Hiddink's turgid football and Hazard approach frustrates Chelsea fans
While Diego Costa's injury-time goal against Manchester United in Sunday's 1-1 draw preserved Chelsea's unbeaten record under interim manager Guus Hiddink, yet another draw left many supporters feeling frustrated by the Dutchman's overcautious approach.
It's true that the London club's fortunes have turned for the better since the dismissal of Jose Mourinho -- but with Hiddink's strategy seemingly focused on avoiding defeat rather than pursuing victory, particularly in the Premier League, the question is: Will the focus change in the remaining games of the season?
Two wins and six draws have allayed fears of Chelsea being sucked into a relegation battle for now, but the dropped points have also evaporated hopes of clinching a top-four slot.
Speaking after the United game, Hiddink said that he was "happy with the reaction of the team," and that they "deserved a point." In fairness he is right. Chelsea did respond well to going a goal down following Jesse Lingard's opener just after the hour, and on balance a draw was a fair result. And yet tales of deserving a point at Stamford Bridge is not what fans want to hear.
Hiddink's defensive stance in fielding midfield blocker John Obi Mikel alongside sloth-like Nemanja Matic has given Chelsea's backline added protection, but it has also stifled the team's creativity. It's also worth highlighting that in the last two league games at Stamford Bridge, against United and Everton, the Blues snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat, which adds a question mark as to the effectiveness of the system.
Preceding the United match was a stultifying goalless midweek draw at Watford in which Hiddink once again appeared to set his team up not to lose the game rather than to go out and attempt to win it.
Ironically, the bore draw with Watford came just three days after Chelsea had chalked up their most emphatic win of the season, trouncing MK Dons 5-1 away from home in the FA Cup. MK may be struggling in the Championship, but Hiddink tweaked his regular league lineup so it had more attack-minded players deployed from the off, and the result spoke for itself.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek was handed his first start by Hiddink and was deployed in midfield with Matic while Eden Hazard also returned to the starting XI. Loftus-Cheek, 20, played without fear and looked composed on the ball, while Hazard gave Chelsea an extra dimension going forward, breaking his duck for the season with a confidence-boosting penalty. Hiddink also teed up another 20-year-old, Bertrand Traore, as a 56th-minute sub for Costa for a goal.
Instead of sticking with a winning formula, Hiddink benched Loftus-Cheek and Hazard for the games with Watford and United, and sterility returned to Chelsea's play. The situation with Hazard is infuriating. The Belgium international should be starting games -- not being restricted to 20-minute substitute cameos and cup games.
Chelsea have 13 Premier League matches remaining this season, six of which are at home. Given their top-flight status is pretty much assured, and starting with Newcastle United on Saturday, Hiddink should throw caution to the wind. Start Hazard and give the likes of Loftus-Cheek and Traore a chance to show more of what they are capable of.
Interestingly enough, the Newcastle clash comes ahead of two matches that will have a significant bearing on whether this season is a complete write-off for Chelsea. First up is a Champions League round-of-16 first-leg tie at Paris Saint-Germain, and then Manchester City at home in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
A heavy defeat to PSG and a loss to City will almost certainly spell the end of the silverware-road for the Blues, so Hiddink is likely to put the emphasis on defence. In the case of the game in France against the runaway Ligue 1 leaders, few would criticise him for that.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
Given the magnitude of the games with PSG and City, Hiddink -- having likely lost the services of Kurt Zouma following an appalling-looking injury sustained against Manchester United -- may opt to rest his key players for Newcastle. In that case, Chelsea supporters may get their wishes and see some of the younger players get a chance. Whether free-flowing attacking football will also be in evidence is another matter.
It would be wonderful to see Hiddink take the shackles off his players against Newcastle as he did against MK Dons, but the pursuit of cast-iron mathematical Premier League safety may mean fans are in for a few more weeks of turgid football.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco