The phrase “too good to go down” became a cliché, probably from over use on teams not worthy of its assertion. There have been teams relegated that were good enough to stay up, but not too good to go down and I believe there is a big difference. In recent years, there have been upper echelon teams that, for whatever reason, have found themselves in precarious positions. They eventually turned their form around, moved back up the table and proved that they were indeed too good to go down. Two such were Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool and their turnaround in fortunes came from a change of manager. Spurs brought in Harry Redknapp, who made sure nobody forgot how many points they were on and where they were when he took charge; whilst Liverpool replaced the bizarrely appointed Roy Hodgson with club legend Kenny Dalglish.
This brings me to Chelsea. Are they too good to go down? Absolutely, overwhelmingly yes they are. They are the reigning Premier League champions, they dominated the league last season and with the squad available, should be in a similar situation this campaign. Whilst their squad is not perfect, it is arguably the best in the league. So, if there’s no question over the quality of their squad of players and there’s not a monumental list of injuries to possibly excuse results, focus inevitably turns to the manager. Jose Mourinho may not be my favourite person, but he is a proven winner and undoubtedly one of the best in the game. This made Chelsea’s predicament all the more puzzling because they had a much better manager and squad of players available than the aforementioned Spurs and Liverpool sides.
It all begs the question: why have they been doing so badly then? In short, there is no easy answer to it. However, rumours of dressing room unrest between Mourinho and senior players persisted as results continued to be poor. The much-publicised, but ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Everton’s John Stones suggested that Mourinho was looking at changing his well-established centre-back pairing of Gary Cahill and John Terry back in the summer. Did this upset a few senior players? We might never find out.
In the end, what for many was the unthinkable happened and Chelsea sacked Mourinho. The appointment of Guus Hiddink echoes of his prior reign as temporary boss at Stamford Bridge, following on from the sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari back in 2009. That short reign ended in Chelsea winning the FA Cup and he represents a safe pair of hands to guide them through the rest of this campaign.
In just a few short weeks, performances have begun to improve, as have results. Despite them still being in the bottom half of the table, a 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace has turned the talk of whether or not Chelsea are in a relegation battle, to what can Chelsea achieve this season. So what has changed? Has the departure of Jose Mourinho suddenly made the dressing room happy and raised confidence? Or have a squad of proven winners decided to take some responsibility for the demise of their now former coach? Or maybe a bit of both?
When asked what they are doing differently, Guus Hiddink said they were doing more of the ugly work. That seems a strange scenario because Mourinho teams are renowned for their dogged hard work, effort and organisation. It is usually after a coach who wants to play free-flowing attractive football has been sacked that an improvement in results is often put down to a team doing more of the ugly work. Mourinho is certainly not a coach associated with a free-flowing style of play.
Perhaps surprisingly though, the stats support Hiddink’s claim. Chelsea averaged 20.9 tackles per game in their 16 matches this season under Mourinho, but in the 3 games so far under Hiddink, the figure is 23.7 tackles per game. In terms of average distance covered per game, there’s been a 9% increase, which really is quite a substantial amount. Chelsea supporters loyal to Mourinho may be incensed by those sudden statistical increases as, on the face of it, they point toward a change in attitude and application under Hiddink.
With their upturn in form and confidence, Chelsea will now be looking at what’s ahead of them, rather than over their shoulder and what they can salvage from this season. The Champions League is probably beyond them and the Premier League title looks a lost cause; even finishing in the top four is probably too much to ask, but the FA Cup has to be a real possibility for a team on the up and definitely, too good to go down.