Not that it takes much to for me to be impressed, as a Chelsea supporter, right now; all the same, eight games in to the second Guus Hiddink era, I think it’s hard not to be impressed with the turnaround that the Dutchman has slowly, but surely been beginning to oversee. Over eight games it’s been interesting, as well as reassuring to observe the calmness, and the thoughtfulness with which our interim coach has implemented a series of very simple, yet extremely effective tweaks, to a system which was so routinely failing just a few weeks ago.
I won’t be making the same mistake I made back in October, of imagining this afternoon’s league win over Arsenal to be evidence of the end of our struggles. Instead, to borrow a phrase from Guus, I think it should be seen as the latest in a line of small steps (though the biggest step yet) made in the right direction since he took over from Mourinho just over one month ago.
These are the three key changes/tactical adjustments made to the side which I think have been most important, in making the first eight matches of Hiddink’s spell, our most successful run of the season thus far…
1. Having a settled back four
The first half of the season was I think the worse Chelsea have defended as a side for almost a decade and a half. This was mostly owing of course to the horrible individual form of our defenders, but there are at least two changes which Hiddink has made which has helped us to look more secure at the back this last couple of weeks. The first has been to reduce the responsibility of Branislav Ivanovic to provide width on the right hand side. The Serbian defends much better when he is allowed to maintain a deeper average position throughout the game. He’s also better going forwards when given more freedom to pick his moments. His cross for Diego Costa today was his third assist in four games.
It’s been good also to see Hiddink stick with a back four, which I think, personally, is by far our best combination. The confidence he has shown in Kurt Zouma to make the Frenchman a regular starter in the side has already been vindicated, with a string of performances not only indicative of a bright, promising young talent, but of a talent possessed a very few other centre halves on the continent right now. At this rate, I think Kurt will be talked about soon, not only as one of the best defenders, but one of the best players in all of Europe.
2. John Obi Mikel – Back in the side
Though I certainly do not, and probably never will consider the Nigerian to be a long term solution to any problem the club is currently facing, the re-introduction of Mikel back into the first team has admittedly been a smart move by Hiddink. I think his assessment of the midfielder given a few weeks ago was generous to say the least – his frustrating weaknesses being well documented and extremely familiar to Chelsea fans; he has regardless been responsible for bringing an amount of calmness and control to our performances, which we were desperately lacking, for most of 2015.
When you take a look at the current top four also, and at the defensive midfielders who are currently being played every week, (Flamini, Kante, Fernando, Dier) I don’t think it’s as if any of those players are particularly better than Mikel. Sometimes, in the absence of a sufficient number of quality midfield players to select, just having someone, anyone, to play that holding role, can be hugely beneficial to the team as a whole.
I also think that the ability of Mikel to form a solid partnership with Nemanja Matic in the coming weeks will be crucial to us having a chance of competing against the top sides in the Champions League. We will have to be at our very best defensively to have any hope of progressing in the knockout rounds, and the collective as well as the individual performances of our two senior defensive midfielders are certain to be decisive.
3. Diego Costa – Back in form
By far the biggest effect which Hiddink has seemed to have on any individual player has been on the Spanish centre forward, who has scored six goals in six starts, since his first appearance under the Dutchman last month. For the first time in too long he is beginning to make headlines for purely positive reasons, as with each week we’re beginning to see less of his ‘antics’ and more of his incredible technical quality.
His goal against Everton was my favourite of his goals that he’s scored for a long time. Everything good about Costa as a player could be seen in that goal. The intelligence of his instincts to make the run in behind Jagielka, his power the brush the defender aside and his technical skill to take the ball around the onrushing goalkeeper, were all of the highest level.
Thankfully the injury which saw him stretchered off today is apparently not too serious. Especially with Remy and Falcao seemingly already decided on a move away from the club, having the Spaniard available to carry on this form is essential to maintaining this good run.