A bit like the old Chelsea

Published : Feb 28, 2009 00:00 IST

The win at Villa Park served to exorcise some of the trauma of the recent past and settled Hiddink into his part-time role at the club, writes Dominic Fifield.

There was nothing revelatory in Chelsea’s victory. If anything, Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge conjured a sense of regression, though it was a step back in time that was welcomed with glee by those in the directors’ box and the players out on the pitch. “That was a little bit like the old Chelsea,” said Frank Lampard. “You could see the old spirit and the way we used to play.” This was a case of one step back, three points forward.

There is reassurance to be had, for now, in a reversion to type. The win at Villa Park in a decade served to exorcise some of the trauma of the recent past and settled Hiddink into his part-time role at the club. The Russian manager has no time to muse over how to eke new skills from his club squad, so there is logic in his decision merely to re-familiarise Chelsea with what they do best: score early, stifle aplenty, entertain later.

Lampard sounded as if he was harping back to long-distant days, but this was really little more than the application of Jose Mourinho’s simple principles, based less on romantic notions of free-spirited attack and more on solidity, while tapping into the considerable quality within this squad that can eclipse all-comers. The club’s dalliance with Brazilian flamboyance has clearly met an abrupt end. It ceased when the axe severed Luiz Felipe Scolari’s connections with Stamford Bridge though, in truth, it had probably been doomed as an approach from the moment Manchester City plucked Robinho from Chelsea’s clutches just as the summer transfer window closed. The full-backs Scolari encouraged to go forward and provide attacking width were more disciplined here, as if chained to defensive duties and wary of venturing too far up field.

“Sometimes you must restrict players to what their job is on the pitch,” said Hiddink. “Sometimes they overdo it or overact. When you tell them their basic jobs and focus on their qualities you are making one step ahead. We focused on everyone’s job as an individual, but also as a team.” The sight of Didier Drogba, revived from a season of slumber, bulldozing opponents off the ball was another throwback to happier times. The Ivorian’s strike partner, Nicolas Anelka, scored the early goal, supplied wonderfully by Lampard’s turn away from Curtis Davies and Stilian Petrov and pass. Chelsea might have scored more before the interval, and again in the game’s dying embers, but they were awkward and imposing throughout.

“Scoring early and closing out the game was like being back to our old selves,” said Lampard. “We used to do that a lot and get on people’s nerves by getting 1-0s away from home. That’s something we’ve lost a little bit this season, so it was nice to have that back. The manager certainly has an aura about him that all the top managers have. The best coaches I’ve worked with have a sense of fear about them, that when they say the smallest thing it makes you realise certain things on the pitch. He’s got that. He may not say too much, but he says it when it matters. He’s too wise simply to attack all the time. He wants to play a good type of football, but has worked very hard on our defence and organisation as well. He’s certainly not going to play with just goals in mind. He wants us to win games, so we made a deliberate attempt to press Villa back. We were well organised, higher up the pitch and wanted to move the ball a bit quicker than we had been.”

That Mourinho’s Chelsea won two Premier League titles, two Carling Cups and an FA Cup playing precisely that way proves these players can make such an approach mightily effective, though it will be intriguing to see how long Roman Abramovich remains enamoured with the spectacle. Since Mourinho’s departure in September 2007, two Chelsea managers — Avram Grant and Scolari — have been required to ally results with a certain pizzazz on the pitch.

Hiddink will not be under that obligation but if his reign is really only to prove a 15-week interlude in this club’s progression, the sense of his being a stop-gap may prove unsettling. It is as if the hierarchy has swept the old problem, to find an entertaining style that can compete with Manchester United, under the carpet. Hiddink may suggest a successor, a Frank Rijkaard or a Roberto Mancini, but whoever is in charge when the club go on a tour of the United States in July will face familiar problems. Not that anyone has time to consider the long-term future at the moment.

“We can’t say, ‘That’s it, we’re back,’” said Lampard. “If we want to push for the title, or even make sure we stay in the top four, we have to put a long run of wins together and show the same attitude we did at Villa every week. This has to be just the start.”

The Results

February 22: Fulham 2 (Zamora 61, Johnson 72) bt West Brom 0. Half-time: 0-0; Liverpool 1 (Kuyt 78) drew with Manchester City 1 (Arbeloa o.g.-51). Half-time: 0-0; Newcastle 0 drew with Everton 0.

February 21: Arsenal 0 drew with Sunderland 0; Aston Villa 0 lost to Chelsea 1 (Anelka 19). Half-time: 0-1; Bolton 2 (Taylor 10, Davies 11) bt West Ham 1 (Parker 66). Half-time: 2-0; Manchester United 2 (Rooney 23, Ronaldo 60) bt Blackburn 1 (Santa Cruz 32). Half-time: 1-1; Middlesbrough 0 drew with Wigan 0; Stoke 2 (Beattie pen-78 & 80) drew with Portsmouth 2 (Kranjcar 75, Shawcross o.g.-90+2). Half-time: 0-0.

February 18: Manchester United 3 (Scholes 12, Berbatov 30, Rooney 63) bt Fulham 0. Half-time: 2-0.

February 14: Portsmouth 2 (Johnson 70, Hreidarsson 75) bt Manchester City 0. Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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