This was the moment when Romelu Lukaku’s ankle injury caught up with Chelsea. They were crying out for a ruthless finisher for much of a ridiculously one-sided contest and, although Thomas Tuchel complained about misfortune after seeing Matej Vydra come off the bench to earn a point for Burnley, deep down he will know the blame lay squarely with Chelsea’s misfiring forwards for failing to step up in Lukaku’s absence.
The statistics verged on the comedic. Chelsea finished with 25 shots, seven of them coming inside the first 15 minutes alone, but only one of them went past Nick Pope. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ross Barkley and Kai Havertz were all guilty of some poor misses and the longer it stayed 1-0, the likelier it became that Sean Dyche’s pugnacious team would find a way to make the league leaders regret their profligacy.
Chelsea, their lead over Manchester City now only three points, should never have found themselves vulnerable to that late sucker punch from Vydra. It should have been a rout once Havertz had put the European champions ahead with his first league goal since August; instead it ended up as a reminder of why Lukaku was bought for £97.5m from Inter in the summer.
The Belgian surely would have finished Burnley off before half-time and, while Chelsea have mostly coped well without the striker since losing him to an ankle injury suffered against Malmö last month, they will be glad to have him available again after the international break.
“That’s football,” Tuchel said. “They were lucky but that’s why everyone loves the game because it’s possible to win matches like this. It can happen, sometimes unfortunately like today, that somebody else steals some points and is lucky.”
Tuchel was correct to point out that Burnley, who are two points below 17th-placed Leeds, were fortunate. Equally Chelsea, who were also without the hamstrung Timo Werner in attack, were not mature enough.
The hosts had threatened to overwhelm Burnley from the start, the tone set by Hudson-Odoi ripping through on the right to test Pope early on, but they could not make their superiority count. Andreas Christensen headed wide from a Hudson-Odoi cross, Pope denied Havertz and Barkley fired wide. The tension grew as the half wore on, Burnley’s full-blooded approach to defending leading to a few spiky exchanges between the two benches.
The main flashpoint came when Tuchel erupted at Andre Marriner’s refusal to award Chelsea a free-kick after a collision between Barkley and James Tarkowski. Tuchel was in full Basil Fawlty mode, leaping around his technical area, his wiry figure contorted with rage, although it did feel as if he was taking a risk by engaging in a running back-and-forth with Dyche.
“It was just two staffs trying to win a football match,” Burnley’s manager said. “It’s nothing to do with me being hard. I’m not hard. I’m a normal bloke.”
Chelsea needed to be more composed. They kept probing, Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté rotating the ball in midfield, Burnley escaping again when Pope denied Reece James. Then Havertz, deputising for Lukaku, cut out a wayward pass and set off on a powerful run down the left, only for his momentum to send him hurtling over the advertising hoardings behind the goal and into the crowd.
There were a few anxious moments before Havertz emerged, looking a little groggy after receiving some treatment, but the blow seemed to do him some good. He returned ready for battle and soon had a reward for his endeavour, giving Chelsea the lead after creeping between Ben Mee and Tarkowski before meeting James’s beautiful cross with a header.
Chelsea were desperate to build on Havertz’s fourth goal of the season. Thiago Silva nodded against the woodwork at the start of the second half and Havertz was wasteful after fine work from Hudson-Odoi on the right, firing over from close range.
More chances came and went. Hudson-Odoi, who was not consistent enough in the final third, dribbled through before being denied by Pope. Jorginho’s goal‑bound drive was headed away. Barkley, who toiled after being handed his first league start of the season, smashed a shot over and immediately made way for Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The repeated let-offs gave Burnley confidence. For once Chelsea’s forwards could not count on their defence to bail them out. The visitors pushed forward and almost equalised when the substitute Jay Rodriguez headed just wide at the near post. The warning signs were clear and Chelsea paid the price when Ashley Westwood crossed, Rodriguez headed on and Vydra lifted the loose ball over Édouard Mendy with 11 minutes left.
Tuchel could not believe what he was watching. He responded by throwing on Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount, but Chelsea had completely lost their way as an attacking force. How they missed Lukaku.