Paul Hayward: Questions of character and resilience hinder Hiddink's rescue work
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
Guus Hiddink thinks tomorrow's clash with Arsenal will allow Chelsea to ask: "Hey, where do we belong? And to think about why this team has fallen so deeply in the recent period."
This call to arms - or at least to thought - confirms the impression of England's champions as a club where big changes are on the way.
Yes, England's champions. Arsenal are the Premier League's top side, with the trophy holders "way down under", to use Hiddink's phrase, in 14th place.
An accomplished diplomat, Chelsea's caretaker coach has provided some of the "stability" he admires in Arsenal. But every now and then he lets slip that the spine of the current side cannot bear comparison with his first caretaker spell, in 2009, when the living was easy and the FA Cup was won.
"It's a little bit different. I'm not talking about the skill or individual quality, but the spine I had was different to now," Hiddink conceded yesterday, when Eden Hazard and Diego Costa were passed fit for selection.
"I don't want to go back too much in the past because we must not over-value or be too romantic about the past, but that was a strong spine: JT, Alex, Frankie, Ballack and Drogba. The rest were also strong. I don't want to minimise our quality nowadays, but they're different players."
That reference to John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba (as well as Alex, the centre-back) points to a vital truth about the turbulence of Roman Abramovich's ownership.
Sacking managers has never interrupted the flow of trophies for very long. And we know why. A core of influential players has always stepped in to put the furniture the right way up and start piling up points.
Petr Cech, now in goal for Arsenal, was another on the emergency response committee who always pulled Chelsea's season round.
Now, though, Hiddink must turn to a declining JT, Hazard, who lost his way before Jose Mourinho was sacked, Cesc Fabregas - an unconvincing presence this term - and Costa, who has been told by Hiddink to put his "good hat on" and stay out of trouble. Five goals in five for the new boss suggests that at least one of Costa's ears was open to that instruction.
Nemanja Matic, another potential leader, has clearly not impressed Hiddink and often fails to make the starting XI.
"When you have this array of games, then I don't think in terms of just 10 outfield players and a goalie. I need more," Hiddink says, justifying the decision to leave Matic out.
"It depends on the games. Sometimes you want two screening players. He can play even more advanced than in a controlling position. I'm happy with his commitment and the way he can build the game and attack. I don't see him just as a defensive midfield player."
All in all, in four draws and one victory under Hiddink, no new nucleus of warriors has emerged to drive Chelsea back towards the Champions League qualifying spots. This is a fundamental rupture in the Chelsea story.
The old fall-back of dressing-room leadership has gone, which is why people around the club talk of big structural change to come.
In the short term, recruitment failings at the front of the team have seen Chelsea connected in this transfer market with an array of established forwards: Alex Teixeira, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Alexandre Pato and Saido Berahino.
But the table suggests a wider problem: the end, perhaps, of the age in which hiring and firing managers, and sending 33 players out on loan, can be justified by results.
Chelsea have always held Arsenal by the throat but are distinct underdogs now, despite being unbeaten in eight games against Arsene Wenger's men.
Chelsea remain fragile and short of confidence. Only Aston Villa have a worse record in the last 15 minutes of matches for goals scored and conceded.
So questions of character and resilience stalk Hiddink's efforts to deliver Chelsea to a respectable finishing place in May. Costa was a constant distraction for Mourinho and is also taxing Hiddink's man management skills in this, his second rescue act.
Costa has been shown the line he must not cross, and Hiddink says: "Yes, but I'd prefer to have players who, sometimes, you have to control or tell them 'a little bit less' than have to push them a bit. That's much more difficult."
The conundrum that is Hazard is not much closer to being solved.
"If Eden Hazard is game fit - he must grow into game fitness - then he can make a big difference to the team," Hiddink insists. "When I see him play now, and he hasn't been much in training recently, he can be the difference if he is game fit."
These are still strange days at Stamford Bridge, regardless of Hiddink's calming influence.
You know instability has set in when some fans grumble about the one-year contract extension for Branislav Ivanovic, previously a crowd favourite. Or when a £2.7m summer buy, Papy Djilobodji, is loaned to Werder Bremen after 143 days and 60 seconds of first-team action.
Also still hanging over the club are the sales of Kevin De Bruyne, Andre Schurrle and Romelu Lukaku, which point to a longer-term mishandling of resources. In that context Hiddink was bound to be asked about Wenger's era-defining work at Arsenal.
"There's a lot to say about management and stability, the way he's managed this club already for many, many, many years," Hiddink says. "It says a lot about the stability of the club, in a good way. If you have seen his teams playing in the early days at Highbury, they were also beautiful teams to see."
The dark edge of Mourinho's disdain for Wenger has gone for good. Chelsea's loss of direction may be only temporary. But they sure need a new plan. (© Daily Telegraph, London)