Finding problems in Chelsea’s squad this season is like looking for a haystack in a small pile of needles. Poor passing, poor tackling, fewer goals, fatigue and a dreary demeanour. And that’s just Cesc Fabregas.
Yet with Jose Mourinho leaving Chelsea one point outside the bottom three, there is an argument that Guus Hiddink has a no-lose situation. If rumours are true, simply not being Mourinho instigated a positive reaction, and it would have been difficult to make performances any worse. The on-field proof for that fact is apparent: Chelsea are one of only two Premier League clubs unbeaten in their last four matches.
Chelsea are not yet as fluid in attack nor defensively sound as last season, but they’re getting there. In three games Hiddink is yet to taste defeat, and Chelsea have now kept consecutive league clean sheets for only the second time since April 2015.
At Selhurst Park they were somewhere close to brilliant, in total control from the moment they took the lead. “That’s why we’re champions,” the Chelsea supporters chanted, at least nodding in the direction of irony. The second-half olés did the same.
Chelsea’s opening goal will have made their former manager wince on at least three occasions.Fabregas played the type of through ball that was last season’s norm but this season’s endangered species, Diego Costa feigned a shot and calmly cut it back, Oscar finished with ease. It was the Brazilian’s second goal in four games since Mourinho’s departure after only one in 14 beforehand, and Costa’s first assist in 20 Chelsea matches.
“If that was Mesut Özil or David Silva we’d be raving about it,” said Jamie Carragher of the assist. Rave away Jamie, don’t let us stop you. Costa was back to his old self but without the histrionics. He even ran for the ball and created space in the penalty area. Praise be!
However, despite the improvement in Chelsea’s front four (other than injured Eden Hazard), it is behind them that there has been the most notable change for good.
“My teams are always well organised,” said Hiddink before the match. “If you have quality in the team, we try to organise the team defensively very well, so that everybody knows what to do. Everybody has to defend, and have the capacity to build up and attack. We have those players but it has to be based on a very well organised foundation.”
Hiddink’s safety-first approach comes as no surprise. Before this weekend, only five Premier League teams had conceded more goals and six faced more shots on target. During his last spell at Chelsea, Hiddink’s team conceded nine goals in 13 league games, keeping seven clean sheets. This is the Dutchman’s modus operandi.
With that in mind, it was a shock to see Nemanja Matic left on the Chelsea bench for an away league game for the first time since rejoining Chelsea. The Serbian is no longer an auto-Matic selection.
More surprising still was John Obi Mikel retaining his place in central midfield. The Nigerian enjoyed consecutive league starts for first time since December 2014.
‘Enjoyed’ is the operative word. Fabregas’ performance may have caught the eye in contrast with his recent average, but his attacking endeavour was afforded by Mikel’s excellence alongside him.
Mikel had a higher passing accuracy (95.2%) than any other player on the pitch, and no other starter – bar Hazard -lost possession on fewer occasions. His positional discipline (shown above), occasionally his downfall, was exceptional. So often was he in position to thwart Palace’s obvious threat on the counter attack.
See too Mikel’s role in Chelsea’s first goal, spinning away from an opposition midfielder before feeding Fabregas. So much of his important work in that defensive midfield role is overlooked, yet his flaws never are. This was the display we’ve been waiting for from Matic.
“Look at the spine of that team – Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel,” said Hiddink on Saturday of his 2008/09 squad. “The centre was strong. It was a different team with different personalities.” Before the victory over Palace, namechecking Mikel in that company appeared highly generous. Now it seems wholly appropriate.
“He played very well but also in the previous game,” said Hiddink of Mikel after the game. “He’s the ideal player in my option to bring balance to the team. If the team is not willing to defend well, or hasn’t got the right balance, then you’ll concede a lot of goals. I think John Obi can be one of the key figures in bringing back that balance.”
Mikel’s redemption at Chelsea might seem unlikely, but this dire campaign and Hiddink’s arrival wipes the slate clean; nobody gets into this team on reputation. If Mikel continues to play at this level, he will be impossible to shift. Surprise starter has become surprise role model.