And so Chelsea’s latest regime change was the revival of an old one. The Jose Mourinho regime. Avram Grant claimed to have changed it – but did not – and Luiz Felipe Scolari tried, for a while, to get them to be a kind of Blue Brazil (and we’re not talking about Cowdenbeath here).
Guus Hiddink, as could be expected, took a look at what he inherited and decided that the strengths were clear. With one extra ingredient. Him. As Frank Lampard put it: “He’s got a certain aura about him that all the top coaches and 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.”
So the fear is back. And it is the fear of displeasing the man on the touch-line, not of facing the opponent on the field that has crept in at Chelsea in recent months. Of going one goal ahead and knowing they dare not lose that advantage.
While Grant became a figure of fun in the dressing room and Scolari’s happy days imploded as he tried to be everyone’s friend, with the inevitable consequences, Hiddink has decided to get back to basics.
It was clear the riot act had been read when the manager himself explained that: “The dream is of every kid is to play professional football, and then it is the dream to play for a big club. And once you get there, sometimes you must reflect on why you are there. And have an attitude of delivering always for the club and the team.
“If there was change you must think of the past. Sometimes with players you must restrict them with what their job is on the pitch. Off the pitch I talk about how we cope with each other. But on the pitch sometimes players are overdoing or overacting. And 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.”
It could not be clearer. The players have not delivered, have started to believe their own hype, have tried to do too much and have not played as a team. There have been divisions and they need to get on with their own jobs – and be restricted, disciplined. So when Jose Bosingwa bombs forward, when he is not needed to join the attack, Hiddink will wave him back, while Ricardo Quaresma sat among the substitutes. No wingers required. And if neither Nicolas Anelka (left) nor Didier Drogba believe defending is their first requirement, they will be put straight.
Both were excellent here. And that is where a subtle distinction, which marks out Hiddink’s quality, comes in. He changed, ever so slightly, the formation. Four in defence, three tight in midfield but, up front, Anelka was encouraged to take a free role. Given that the biggest criticism of him since he arrived at Chelsea has been his failure to have an impact on big games, his lack of movement and team play, there was a real affirmation of what he can do. His goal, wonderfully constructed by Lampard was, as the midfielder put it, “sublime”.
“This was a little bit of the old Chelsea, the old spirit and the way we used to play,” Lampard said. “Scoring early and closing out the game was like being back to our old selves. 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 as we’ve drawn too many games in a frustrating manner.”
On Saturday the frustration belonged to Villa. Three games in six days and, with a season that started last July, they looked exhausted. That tiredness is compounded by the high-energy, quick, pressing football that Martin O’Neill demands and the reliance on two young talents, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, who, although not at their best, both came close. Agbonlahor should have done better with an early shot after beating Alex while Young’s free-kick shivered the bar. Chelsea, too, had chances.
Has the Villa bubble burst? O’Neill knew that one was coming and talked about convincing the players that defeat, with Chelsea leap-frogging them into third place, was a “setback not a catastrophe”. Arsenal’s failure to beat Sunderland will have drawn extra comfort but O’Neill knows that this was the kind of defeat that could easily resonate for the rest of the season. He spoke as if Thursday’s Uefa Cup tie, away to CSKA Moscow, would be surrendered to remain in the hunt for Champions League places. Several players, including Gareth Barry, may not travel. “The exciting part about it is for players not to know any fear,” O’Neill said of the progress his team has made. No fear of the opponent, certainly, but with Hiddink, and O’Neill too, a fear of the manager is a healthy thing.
Goal: Anelka (19) 0-1.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Davies (Carew, 70), Knight, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Heskey, Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Gardner.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Ferreira; Lampard, Mikel, Ballack; Kalou (Deco, 55), Drogba (Belletti, 89), Anelka. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Ivanovic, Quaresma, Mancienne, Stoch.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Aston Villa Cuellar; Chelsea Ballack, Bosingwa, Terry.
Man of the match: Lampard.