x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Small steps will take Chelsea far

The new coach Carlo Ancelotti has resisted making wholesale changes at the club, and his search for continuity appears to be bearing fruit.

Appointed with a lofty reputation and a salary commensurate with his status as a double Champions League-winning manager, Carlo Ancelotti had a considerable mandate for change. He has not used it. As Chelsea sit top of the Premier League, having dismantled Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, the temptation is to wonder what is being done differently.

And the answer, perhaps, is this: not a lot. Ancelotti appears to be embarking upon a quest for continuity. Each of the 12 players used on Sunday arrived in west London before the Italian. Their method of victory - full of resolve and resourcefulness, featuring Didier Drogba's idiosyncratic brand of fearsome force and tiresome theatrics - felt entirely familiar, even if the Stamford Bridge crowd have seen such displays more often than their recently appointed manager. The central defensive axis of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho was formed in 2004, the fondness for a midfield anchorman has been apparent ever since Claude Makelele joined.

New managers habitually look to make their mark, whether with a flagship signing or a radical change of methods. Ancelotti settled for a little tactical tinkering, implementing the midfield diamond. Even then the past is starting to resemble the present. After starting the season at the tip of the diamond, Frank Lampard is back in a position that is remarkably similar to his role on the left of a trio. With Nicolas Anelka, supposedly the second striker, darting out to the flanks regularly, it is not unlike the 4-3-3 that has been Chelsea's default system for the last five years.

Ancelotti's new charges have an understanding created by experience. Yuri Zhirkov, the only sizeable signing, is yet to figure in the Premier League. Most of his team-mates are veterans of five reigns in three years. Despite the departures from the dug-out, however, there remains such a thing as a quintessential Chelsea performance: it was delivered on Sunday. And it takes a skill to recognise that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Guus Hiddink possessed it and, so, it seems, does Ancelotti. The Dutchman recognised where the team's strengths lay, largely in the tactics and mentality imposed by Jose Mourinho.

Hiddink, however, was only the locum. Ancelotti is the permanent appointment, the man lured from Milan to transform Chelsea. There are annual predictions of a clear-out at the Bridge; quietly disposing of Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro hardly counted as an exodus, however. Yet, Ancelotti may have asked, why rip the blueprint up and start again? He, like Hiddink, has galvanised the previously troublesome Drogba, with a knock-on effect in the performances of the Ivorian's friend Florent Malouda. He has also shown a confidence in Branislav Ivanovic and restored Ashley Cole to his finest form. It is astute management of the personnel he inherited, rather than an ostentatious recruitment drive, that is responsible for Chelsea's position.

And it is a continuation of a winning habit that dates back to February. Hiddink took 34 points from 13 league games, Ancelotti has 21 from eight. The Dutchman averaged 2.61 points per game, the Italian 2.62. It does not amount to a vast change. It does suggest Chelsea are a formidable threat to their title rivals. It also shows that when a manager comes in with the authority to stamp his personality on a club, sometimes the bravest decision is simply to copy his predecessor.

Sir Alex Ferguson's intemperate allegations about referee Alan Wiley's fitness deflected attention from Sunderland's terrific performance in Saturday's 2-2 draw, which is a shame, and from his own choice of substitutes, which may have been the intention. While Anderson, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia proved an improvement on Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck respectively and United, in time-honoured fashion, salvaged a point, there were three prominent omissions from the bench. One was enforced: Michael Owen is the supposed super-sub, but he is injured.

But, while three midfielders and three defenders were among the replacements, there was no place for perhaps the most in-form footballer in the league, Ryan Giggs, or a specialist striker, such as Federico Macheda. It all indicates Ferguson did not anticipate the need attacking reinforcements. And Wiley should not be the man he reproaches for that miscalculation. Two months in, there are already plenty of candidates for the title of the individual performance of the season.

Fernando Torres provided one with his superlative hat-trick against Hull last week but, on the same day, Robbie Keane went one better and struck four times against Burnley. Ryan Giggs had a creator's quartet when he was involved in four goals in the Manchester derby. And then there is Cesc Fabregas' glorious double: two goals and two assists in the 6-1 demolition of Everton followed by a part in five of Sunday's six goals against Blackburn. It has raised the bar: who will become the first player to contribute to six goals in the same game?

Few managers grow in stature during a run of seven successive defeats but Paul Hart, the man who has held Portsmouth together during a traumatic summer, certainly has. A first win of the season (1-0 at Wolves on Saturday) was a belated reward for his admirable efforts. Richard Jolly is an authority on the English game, having written for, among others, The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph rjolly@thenational.ae