Monday, January 04, 2016

Over the top? We haven't yet started!


"Do not go over the top". A typically Dutch thing to say. They are a pragmatic people, immune to hyperbole and the superlative. Thus, Guus Hiddink's first words yesterday when pressed for comment on Chelsea's emphatic 3-0 win over Crystal Palace were predictably understated.

Under the veteran Dutchman, Chelsea have now played three matches. Two were draws, and not particularly convincing of an immediate return to good times. But, then, they were both Christmas fixtures, one against a feisty, high-flying Watford on Boxing Day, the second, a lethargic away game against a maudlin Manchester United 48 hours later.

However, Guus, forgive us for going a little nuts after Chelsea's performance at Selhurst Park. Because it was everything the last two weren't. Actually, it was everything the last four months haven't been.

This could have been another banana skin for Chelsea: Alan Pardew's Palace - and his credentials for possible greatness elsewhere - are not contending for a European place by fluke. And given that, on the morning of the fixture, this was seventh playing 16th, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Chelsea to have run into trouble at their south London rivals, a team which has given them plenty of resistance over the years in league and cup ties.

Instead, we had a Chelsea revived, restored even. Diego Costa and, for the most part, Cesc Fàbregas, were once again working as a machine, with the combustible forward applying the discipline to remain where he could (and did) score, while the ever-industrious Willian - easily the only consistent performer over the last four dark months - along with Oscar giving the leggy Palace defenders too much to contend with.

Defensively, Chelsea were back to their rock solid-best, the only notable weakness being Branislav Ivanovic's yard-short pace. Most surprising was John Obi Mikel. For the ten years he has been with the club, Mikel has been a frustration. Once bizarrely hailed as the 'new Makelele', he has scuffed and bruised his way through successive managers without fully justifying why he remained such a club fixture. But yesterday he was a different player, replacing Matic in the holding position with a solidity and class rarely demonstrated before. And only once coming close to a booking, a rarity for Mikel in itself.

This was the Chelsea of the first half last season - imperious in attack, resolute in defence. It is understandable, then, for Hiddink to call for modesty. One game does never a recovery make. But what has been noticeable over these last three games of the Dutchman's "interim" tenure is that Chelsea's players have applied themselves once more with confidence and swagger. Whatever it was under José Mourinho that inhibited their creative movement appears to have disappeared.

Strange, then, that so many commentators are talking about the players' mindset. Going back over consecutive posts since August 8, this blog had been saying that Chelsea's problems were psychological, not physical. Now, players that had looked out of ideas since pre-season have, in just 270 minutes of football done much to restore their professional reputations, reputations that had been battered by a combination of their own mental weakness and, clearly, the exulted regime they had laboured under.

It would be fair to say that Chelsea's malaise since the summer has been a case of six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the other. Mourinho can't be blamed for all that saw them plummet so far so quickly - the players and indeed the club itself must shoulder equal amounts of responsibility for that. But the spoonful of medicine that Hiddink's interim management is meant to apply, yet again, does look like it is working.

Positivity is Hiddink's key. Although it may not have worked for him in his most recent roles - since his last interim period in charge at Chelsea, he had a miserable time in charge of Russia and Turkey, and left the Dutch national side in the summer when it was clear they wouldn't qualify for Euro 2016 - it's clear how different his philosophy is to Mourinho's glowering and increasingly paranoid mood.

"I don’t like to see a team drop back very far and seek false security," Hiddink said yesterday, in stark contrast to the 'defend at all costs' approach of his predecessor. Tellingly, he added: "They should look forward and get the ball as soon as possible because when they do, they know how to play." That may sound a tad laissez-faire, but it perhaps indicates a belief that his players don't need a meticulous playbook methodology, but a guiding belief in themselves.

But, indeed as the avuncular Dutchman says, it would be wrong to get too carried away. Next weekend the Blues face Scunthorpe in the FA Cup, a third-round tie, but one with the still-fresh scars of their fourth-round exit last season to Bradford City, a result that left Mourinho "ashamed" and "embarassed". As it should have been for the whole team. After that, it will be a midweek Premier League visit from West Brom, followed by meetings with Everton, Arsenal, Watford and Manchester United. A relentlessly wet afternoon in Croydon may have provided Hiddink's players with a certain mental challenge - which they impressively overcame - but there are clearly many more hills to climb yet. But as starts go, yesterday's will do very nicely.

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