A goalless draw at Watford on Wednesday, perhaps, isn’t too much to get excited about. But Chelsea had much the better of the latter stages and would have won but for two fine saves from Heurelho Gomes. And besides, there was a distinct sense of much of the second half–once Diego Costa and Juan Carlos Paredes had had their fun–of a game in which a draw satisfied both sides, both of whom are destined for mid-table finishes and both of whom perhaps fancy their chances in other competitions.
After Chelsea’s home defeat to Southampton earlier this season, Jose Mourinho unleashed an uninterrupted seven-minute rant on television in which he made the point that if Chelsea sacked him again, it would confirm once and for all that it is a sacking club, unprepared to give manager time, and that that would dissuade the best in the world from moving to Stamford Bridge.
There was a logic in what he said, and yet Roman Abramovich might have reflected that his own experience is the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom about stability.
Every time he has sacked a manager, things have tended to go rather well. There’s even an argument that Chelsea has performed rather better under interim coaches than under permanent ones.
Chelsea has a history of salvaging seasons that have begun badly. Who, after all, are the only two managers to have led Chelsea to Champions League finals? Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo. Who are the only Chelsea coaches to have won European trophies under Abramovich? Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez. Grant, Di Matteo and Benitez were all mid-season appointments, pragmatic fixes after the dismissals of Mourinho, Andre Villas-boas and Di Matteo, respectively.
Hiddink’s own first spell at the club was in an interim capacity. He arrived in February 2009, taking over from Ray Wilkins, who’d held the reins for a week after the dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari. He inherited a side that, by comparison with this season, looked in rude health. Chelsea was fourth in the table with 49 points from 25 games (this season, that record would have a side in the heart of the title race; back then, Chelsea were seven points adrift of the leader, Manchester United, which had a game in hand).
That’s not the full story, though. Scolari, brusque, authoritarian and dogmatic, had rapidly lost the faith of his players, and, after a promising start of 10 wins in 13 games, Cheslea won just four of the following 12. There was a sense of decline and dissatisfaction, with numerous leaks from within the dressing room revealing just how unhappy players were with a manager they saw as damagingly unsophisticated.
Hiddink was conciliatory, a calming presence. His 13 league games in charge brought 11 wins and a draw. Wilkins had seen Chelsea through a fifth-round FA Cup tie and Hiddink led them on to victory at Wembley.
He saw off Juventus and Liverpool in the Champions League before a highly controversial away-goals defeat to Barcelona in the semifinal. Of his 22 matches in charge, 16 were won and only one was lost.
Essentially Hiddink inherited the core of the side Mourinho had left in 2007, calmed everybody down and got them playing the way they always had. There was a Chelsea method that worked; it was simply a case of restoring the players’ faith in it.
This time is perhaps a little trickier. There again is the core of a Mourinho side, and one that won the league title last May, but that core isn’t anything like as dominant as the spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba was. There is no sense in which Hiddink can effectively leave them to get on with things as he did the first time round–which is not to imply weakness; rather to acknowledge his deftness in recognizing a hands-off approach was necessary.
Terry remains, but is older and slower and politicking for a new contract. Thibaut Courtois has arguably surpassed Cech, but lacks his experience and authority. Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard have suffered horrendous losses of form this year. Diego Costa still seems to prefer wrestling and moaning to scoring. Perhaps that’s why Hiddink has consistently played John Obi Mikel, Chelsea’s longest serving player after Terry and a reminder of how the club used to be.
Hiddink too has changed, older, battered by recent failures: he couldn’t get Russia to the 2010 World Cup; the Anzhi project collapsed; he oversaw the Netherlands’ dismal start to Euro 2016 qualifying. He is 69 now, and it was reasonable to wonder whether he may have lost his fire. But quietly, undemonstratively, tactfully, he has transformed the mood at Chelsea.
It’s nowhere near the club's best, but there are positive signs. Quite apart from anything else, Chelsea has stopped losing: the Blues are unbeaten in 10 now, the first with Hiddink in the stands, the next nine with him on the bench. Fabregas and Matic have both begun to return to form. Costa is starting to regain his sharpness. A consistent back four, with Terry and Kurt Zouma at its heart, protected by Mikel, is providing solidity.
None of it is radical or revolutionary, but it is working. The threat of relegation, always distant, has been all but banished. Chelsea is in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Hiddink won the tournament in his first stint and, while a tie against Manchester City is tough, a repeat is at least conceivable now.
And then there’s the Champions League. Chelsea is an outsider, of course it is, but then it was when it won it all. It can rest key players in league games and prioritize Europe. Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea’s opponent in the last 16, is 24 points clear in the French league and so untested it is vulnerable; who knows how it will react to a scrap. And Chelsea can now give it one. Hiddink has brought calm, but now there’s a possibility of glory.