I feel under pressure but am in more control, says Fabregas
Cesc Fabregas’s post-match choice of words felt almost as telling as his towering on-field contribution. “I am feeling sharp and my brain is quicker than the last few months,” the Spain international said.
“I feel under pressure but I am in more control. In the last year this is the best moment for me.” It was not just a compliment to the commonsense style of Guus Hiddink but also an observation to further suggest that the central problem under Jose Mourinho had become psychological rather than technical or physical.
Yet while sacking Mourinho might have amounted to unlocking the valve that would suddenly re- lease an almost unbearable pressure inside the Chelsea bubble, a central strand of Hiddink’s success so far has been in not recluttering minds.
As a team, they have simply gone back to basics, albeit with rather more success than the Chelsea-supporting Prime Minister who first coined that particular phrase.
Hiddink spoke frequently of restoring the team’s “balance” in his press conference after this victory and the key beneficiaries of the surprise return in holding midfield of John Obi-Mikel have been Fabregas and Diego Costa.
Arsène Wenger’s entire rationale in not taking the chance to re-sign Fabregas from Barcelona was founded on his belief that he is not naturally suited to being part of a deeper-lying central two but is actually at his most effective playing behind a central striker in the same way as Mesut Özil.
Hiddink clearly agrees and has duly released Fabregas by playing Mikel alongside Nemanja Matic. That, in turn, has had the added knock-on benefit of enhancing the quality and precision of the supply lines to Costa. “Fabregas is in a line of improving,” Hiddink said. “He played previous games in a better way as well.
“He likes to be able to play and have that opportunity to play. We need that balance in the team, in the creative and the ‘destructive’ part as well. We have boys who can win the ball back and he can play.”
The gentle simplicity of Hiddink’s man-management is also striking after the more confrontational style of Mourinho. What has he done? “Just working every day, some talk, conversations during training and outside training, trying to focus on what they are good at and not lose energy on other things,” the Dutchman said.
Fabregas and Costa certainly had their old swagger again here and were utterly unfazed by the abuse that was predictably aimed in their direction by the Arsenal supporters. Per Mertesacker’s sending off might ultimately have been the catalyst for Chelsea’s victory but the statistics underlined how the foundation was laid in central midfield and how Fabregas so comfortably outmanoeuvred his old team-mate Mathieu Flamini.
Fabregas attempted more passes than any outfield player and, even while playing as the most advanced midfielder, was joint level with Mikel on most completed passes. Between them they made 140 successful passes against a combined tally of just 76 for Flamini and Özil in the two comparable positions for Arsenal.
John Terry’s subsequent message that a top-four finish is still attainable surely remains over-optimistic but this was the clearest indication yet of Chelsea rediscovering themselves and history certainly suggests that they could quite feasibly still salvage their season in either the FA Cup or Champions League.
Hiddink’s work until yesterday in drawing four games and winning just twice had essentially felt like plugging leaks but this particular victory could easily become a catalyst for Chelsea’s season. It is their first really big scalp since the corresponding fixture in September and potentially transformative to the collective confidence. As well as Mikel, it was also noticeable that two other members of the old guard – Branislav Ivanovic and Terry – are showing clear signs of rejuvenation under Hiddink.
After his previously successful spell here six years ago, it also reinforces the impression that Hiddink, rather like Carlo Ancelotti, has the ideal calming temperament to manage a club with Chelsea’s capacity for upheaval and controversy. Hiddink is not the long-term choice and has never sought to be but, should other options subside this summer, there are likely to be few dressing-room objections to another season under the Dutchman.