The Guus Hiddink reign began at the Stamford Bridge with a draw against a newly promoted Watford side who for a period of time led the Blues two goals to one, almost reminding the fans of the sad situation the club were in pre Mourinho sacking.
The Watford side was managed by Quique Flores who had himself played under Hiddink and had also overseen a heartbreaking defeat while managing Valencia against Chelsea in the quarter finals of the Champions League in the previous decade.
Chelsea started in the very familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which included Costa up top, Pedro, Oscar and Willian in the attacking band of three with Oscar playing the trequartista role in which he excelled against Sunderland. Matic and Fabregas occupied the pivots in which Matic stayed back as Fabregas was afforded the free role. Azpilicueta was the left back and allowed the freedom to push ahead along with Ivanovic who did the same on the opposite wing. Terry and Cahill formed the centre back combination up against the formidable duo of Deeney and Ighalo.
Watford started the match in their customary 4-4-1-1 formation with Ighalo leading the line and Deeney just off his position, laying off headers and knock downs for the inform striker. Capoue was the destroyer in midfield and was very capably assisted by Ben Watson while Almen Abdi and Jurado graced the wings with very contrasting roles. Abdi was constantly drifting inside of the right wing he occupied to act as the de-facto playmaker as his wingback pushed forward to create width. Meanwhile Jurado stayed on the wings and used his directness to spring on counter attacks against the hapless Branislav Ivanovic. The left back, Holebas used his brilliant crossing skills to great effect when provided with a chance to display them. Catchcart and Britos were extremely capable throughout the match and made only a single error on which Diego Costa capitalised on to score his second goal of the day.
Chelsea started the match very brightly and had more than 80% of the possession in the first 12 minutes, pinning Watford in their D and making attempt after attempt at the goal. The ridiculously good corners from Willian were almost all good opportunities to score but Chelsea fluffed all of them and ended up losing the control they had over the Hornets after around the 15 minute mark.
After this point, Chelsea reverted to form and their lack of (or absence of) physicality showed and players were getting very easily harassed off the ball as Watford kept a high intensity pressing in place with the brilliant midfield having assistance from both the center forward and the striker. Watford created chances mostly from the wings with crosses by Holebas a real thorn in the Chelsea side. Meanwhile, if there was any time given to Capoue, Watson or Abdi, an immediate long ball was floated to the aerial beast that is Deeney who then tried intricate combinations with Ighalo to try and pry open the Chelsea defence.
Chelsea meanwhile lacked any attacking plan and were just piling on bodies forward and getting Ivanovic or Willian to drill in crosses which were fairly good but didn’t have anyone attacking them. Pedro on the left meanwhile was combining with Oscar and Azpilicueta to make space for a shot or to move infield (a la Hazard). Fabregas was the central fulcrum but was missing the high attacking push he always used to keep in the previous season. Oscar was the carrier of the ball and along with Costa was guilty to lose the ball often while trying to dribble through an unreasonable number of players.
In the first half, it was a common theme to see Matic lose the aerial duel with Deeney and hence set up Terry and Cahill in a nerve wracking predicament against two of the best forwards in the league. Terry dealt capably with the pressure but Cahill was tremendously poor, often letting Ighalo move around him at will and letting him get goal side of him every single time he was faced with the striker. As soon as the second half started, this was immediately attended to by Hiddink as he replaced Fabregas with Mikel and this bore immediate results as Mikel was much more of a defensive player than Matic and effectively cut off the long punt route for the Hornets. Matic occupied the Fabregas role and this brought some much needed physicality to the Chelsea side. The fact that Watford still managed to score after this brilliant tactical alteration from Hiddink is a direct result of the brilliant form of Ighalo.
Over to the other defence, we saw a very recognisable form of defending which involved two banks of four or a back line of 6 supported by two midfielders and either of Deeney or Ighalo in case Chelsea dug in really deep. The Watford side was incredibly active over the match, hunting down Chelsea midfielders as soon as they were on the ball. Even Ighalo and Deeney were closing down Terry and Cahill to great effect. Capoue and Watson were playing in a complementary manner to each other with one attacking the ball as the other covered the midfield position. The defence was characteristically very deep and dealt with Chelsea’s overload on either wings with calling back a winger of their own to the side. Jurado and Abdi were proactive throughout the match and helped out their fullbacks greatly.
A common theme for Watford was their attacking of the space towards their left wing. Ivanovic was storming forward as soon as he had the opportunity and was slow to fall back and Watford almost exclusively attacked this channel to exploit this positional imbalance. Meanwhile, the same positional freedom to Abdi meant that the Chelsea’s left wing was almost always free too and hence Pedro assumed almost all of the carrying responsibilities during the transition until he was faced by the opponent right back.
All four of the goals in the match were either a result of an individual error, Matic handball for first Watford goal and Cathcart ballwatching for Chelsea’s second, or were just the result of a fortunate bounce, Diego Costa scoring Chelsea’s first goal and Ighalo scoring Watford’s second. This makes for a disappointing reading especially for Chelsea as it is very clear that their play is still toothless at best and they rely on set pieces or luck much more than they should. Meanwhile Watford themselves scored goals which were not at all a consequence of their tactical play but they at least fashioned out proper chances and had multiple attempts blocked almost on the line by the Chelsea defence. This is encouraging for any manager as this shows that his team is performing as he expected them to.
The man of the match has to be a toss-up between Ighalo, Costa and Willian. All three of them were absolutely brilliant for the complete duration of the match and were definitely a cut above the rest. Costa might edge out in this case simply because he was alone against two centre backs and managed to score while Ighalo had a partner in crime to occupy the second Chelsea defender.