On paper, Chelsea is still in whatever now passes for the Premier League title race.
Tuesday’s perfunctory 3-1 stroll past Huddersfield Town put the visiting Blues even with second-place Manchester United — on points, although the Red Devils retain the goal difference tie-breaker. Chelsea is in the hunt. Sort of. It remained 11 points behind an imperious Manchester City, which has yet to lose and has failed to win just one game.
Chelsea, by contrast, has already lost four times and tied twice more. The draws with Arsenal and Liverpool were certainly understandable, much like a loss to City. But the defeats to West Ham United and Crystal Palace were incomprehensible, as those are some of the worst teams in the league. The defending champions, in other words, have lost twice to relegation favorites.
“This is the fourth defeat this season in 16 games,” manager Antonio Conte said following Saturday’s disastrous 1-0 loss at West Ham. “When you have this stat, it’s impossible to think you’re in the title race. It’s impossible, my experience tells this. … We never started the race. To lose the first game against Burnley, against Crystal Palace, to lose again against West Ham — you can’t lose points in these games. It means you are not in title race.”
In spite of what the standings say, this doesn’t feel like Chelsea’s year. Just as the season before last wasn’t Chelsea’s year. That was weird. Wedged in between two seasons in which the moneyed Londoners won the Premier League in authoritative fashion, came a year in which they slumped to an unfathomable 10th place.
This season, another follow-up to a comfortable title-winning campaign, hasn’t been nearly that bad. But Chelsea hasn’t been sharp, for the most part. The very thing it excelled at in 2016-17, not spilling points against clubs outside the top-6, is what trips it up now, in 2017-18.
Yet the personnel has been largely consistent across those four seasons of ups and downs. Chelsea has added a few pieces every year, but it has done so gradually, adding depth or swapping more or less like-for-like players. The difference has seemingly been the managers.
It’s hard to say it with any certainty, and maybe the margins are just so small that the difference has been a matter of fortuitous bounces and a key touch here and there. But the unifying trend has been that Chelsea has employed managers with complicated characters.
When Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea in 2013, he set about rebuilding the team and fashioned another swaggering juggernaut by the next year. Chelsea sauntered to the title in 2015. Then came the collapse, when a silent mutiny wrecked the season and Mourinho saw no choice but to leave before Christmas. The players had seemingly gotten fed up with their Portuguese manager’s big personality, his neuroses and endless mind games.
In came Conte. And the Italian, like Mourinho, quickly found success. He won the league in his first season. But he is every bit as demanding as Mourinho. Famously, the man with the emotional theatrics by the sideline rides his players hard. Rides all the club staff hard. He expects complete devotion. And sooner or later, that begins to grate on people.
A Dutch manager, Co Adriaanse, who was a noted authoritarian himself, once declared that managers like him, the difficult sort, have a shelf life of three seasons. After that, returns diminish on account of fatigue.
At Chelsea, it seems that Mourinho and Conte wore out their respective welcomes more quickly with their players. Certainly, there are no outward signs that Conte has run his players ragged yet, although there are reports of discord with the club board. But it’s hardly inconceivable that patience is wearing thin. And the results suggest that the precision, unity and like-mindedness of last season have eroded.
That made Tuesday’s trip north an important one, following the loss to West Ham.
Conte didn’t field a natural striker. Alvaro Morata was out injured — but nevertheless riled up Chelsea fans by posting an advertisement for some water company right before the game on his Instagram account — and Michy Batshuayi is still not trusted to start a game. So Eden Hazard began up front and gave his recently promoted opponents fits.
The Terriers gladly yielded the ball to their guests, choosing to bunker and absorb pressure. But Chelsea had no real trouble forging chances. And in the 23rd minute, the Blues capitalized on a cheap Huddersfield giveaway. Tiemoue Bakayoko finished off the move with a finish that was deflected into the net by a defender but was counted as a goal for the Frenchman.
Not the first time Chelsea have benefitted from an opponent slipping… pic.twitter.com/PtH6EkkaPr
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 12, 2017
And just before half-time, Willian scored with a rare header from a Marcos Alonso cross.
Just after the break, Pedro made it three with a cleanly slotted finish.
— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) December 12, 2017
In injury time, Laurent Depoitre nodded in a consolation goal for Huddersfield with a dandy header.
The points were never in danger for the defending champions. And the relief was apparent in a giggly Hazard’s post-game comments. “We had a bad game against West Ham. When things happen like this we need to bounce back,” he said. “We did really well today. We scored three goals. I think the fans they are happy; we are happy. Now, let’s move forward.”
Willian agreed. “We have to fight until the end,” he said. “We are Chelsea; we are a big club.”
If their manager has given up, Chelsea’s players haven’t. And it’s hard to say what else they still agree on.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.