Expect the main criticism of Chelsea’s parting with Jose Mourinho to center on turnover, a word only used when “change” is not ominous enough. But that kind of cynicism’s to be expected after another managerial change at Stamford Bridge. Since Roman Abramovich assumed control of the club 12 years ago, 11 men with 12 tenures of varying lengths have managed the club. When Mourinho’s replacement is named, Abramovich will have as many managerial changes as seasons in charge.
That the next manager will likely be Guus Hiddink will only fuel criticism, with critics pointing to the lack of stability — the turnover — as undermining the club. That a team that’s claimed 15 major honors since changing owners can be considered compromised is the type of logic you rarely see beyond sports, but the analysis is inevitable. Yes, Chelsea’s won so much, but given Abramovich’s resources, where would the team be if it also had stability, the thinking goes.Oh, they should have never fired Mourinho in the first place. Or Carlo Ancelotti! When will Roman ever learn?
In the face of Hiddink’s impending appointment, though, I see the critics’ point. Ever close to Abramovich, Hiddink has come to Chelsea’s rescue before, assuming the manager’s role in Feb. 2009 after Luiz Felipe Scolari couldn’t bend to Chelsea’s player-empowered culture. Three months later, Hiddink delivered the FA Cup, restoring the confidence of a squad that would go onto claim the 2009-10 Premier League, 2010 and 2012 FA Cups, 2011-12 Champions League and 2012-13 Europa League. Hiddink doesn’t deserve much credit for those triumphs, but play out the scenario where Chelsea is allowed to flounder under another boss and it’s difficult to see them rebounding so soon. If Hiddink didn’t do something remarkably right, at least he accomplished the caretaker’s number one goal: avoiding the catastrophically wrong.
With the turnaround, Hiddink bolstered a reputation earned with PSV Eindhoven, South Korea and Australia, but cup triumph also masked his massive failures with a Russia side whose talents will be forgotten. From 2006-2010, with a silver generation led by Andrey Arshavin, Igor Afinkeev, Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and the Berezutski twins (Aleksei and Vasili), Russia became darlings of Euro 2008, bowing out to Spain in the semifinals after eliminating a Netherlands team that had played like tournament favorites through group stage. Widely expected to carry that momentum into the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle, Russia disappointed at home against a rebuilding Germany, were relegated to second place, and saw their world renown manager — the world’s highest paid boss at the time — outfoxed by Slovenia’s Matjaz Kek in the qualifying playoff.
Hiddink left Russia in June 2010, but his struggles persisted. In 16 games with another set of generational talents, Turkey’s, Hiddink won seven of 16 games from Aug. 2010 to Nov. 2011, eventually resigning after failing to qualify the team for Euro 2012. Three months later, he moved to Anzhi Makhachkala and had the virtues of a team that could afford to pry Samuel Eto’o away from Inter Milan. The Russian upstarts finished third in league and qualified for Europa League’s Round of 16 before Hiddink departed early the next season.
Then, most recently, Hiddink second spell with the Netherlands fomented disaster. Tasked with what was seen as sure qualification for Euro 2016, Hiddink collapsed a team coming off a semifinals appearance at the previous World Cup. He won only four times in 10 games in charge of the Oranje from Aug. 2014 through June 2015, with the Dutch eventually becoming the most notable name missing from next summer’s confederation championship.
Four months with Chelsea and 17 with Anzhi are the only positives in the last nine years of management for Hiddink. Considered an elite boss when he left PSV in 2006, Hiddink’s become a journeyman, floundering at lucrative appointments while failing to leverage two countries’ talented products.
At 69, it’s tempting to think the game’s past him by, even if it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where. Hiddink hasn’t been good for some time, yet his reputation allowed him to land a number of high profile job. Had we looked beyond his renown, when might have seen when Hiddink stopped being special.
That’s the worry for Chelsea fans. This is not only more managerial turnover; it’s recycling of a spent product. It’s falling back on old ideas, expecting old results. It’s an indication that, for all the club’s creativity with Financial Fair Play and managing its vast array of talented young purchases, Chelsea lacks the same planning when seeking out managers. For every young Mourinho or Andre Villas-Boas, there’s a reach for the tried and true. There’s a Scolari, Hiddink, Rafa Benitez or Ancelotti. Most of those men brought success, but none were kept long enough to change Chelsea’s coaching cycle.
Ancelotti had a 61% win ratio when he was sacked. Mourinho’s during his second spell? 63, even with this season’s terrible results. Though that number flatters Mourinho’s current state, it’s still a reminder: Chelsea has been down this road before, and they haven’t come up with any new ways to navigate it. Each time they try to do better, it’s the same pattern: a short-term solution, then an aspirational hire, followed by a rebound in results, a descent, and a repeat of the cycle.
With Hiddink’s recent record, that process might skip its best steps, but two years from now, after the whims and aesthetics of the Abramovich regime have broken Diego Simeone, we’ll be right back where we are now, looking at another Hiddink, Benitez, or Juande Ramos, wondering how much this chaos holds back an otherwise successful club.
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