How Guus Hiddink made Chelsea the special ones at Anfield
09 April 2009 07:39
He is in his sixties, doesn't court controversy (except unwittingly in his tax affairs) and holds down not one but two of the most high-profile jobs in football. More to the point, unlike some of his predecessors, he likes to present himself as something of a Mr Ordinary.
Yet Guus Hiddink managed to do something no one else has done in eight previous attempts: he turned a Chelsea v Liverpool European tie into a compelling piece of sporting drama. And he did so without apparently trying too hard.
In his two months at Stamford Bridge, Hiddink has given us good cause to see why he has built such a reputation across a career taking in Eindhoven, Seoul, Melbourne and Moscow. Calm, rational, unhurried, he exudes the air of a man who knows what he is doing.
Moreover, he has that unusual knack of making everything he does seem rather simple. Take his response on Wednesday night after his team did to Liverpool what they themselves had previously done to Real Madrid and Manchester United: made them look leaden-footed.
"You have to analyse – and that's not difficult with Liverpool – where their strengths are," he said. Which is true. But then everybody, including Madrid's Juande Ramos and United's Sir Alex Ferguson, knew where Liverpool's strengths lay: in the persons of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Not many, however, have managed to put into practice a plan to stop them.
But by deploying Michael Essien to squeeze the life out of the space in which Gerrard thrives, Hiddink did just that. More to the point, he also delivered a scheme to deliver goals.
"They have this zonal defence at corners and they have no marking. So we talked about that and of course we could get some benefit from set-pieces," Hiddink said.
Well, now you mention it, it does seem rather obvious.
Such a pragmatic tactical performance is indicative of a manager who knows how to do more than talk. Hiddink allies his observational skills with penetrative work on the training field. This is where he really excels. In contrast to his immediate predecessor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, his sessions are reckoned by his players a work of art.
As he noted in his recent comments about the appointment of Alan Shearer at Newcastle, it is on the training field that a manager's real value lies. And that is not something that is quickly assimilated. At 62, he said, he is still learning.
There is an intriguing corollary to all of this. It suggests that, contrary to the widespread view of him, the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, might actually know what he is doing.
After all, he may have shed managers with frequency, he may have treated Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and particularly Scolari with an apparent lack of respect, but this time round he clearly picked the right man at the right time.
With Hiddink, there remains a real prospect of Abramovich's club achieving the European success he craves; if Scolari had remained in charge it is hard to imagine Chelsea sitting on such a comfortable lead in their quarter-final. If it is the single most important job of a football club chairman to select the right manager, Abramovich has done his duty with aplomb.
Now, however, he faces something of a problem: he will be obliged to repeat his recruitment trick come the end of May. Whatever happens, Hiddink is not sticking around Stamford Bridge.
More than anyone else, Abramovich will appreciate why. Already widely regarded as the country's major exporter of assets, he recognises it would be political suicide for him to been seen prising the great hero of the Russian public away from Moscow.
With a World Cup on the horizon, Abramovich knows Hiddink's priority must remain the Russian national team. To the great regret of every Chelsea fan, Mr Ordinary's special days at the Bridge are numbered.
The latest annual accounts of Manchester United reveal the full extent of the club's eye-watering debt burden. Thanks to huge repayments on the loan taken out by the Glazer family to buy the place, United reported a loss of £44.8 million.
This was in the year, remember, in which they won the Premier League and the Champions League, two of the most lucrative competitions in sport.
In which case, if this season they achieve the unlikely feat of landing five money-spinning trophies, can we expect the losses to double?