Conte must rest Hazard, Kante as Chelsea enter busy holiday schedule
Chelsea's 3-0 stroll against Huddersfield had its roots in several places. A chastening defeat a few days earlier against London rivals West Ham was one; callow and technically inferior opponents were another. A freshened-up starting 11 was also fundamental to victory.
Antonio Conte is not a huge fan of making unnecessary adjustments to his preferred lineup, yet for Huddersfield he made four changes from the one that lost 1-0 at the London Stadium. Admittedly, one was enforced with Alvaro Morata ruled out through injury, though it was Conte's sole decision to give the night off to club captain Gary Cahill, creative maestro Cesc Fabregas and workhorse wing-back Davide Zappacosta.
Part of his thinking will have been to change to a more positive, attacking system by swapping an attacker for a midfielder while adding greater width to Chelsea's play. The tactics certainly helped but equally the sheer dynamism and enthusiasm offered by Willian and Pedro were key to unnerving the newly promoted side.
Having seen his team labour through the opening 45 minutes in east London, Conte might have wished he had made similar selections against West Ham. Instead, he had made just the solitary change -- Marcos Alonso in for Victor Moses -- from the team that had fought a surprisingly intense Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid just four days earlier. Perhaps having seen the error of his ways, the manager amended his approach.
Much has been made about Chelsea's relatively thin resources in their playing staff and its inadequacy when targeting major silverware, largely by Conte himself. The squad is certainly two or three players short of being in a position where it can genuinely be considered strong and compare favourably with the biggest spenders of recent seasons, Manchester City and Manchester United.
And yet a club that can call upon underused stars such as Willian and Pedro cannot be doing too badly. There is also Michy Batshuayi, a striker not trusted by Conte and viewed with suspicion by many supporters, though one who still has seven goals to his name in all competitions this season despite his rare outings.
Conte also has a raft of central defenders at his disposal and has chosen to regularly play around with the components of his back three with Cahill, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen all featuring several times. There was even a late cameo in that position from 17-year-old Ethan Ampadu at the John Smith's Stadium to add yet another alternative.
It is difficult to assess which is the best permutation out of all the defensive options available to the manager and that is probably the point. Conte doesn't tend to tinker without due cause, suggesting that he is still searching for his perfect defensive cocktail.
Conte's perceived stubbornness over his primary starting 11 was born last season out of a 13-game winning streak, a time where he found a successful formula and decided not to mess with it. This season he has had similarly valid arguments in that injuries have dictated some of his selections. The recent availability of Danny Drinkwater has been a boon in that respect.
There are, however, two players that he finds almost impossible to rotate and for good reason. They happen to be the two most important players at the club. N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard are simply irreplaceable.
The entire balance of the team is founded on Kante's energy and anticipation; the attacking focus of the club is centred around the gloriously gifted Hazard. Both could walk into any team in world football and as such their importance to Chelsea is fundamental. Conte tried to give Hazard a rest against Swansea, perhaps with Atletico in mind, but still couldn't resist introducing him for the last nine minutes even though his team were winning 1-0 and in very little danger of conceding.
Kante's value to the team was underscored while he was out injured. It was a period that coincided with defeat at Crystal Palace, the concession of a two-goal lead against Roma and a defensive calamity against Watford where only some glaring misses by Richarlison allowed Chelsea to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 win. Having seen how hollow his side is without the French phenomenon, Conte must shudder at the thought of leaving him out. But, at some point, leave him out he surely must. The prospect of facing Barcelona in the Champions league without Kante does not bear thinking about.
Having reaped the benefit of shuffling the pack against Huddersfield and being in the middle of a glut of games that doesn't ease until January, Conte will surely do more of the same in the next few weeks. It will be delicate operation to get the balance right but it will be essential if his team is not going to burn out just as they enter the business end of the season.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.