LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Chelsea’s 1-1 Premier League draw vs. Huddersfield Town at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
1. Huddersfield secure survival at Stamford Bridge
A belated revival had allowed Chelsea to believe they might salvage a season of setbacks with Champions League qualification, but they found themselves peripheral characters in Huddersfield’s fairy-tale survival script at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s men began with purpose and a degree of fluency despite Conte’s decision to make six changes from the team that beat Liverpool, but the visitors’ obstinate game plan soon sent the match into a tedious drift, punctuated only by the frequent fury of Stamford Bridge at Lee Mason’s officiating.
Alvaro Morata created the only chance of the first half for himself, letting an N’Golo Kante pass run across his body and rounding Jonas Lossl, only to find that he had taken himself too wide to score. Soon after the break, an unmarked Antonio Rudiger headed over from Willian’s free kick, and exasperation grew.
It was replaced by desperation when, in the 50th minute, the giant Laurent Depoitre raced onto Aaron Mooy’s lofted pass, bounced Willy Caballero to the ground and tapped the rebound into an empty net. Thibaut Courtois, sitting out with a minor back injury, might have got to the ball quicker.
Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard, rested from the start, soon entered the fray, but Chelsea’s equaliser was not borne of design; Zanka’s attempted clearance from his own penalty area struck Marcos Alonso in the face and went in.
Chelsea poured forward, abandoning all formation and composure in search of a winner. They came closest in an almighty penalty-box scramble in which Andreas Christensen’s header was tipped onto the post and a seemingly never-ending wave of blue shots found only heroic red bodies.
The noise grew louder, Huddersfield stood firm and a huge roar from the away end greeted Mason’s whistle confirming the Terriers’ Premier League survival. Only a Brighton win at Anfield can rescue Chelsea’s hopes of Champions League football now, and you sense not even Conte thinks his team would deserve such fortune.
2. Scoring struggles may doom Chelsea
Cesc Fabregas, showing the same piercing accuracy that has served Chelsea so well on the pitch in the past, pulled no punches this week in pinpointing the reason why his team are a shadow of last season’s champions.
“We have had many, many chances to score in games — to win games that we didn’t win, games that we drew,” he told Sky Sports. “We could have won more if we had been more clinical and that’s been our weakest point this season.”
Given that he praised January arrival Giroud in the same interview, the criticism of Morata was clear. Chelsea’s club-record signing has comprehensively failed to replace even the majority of Diego Costa’s production this season, netting just three times in 2018 — and he rarely threatened a fourth against Huddersfield.
But the problem is broader than Morata. Chelsea as a team have scored 23 Premier League goals fewer than last season’s title winners and their top scorer, Hazard (12 goals), is on course for the second-worst return of his career at Stamford Bridge.
They have drawn or lost against Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Watford, Bournemouth and now Huddersfield despite registering more shots.
In addition to individuals underperforming, there is a sense that Conte’s 3-4-3 system has been worked out by many opponents, and regardless of whether the Italian leaves this summer, Chelsea must remodel the attacking half of their team from the ground up on and off the pitch.
3. Huddersfield show organisation trumps talent in survival
David Wagner was probably hoping that Liverpool might put an end to Chelsea’s top-four hopes before it was his team’s turn to visit Stamford Bridge, but his road to success was laid out in Sunday’s goalless draw against Manchester City.
Huddersfield set up here like a team who knew another 0-0 would be a superb result. Their deep and compact defence eventually took the sting out of Chelsea’s early urgency, and Lossl took his time with every goal kick. Depoitre’s rebound strike was the result of their first two shots on or off target.
It was only their 28th goal of a season that has somehow yielded nine wins. Steve Mounie, their top scorer with seven, sat on the bench at Stamford Bridge.
Wagner was widely regarded as Huddersfield’s best asset going into the campaign and he has squeezed every drop of commitment and quality from one of the most limited squads in the division. Stoke City and West Brom have both paid the ultimate price for achieving less with more, and Swansea City look likely to suffer the same fate.
Only time will tell whether Huddersfield are sustainable in the top flight. One suspects that their Premier League future is tied to Wagner, who, every bit as much as Sean Dyche at Burnley or Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, is proving that individual ability isn’t the determining factor outside of the top six.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.