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Chelsea FCW not-quite-quarter season report card

A new formation, year two of Harder-Kerr-Kirby, midfield shuffles, and defensive instability — how are the Blues coping with it all?

Juventus v Chelsea FC Women: Group A - UEFA Women’s Champions League Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images

Chelsea FCW’s 2021-22 season is only five league matches old but given the changes in the team, there’s plenty to discuss. Without securing a new full back signing over the summer, Emma Hayes has setup this iteration of her team in a 3-4-3. The change has come with positives, but also created new problems to solve.

Since the formation change is a radical one, let’s break down how each line has been assembled, and how they’re doing so far.

(all stats courtesy of fbref.com)


Attack

One of the main reasons for the switch to a 3-4-3 was to balance the attack by giving Pernille Harder more room to be Pernille Harder. Aiding this is the conversion of Guro Reiten, naturally a left winger, into a left wingback, giving Harder more space. Reiten is also a clever and accurate passer, making her a solid complement for Harder on the left. However, since Reiten is now technically a defender, let’s focus on Harder.

In league play so far, Pernille Harder has doubled last season’s 0.3 xG per appearance, to 0.6. She averaged 32.9 live ball (open play) touches across her twenty-two league appearances last season; this season she’s averaged 38. Chelsea aren’t only finding Harder with the ball more, but also getting her the ball in more areas where she can exhibit the most dangerous parts of her game.

Last season Pernille Harder had 13.3% of her touches in the penalty area, 56.6 in the attacking third and 42.3 in the middle third. This season the percentage of her touches in the middle third are up by 4% and her penalty area touches by just over 5%, with her attacking third touches down 1%. This suggests that Chelsea are utilizing Harder more in middle-third buildup play, while also picking up more of her off-ball runs into the box — essentially, The Real Pernille Harder is finally here.

And don’t worry, as OptaJoe attest, the Kerrby connection is still very much overwhelming.


Midfield

The midfield is perhaps the most unsettled of the lines. Just in the league, we’ve seen four different pairings in the five games: Leupolz-Ji, Ingle-Ji, Leupolz-Ingle (2X), and Spence-Ingle. Since the sample sizes were already small even before all this shuffling around, let’s stick to theoretical analysis.

Switching to a 3-4-3 has subtracted a midfielder from our usual setup, and placed a lot of responsibility on just two. Given this, it’s no surprise Hayes is non-committal, as many of our midfielders have specialized skillsets. Ji’s creativity and passing technique comes at the expense of mobility and defensive stoutness. Sophie Ingle’s defensive solidity comes at the expense of mobility and creative progressive actions. Melanie Leupolz is the most prototypical box-to-box midfielder of the bunch, but when paired with Ji, she’s often left isolated and becomes prone to defensive lapses.

Unfortunately, one player in the squad whom we haven’t seen yet start a match in midfield is Canadian gold medalist (and expert penalty taker) Jessie Fleming. In terms of possessing the mobility and defensive awareness required to smother an opposing midfield, and possibly even match-up against midfield-threes, the Leupolz-Fleming combination is our most athletic and promising.

Juventus v Chelsea FC Women: Group A - UEFA Women’s Champions League Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images

Despite the constant shuffling, Melanie Leupolz is by far and away the midfielder with the most pressures in the league (66), while Ingle, despite having started four league matches (while appearing in every one), only has 49, which is just 5 more than Fleming, who has only started one match and hasn’t played exclusively in midfield. Playing players to their strengths is a winning strategy, and Fleming naturally does a lot of what’s been missing in every midfield combination we’ve witnessed so far.

Being capable of shapeshifting from terrier to ghost is a rare trait, but Fleming’s got it — case in point: the goal she created for Pernille Harder against a box packed with Leicester City players. Fleming goes from having the ball at her feet to being completely forgotten by the defense in a matter of seconds — all due to her ability to read play and move into blind spots.

Of course there are other options to solving some of these issues. While a 3-5-2 is unlikely as it would sacrifice Harder, Kirby or Kerr, which would just be silly, perhaps a midfield box, or 3-4-2-1, could work as well. Both Harder and Kirby are adept at playing centrally and in No.10 roles, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to tuck them inside to help with numbers, pressure, and moving the ball from the middle third into the attacking third. The wing-backs may be asked to do more 1-v-1 work, but given that we’re deploying wingers as wing-backs anyway, that isn’t a stretch either.

Much of this is theoretical as we still don’t really know or understand what Emma Hayes wants from a midfield-two. However, there are certain things a two-person midfield must do in a system like this, and unfortunately we still seem to be seeking the combination that can handle the lot.


Defense

As important as it was to get Harder more integrated into the attack, the need to retool the defense is also what led Hayes to the back-three. During last season’s Champions League campaign, Chelsea’s full backs (actual and makeshift) struggled with overloads as well as containing individual players like Bayern’s Hanna Glas, Wolfsburg’s Svenja Huth, and Barcelona’s Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen.

