Guus Hiddink is improving Chelsea but full recovery will take some time
There are only three Premier League sides currently on an unbeaten run of five league matches or more. First-place Leicester City and second-place Manchester City are two of them but the third is, in league position alone, much more surprising. Thirteenth-placed Chelsea are on the longest unbeaten record in England's top flight: eight games.
The start of this streak coincides perfectly with the key moment of Chelsea's campaign: Jose Mourinho's sacking in mid-December. The results before and after Mourinho have been astonishingly different, considering that the Blues lost nine of the 16 league matches under the Portuguese coach. Since then, not a single defeat: two wins and six draws.
12 points from eight games isn't exactly title-winning form -- extrapolated over the 24 games which have been played so far, it would put Chelsea in seventh -- and there's an argument that draws aren't particularly useful to Chelsea anyway, given that they need wins to haul themselves up the table. But then the peculiar thing about the points system in football is how it doesn't correlate with the mood around a club.
In points terms, there's a huge difference between a win and a draw, a lesser gap between a draw and a defeat. But in terms of morale, the difference between a draw and a defeat is incredible.
Defeats are poison for a football club: They change the mood of everyone from the directors to the players, from the support staff to the hundreds of workers whose performance has no impact whatsoever on the displays of the first team. And for Chelsea, who were experiencing their worst crisis during the Roman Abramovich era, simply avoiding defeat has been crucial.
Interim coach Guus Hiddink has performed precisely how we expect Guus Hiddink to perform. A warm, likeable father figure in the manner of Carlo Ancelotti (one of the many managers harshly sacked during the Abramovich reign), Hiddink's specialism is getting along with senior pros, keeping things relatively simple and commanding respect with his experience.
Abramovich has made some curious decisions with managers, but twice calling upon the Dutchman on an interim basis has worked well. The previous occasion, in 2009, Hiddink took over a side that had been allowed to drift badly under Luiz Felipe Scolari, with various reports of tactical incompetence, poor preparation and training sessions that lacked intensity. Hiddink took over and guided Chelsea to the FA Cup -- he was a famous Andres Iniesta wonder-goal away from making the European Cup final, too.
This time, it's fascinating that he's changed Chelsea's fortunes dramatically, despite making, on paper, very few changes.
Tactically, Hiddink's most significant decision has been recalling John Obi Mikel, who was also excellent during his previous spell in charge. Mikel is a competent central midfielder, with good positional awareness and strong tackling skills. His limitations are clear, though it's always been difficult to tell whether these are genuine technical limitations or simply constraints placed upon him by cautious managers. Either way, he's a perfect holding midfielder when you're on the back foot, conceding possession readily and have a poor defensive structure. It's chicken-and-egg, of course, but Nemanja Matic is the midfielder required when you're dominating and want both mobility and technical quality in midfield.
The other major change has been something more subtle but nevertheless obvious from watching Chelsea's matches before and after the managerial change: desire. The three key attackers from last season have all improved significantly simply because they're livelier, make better runs and are demanding the ball more frequently.
Having spent the first half of the season ambling around without a care, Diego Costa has concentrated on motoring into the six-yard box and his goal return has improved. Cesc Fabregas' passing was dreadful under Mourinho this season but with Hiddink, the Spaniard is varying his position more and hitting ambitious passes from deep before surging forward to make the difference on the edge of the box. Finally Eden Hazard, while clearly not the player of last season, has also looked more dangerous. His incredible burst of acceleration, which led to so many opposition right-backs getting embarrassed last season, is starting to return.
There's much, though, that isn't quite there. What Hiddink hasn't entirely fixed is Chelsea's defensive shape, as he is still seeking the right balance between defence and attack. In recent matches against Manchester United and Watford, Chelsea looked secure defensively but offered little attacking thrust, resulting in 0-0 draws. Otherwise, in games against Watford (the first time, in late December), West Brom and Everton, Chelsea's shape has been poor. They conceded multiple goals but the increased attacking threat meant they've scored multiple times too: 2-2, 2-2, 3-3.
What we're witnessing at the moment is simply what happens when you train and play without intensity for half a season -- it's impossible to fix everything within the space of weeks. In fact, the reversal takes longer than the "problem" period to cure, which means Chelsea simply won't return to last season's form under Hiddink, the interim coach. It will take a good preseason under a different manager before Chelsea have a hope of full recovery.
It's intriguing that two of the major names in the frame to be Chelsea's manager next season, Max Allegri and Manuel Pellegrini, could be compared to Hiddink in terms of their personal style. After Chelsea fell out of love with the divisive Mourinho, it's only natural that they'll want managers who preach cohesion, value togetherness and have a track record of keeping the group happy and motivated. If Hiddink was younger -- he's 70 later this year and his recent career path shows little interest in taking a full-time club job -- you suspect he might be retained for next season.
Weirdly, Chelsea have always performed well under temporary managers: the Champions League final in 2008 under Avram Grant (although not officially an interim manager), the FA Cup under Hiddink in 2009, the European Cup in 2012 under Roberto Di Matteo (later appointed on a permanent basis) and the Europa League under Rafael Benitez in 2013. Don't bet against another surprise trophy this time.