Understandably Chelsea want to keep things low-key around Guus Hiddink, what with the Russians a bit upset about them co-opting their national team manager and so much resting on a good relationship between Roman Abramovich and the big men in the Kremlin.
With that in mind, just 5,164 Chelsea fans watched the first-team training session yesterday, the same sessions that are normally harder to get into than a Cabinet meeting. Naturally, the television networks and photographers were also in attendance. Hardly a peep out of Guus – apart from, that is, the moment he took the microphone and addressed the fans directly. As mentioned before, it was very low-key.
Just Chelsea’s luck that the week after they decide to dispense with one famous manager and bring in another it turns out to be one of only two days a year when they have promised their fans a free open training session at Stamford Bridge. While Abramovich might be a ruthless billionaire capable of sacking World Cup winners without blinking, there is no way he would dare to mess with the half-term entertainment schedule for thousands of stressed-out parents in west London and its hinterland.
So they came in droves to see Hiddink work his magic: mums and dads with kids, sullen teenagers, awestruck football tourists from Singapore and Japan – all of them not quite believing their luck. This was the moment that they would get to see from the inside how Hiddink would reshape Chelsea’s season. OK, so some of the teenage girls seemed more preoccupied with the news that Frank Lampard is single again. But, come on, how often do you get to see a football revolution taking place in front of your very eyes?
If this was an insight into Hiddink’s take on Chelsea, what did we learn? It looks like the Chelsea manager will stick with the 4-4-2 formation that the assistant first-team coach Ray Wilkins picked for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round win over Watford. Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were paired in attack for a practice match at the end of the session which appeared to pit the first team against the reserves. Given the changes Hiddink made during that match, he seems to have a lot of faith in Michael
Mancienne, who finally made his Chelsea debut on Saturday.
What else? The squad played a 10-a-side game for around 20 minutes, albeit not on a full-size pitch. Full-sided games in training were one of the criticisms of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s regime. Everyone seemed to be trying very hard, none harder than Wilkins, who threw himself into the coaching like a man trying to save his job. Which of course is exactly what Wilkins is trying to do. Every hearty backslap and morale-boosting quip seemed to be saying: “Guus, why do you need Johan Neeskens when you’ve got me?”
The truth is that we learnt very little about Hiddink’s methods. We learnt that John Terry likes playing the piggy-in-the-middle, keep-ball game – known as “boxes” among the professional football fraternity – as much as the average five-year-old likes eating chocolate ice cream. But we knew that already. Countless England training sessions have borne testament to the joy on Terry’s face when he railroads a less-assertive team-mate into taking the role of piggy.
But Hiddink? This is the man who will have to take Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez on in coaching methods alone. Who will have to make up the points difference to Martin O’Neill without acquiring a single new player. Unless Hiddink is hiding something from us this looked suspiciously like the kind of training session that is going on at the training grounds of football clubs all over the country. Including those periods when, for want of anything else to do, the players listlessly boot footballs into empty goals.
To his credit, Hiddink handled his moment on the mic very smoothly. The match-day announcer Neil Barnett had just made a needless joke about Arsenal that even the Chelsea fans tried hard not to laugh at. It was not really the warm-up act Hiddink was looking for. “I’m not here to entertain you,” he said, “I hope the players will do that. We hope to make a very good end to the season and we need your support, of course. I will give everything I have to make the team work. Thank you very much.”
Note the instant lowering of expectations as regards the entertainment factor. Not to mention what sounded like his first excuse in terms of having to figure out how to make this basket-case of a team “work”. In fact, the whole set-up was not unlike a headmaster apologising to parents for a disappointing school sports day. The game finished 2-1 to the first team, although the most notable moment was that serial malingerer Florent Malouda scored a brilliant goal for the stiffs.
The biggest surprise of the afternoon was that Abramovich himself turned up in the press box. Given that he has refused to do more than one Chelsea-centric interview since he bought the club in 2003, this was an astonishing development. Unfortunately for those of us in the press, the only reason he was in the press box was because we had been banished to the opposite West Stand with the fans. We could just about make Abramovich out, looking distracted.
Over the last five days Abramovich has done his level best to disprove the theory that he is falling out of love with football by turning up at the kind of games only an obsessive would attend. Saturday was Vicarage Road, Monday he was at Griffin Park to watch Chelsea’s reserves against Portsmouth reserves, yesterday he was watching his third training session since he sacked Scolari. With Abramovich in this mood, Nigel Spackman could re-form the Chelsea Masters team for a kickabout in the car park and the Russian would be there in a flash.
For the record, Hiddink’s 10-man first team at the end of the game was: Cech; Bosingwa, Mancienne, Terry, Ferreira; Ballack, Deco, Lampard; Anelka, Drogba. Ashley Cole is suspended for Saturday’s match away at Aston Villa. All things considered, apart from Anelka and Drogba, it is not much different to the previous incumbent’s first choice. If Hiddink is inclined to be radical, then he is evidently keeping his powder dry for a more private moment.
Terry welcomes fight for places
John Terry revealed last night that the Chelsea players believe they are “fighting for their places” in the team after Guus Hiddink took over this week. The Chelsea squad had their second training session with their new Dutch coach yesterday, in front of supporters at Stamford Bridge.
Terry said that Hiddink, who has not yet decided whether he will bring in Johan Neeskens as an assistant until the end of the season, had already made significant changes to tactics. The biggest change Hiddink looks set to implement is a return to 4-4-2 with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in attack. His predecessors Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari have all favoured the 4-1-4-1.
Terry said: “There are new styles, new methods. Training has looked really sharp. Everyone is fighting for their places again. He’s implemented a few things, he wants us to press more and play higher up the pitch.”