The addition of a third center back pushes our best defenders, Magdalena Eriksson and Millie Bright, closer to the flank areas to be in better positions to engage opposition attacks from wide. It also allows wing-backs to be deployed instead of full backs, allowing for a higher starting position and more involvement in midfield buildup and attack. Since Chelsea failed to sign a full back and thus are still lacking in that area, wing-back positions can — in theory — be filled by a wider variety of players. This is why we’ve seen Guro Reiten claim the left side and Erin Cuthbert settle in on the right side. Cuthbert’s trademark intensity and aggression is a slightly more natural fit, but neither are defensive-minded players.

Chelsea Women Training Session Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

However, in practice, these changes haven’t solved all of Chelsea’s defensive frailties, and has also impacted other phases of play.

In WSL play last season, Eriksson averaged ball progression via carries of 370.8 total yards per match, far and away the highest on the team. Through five games this season, she’s down to 237, and is third on the list (Carter: 340.5, Bright: 278.8). To underscore the change further, Eriksson’s progressive passes (passes toward the opponent’s goal) averaged 488.9 yards per match last year. She’s currently at 329.5 yards. Essentially Hayes is asking Jess Carter to do her best Eriksson impression and it, like most impressions, has been hit or miss — with a lot of the misses occurring in the Champions League.

In WSL, this means that Chelsea average 0.6 expected goals allowed (xGA) through the first five games — which have included games against (current league leaders) Arsenal, plus Everton, Brighton and Manchester United. Last season that average was 0.57 — a barely negligible difference.

But in the Champions League, which is the ultimate yardstick, things have been far less secure for the Blues. Wolfsburg were run off the pitch by waves of Chelsea attacks but the defense clumsily allowed them three goals, forcing the Blues had to rescue a point in dramatic fashion via a stoppage time equalizer.

Juventus defended well then equalized at 1-1 via a great pass and some clever movement designed to capitalize on the unfamiliarity of the back line. Lina Hurtig drifted between Carter and Eriksson, drawing both of them toward her and creating space for Barbara Bonansea to run in behind and ahead of Reiten.

Once again, Chelsea had to score a critical goal in the second half. It’s also worth noting that to do so, Hayes scrapped the 3-4-3 in favor of the team’s more familiar 4-3-3, the first time she had done that this season — including preseason. It forced Guro Reiten to play left back for a spell, so it’s unlikely to be the way forward.

Despite all the issues, I expect the 3-4-3 to remain Chelsea’s favored formation. The one defensive player we did bring in, Aniek Nouwen, has yet to supplant Carter as the central center back. Nouwen eventually securing that position may help Chelsea start to look more secure, as she’s a natural defender and has a broader passing range and feel for building tempo from the back line. Eriksson and Bright might also feel more comfortable and be able and willing to carry the ball forward and ping passes as they did last year. Of course, Chelsea could also use the January transfer window to try to bring in a fullback or two.


Overall team play

Chelsea are still very much a work in progress, which has at times devolved into a comedy of errors and that’s not ideal. In the league Chelsea seem fine. The loss to Arsenal was not shocking, as the Gunners had been playing competitive matches as a unit while Chelsea had just gotten the band together a few days prior to showtime. No one else in the league should pose us too many problems.

The Champions League, however, is a much different story. Chelsea should be on six points with two wins out of two yet instead are on four points, with three rescued in the ninetieth minute against Juventus. Wolfsburg are a notch or two below where they had been while Juventus are not yet the power in the women’s game as in men’s game. Chelsea already struggling in the group is a bad sign for the campaign. Without significant improvement in the solidity of our midfield and defense, the prospect of facing PSG, Bayern Munich, Lyon or (gulp) Barcelona is even more terrifying than it was last season.

Juventus v Chelsea FC Women: Group A - UEFA Women’s Champions League Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Getting players like Jessie Fleming and Aniek Nouwen into the starting XI could lead to improvement, but the lack of true wing-backs or full backs will continue to be a problem. Chelsea could make a play in the January transfer window for one, but the list of players who wouldn’t be cup tied is likely much smaller than in the summer. (Personally, I’d like to see a run at Manchester United’s Ona Batlle, as tough as that may be.)

While Chelsea remain one of the two favorites to win the league and other domestic competitions, the improvements made by potential later-round Champions League opponents have seen the Blues fall even further behind. Lyon are looking more like the Lyon of old, Bayern Munich appear to be stronger, PSG are looking formidable, and Wolfsburg remain a nemesis. And Barcelona are on an entirely different.

On a more positive note, it should be great to see the 3-4-3 progress and develop and it will be intriguing to see what personnel eventually become the first-choice XI. Als, Pernille Harder has been one of the best players in women’s football for a number of years, and watching her play to that level in a Chelsea shirt is reason enough to tune in each time the team take to the pitch. Then of course there’s still the individual brilliance of Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr, and the devastating ways in which they combine.

Despite the team’s flaws, Chelsea remain the most fun to watch, and possess the ability to dominate opposition in a ruthless way.

Juventus v Chelsea FC Women: Group A - UEFA Women’s Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images