Midway through the first half at Stamford Bridge, as Burnley absorbed a ceaseless storm of Chelsea attacks, the less lopsided contest was being fought between the dotted rings of the technical area. After Ross Barkley had been barrelled to smithereens by James Tarkowski in the centre-circle, Thomas Tuchel imploded into a fit of fury, hurling his fists histrionically in the referee’s direction. But of course, Sean Dyche has not carved out a niche as the Premier League’s resident hardman, and moulded a squad in that gruff balding image, by watching on as an idle bystander.
What ensued amounted to a magnificent vintage of playground bickering as Dyche’s two assistants – turned cartoonishly rhyming henchmen – Ian Woan and Steve Stone, rotated like a pair of Rottweilers, one demanding respect through a torrent of expletives as the other smiled, leered and just about stopped short of a throat-slitting gesture in the background. Tuchel reacted with a haughty chuckle befitting the vast gulf in quality before him. But in the end, as handshakes were exchanged through gritted teeth and sideways glances, the North’s answers to a WWE wrestling tag-team prevailed with the last laugh.
Both managers insisted it was water under the bridge after full-time. “It’s nothing to do with me being hard. I’m not hard. I’m a normal bloke,” Dyche reasoned afterwards a little, well, hardily. But if the feud was quickly forgotten, the sour taste will linger long into the international break for Tuchel. Up until this weekend, Chelsea’s assault on the Premier League title had taken on an ominous and unremitting rhythm, grinding out results on offbeat days and steamrolling opponents like old roadkill when in full pomp. And while no season can ever be devoid of stumbling blocks, these were the squandered points that could prove costliest come next April; the ground surrendered through inconsistency rather than genuine strife.
At the same time, the club have also navigated a period of wretched luck, with Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic all out, even if the sheer depth of Chelsea’s squad can seal most cracks. They had 25 shots in all against Burnley, seven of which arrived in the opening 15-minute onslaught, but Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ross Barkley and Kai Havertz were as wasteful as Nick Pope was inspired in goal. That bullish start slowly ebbed into a period of unimaginative frustration, and then outright franticness when forced to chase a late winner.
It’s a theme that was prevalent at the start of Tuchel’s tenure and simmered again a few weeks ago against a resilient Brentford, when Chelsea became somewhat guilty of sinking into repetitive patterns. But if the international break provides the chance to take considered stock, there have in truth been precious few causes of alarm to their title credentials. Had they found the cutting edge their efforts warranted against Burnley, a ninth victory in eleven league matches would have equalled a run of form from which the club has never failed to lift the trophy. There has been little to suggest their performances aren’t sustainable or that Saturday’s draw wasn’t closer to an aberration. By way of Tuchel’s crazed antics on the touchline, it’s easy to picture quite how much higher the enigmatic head coach believes the bar can still be raised, too.
“There is something going wrong in training,” he said sarcastically on Saturday. “We will now change everything. It is unacceptable the points we have, the way we play — it cannot stay like this. We have to turn things around and question everything. This is what we will do for the next two weeks.
“Seriously, it is the same group that scored seven [against Norwich] and four [against Malmo]. Today we had so many chances and expected goals, touches in the box that we could have won easily.”
For Manchester City and Liverpool, though, this brief stumble can still act as a source of inspiration. A gap that might have stretched as wide as eight points this weekend remains at just three, even if Jurgen Klopp’s side became mired in problems of their own. For now, Chelsea reign over the statistics of form with assurance, but that cannot account for the others’ recent Premier League-winning experience. Nothing is clean cut in a marathon of unknowns, except for the fact that eleven games in, Chelsea have endured bad luck and now a blunder, and still have their noses out in front.