Just over two weeks into his return as manager, there’s been no grand gesture so far from Guus Hiddink to the Chelsea squad, nothing to signal massive change. There have only been little moments that have stood out.
That has never been more evident than during training. According to sources at the club’s Cobham base, Hiddink spends the majority of sessions observing and leaves most of the work to his back-up staff. Yet that changes when he spots something he feels needs specific instruction. Then, he will stop the session and offer some tactical insight, something that subtly changes the approach.
These are little steps but Chelsea showed more of their old swagger in a 3-0 win against Crystal Palace on Sunday. Indeed, it was their most expansive attacking performance since the 5-0 win at Swansea City on Jan. 17, 2015.
The question is simple: how much does the performance reflect a tactical change, a mental one, or a mixture of both?
Of course, the Palace match was only one game and it would be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from that, but the multitude of changes was still striking. It wasn’t just that so many Chelsea players were individually expressing themselves again; it was that they were combining so exquisitely, and with such elaboration.
The brilliant, if complex first goal seemed a particular spark of life. John Obi Mikel fed Cesc Fabregas before he, in turn, released Diego Costa. The crucial factor here was how Costa’s run opened up play. From there it was an easy pass to Oscar for the close-range finish.
It had been a long while since Chelsea have put something like that together and a long while since the attackers — most pointedly, Fabregas — have had such a range of options with which to open up opposition defences.
From there, the way Hiddink’s side grew in confidence to repeat such moves with increasing conviction suggested something had been built on the training ground. It also implied that Chelsea had been trying the kind of attacking drills that Jose Mourinho notoriously eschewed, except dressing room sources indicate that has not really been the case.
In fact, the rush of fixtures since Hiddink took over has left little time to develop intricate new tactics. But there has been one significant change of note: Chelsea attackers aren’t bogged down with the many defensive responsibilities they had under Mourinho.