, but it seems unlikely that he will be trusted to provide the necessary defensive cover at the Etihad next Sunday where the same tactics will undoubtedly be used again.
Hamer’s distribution, which ranged from going far too long to the downright dangerous will see the return of Lössl now that the Dane has had a further week back.
The positives of the performance are a little difficult to find, but Kongolo again looked a fantastic addition. His challenge on Willian in the first half was reminiscent of the one he made on Sané to secure a point at City and he exudes a defensive authority which will be a major factor in Town’s fortunes. Hopefully, a rusty Zanka will improve next Sunday to make the back three idea a little more effective against even higher quality opposition.
Overall, though, Town’s supporters are going to have to be patient – there is a very slim chance that we can defy the odds next week, so, realistically, the season starts against Cardiff. A suspicion lingers that Wagner is treating the first two games as an extension of pre-season, minus the multiple substitutions; a suspicion perhaps confirmed by his holding back of the new talent. Given his record of achieving his objectives over the medium term, who is to argue?
Patience and faith needed.