It may not be too far off the mark to call Emma Hayes an oracle, as she laid out exactly how the game between Manchester City and Chelsea would pan out while speaking to Ian Wright & Co on Wrighty’s House podcast.
“You’ve got a traditional 433 playing against a 343, so it’ll be an epic battle of how their wide players are going to pin our wingbacks and vice versa, how we’re going to exploit certain spaces when they invert players — and how we’re gonna kill ‘em on the transition. But we’ll see how it plays out.”
The truth however is far more mundane. She is simply an excellent manager and tactician.
The teams did indeed set up the way she said they would, with City reverting back to their usual 4-3-3 and Chelsea continuing with the 3-4-3 system. With Harder and Nouwen out of contention, Jessie Fleming stepped into attack again and Jess Carter dropped into the middle of the back three — a change from the recent FA Cup tie where she was deployed as a wingback to try and contain the fleet-footed Lauren Hemp.
Before any of the tactical battle could play out though, Chelsea scored through Fleming inside of two minutes.
City recycled the ball back to their goalkeeper, who played an ill-advised pass to Alex Greenwood, who was caught flat footed. Jessie Fleming pounced on this pass and rounded the goalkeeper to finish calmly.
An early goal often changes the complexion of games, but this one didn’t really feel like it did.
City continued to be patient, maybe even to a fault, in their build-up and figured out the best ways to get the ball from back to front. Having learned from the cup semi-final loss, Gareth Taylor had a plan and had found a way to make Chelsea look disjointed by pinning the back five and taking advantage of the numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch — exactly as Emma Hayes predicted they would try to hurt Chelsea.
City wingers Hemp and Park stayed high and wide, effectively keeping the Chelsea wingbacks deep and turning our 3-4-3 setup into a 5-2-3. By finding some good combinations and indenting the fullbacks Stanway and Stokes, City easily bypassed the Chelsea front-three and could find Weir, Angeldal or White in space between the lines, under little to no pressure. Ji and Leupolz found themselves having to cover the width of the pitch and were pulled apart quite easily. Weir in particular was very successful with some clever positioning but also winning a lot of her individual duels.
One example of City tactics working came in the eighth minute.
City maneuvered around the front three and found Ellen White, dropping deep and pulling Jess Carter with her. White laid the ball off to Walsh, who played a perfectly weighted pass into the space just vacated by Carter. Weir ran in from Bright’s blindside and was through on goal, forcing Ann-Katrin Berger into a stunning save with her feet.
However, for all the possession and territorial dominance City had (60% of it in the first half), they only managed to create five shots in the first half. Even though they easily managed to bypass the initial press, they often ran into Chelsea’s solid back-five with just 3-4 attackers with not much variety in their movements. And that’s not a good way to sustain possession or create chances within the final third.
In the first half, Hayes made various adjustments to the personnel on the pitch to try and make our press work. She shifted the front three around and allowed Reiten to press higher up, alongside the forwards and leaving her position in the back. It didn’t quite work ... until it did late into first-half stoppage time.
Sensing an opportunity, Reiten steamed in to pressure Stanway as a pass was played across the pitch. Reiten got a touch on to the ball, which fell to Fleming, who released Ji into space on the left wing. Ji carried the ball to the top of the box and shaped in a deep cross back to Reiten on the right, who cushioned a header perfectly into the path of Sam Kerr and she made no mistake.
The two goals bookended a half where City looked like the better team. Football can be delightfully cruel sometimes.
In the second half, Hayes made the necessary changes and matched City’s shape by going to a 4-3-3. She took Ji off for Ingle and played Leupolz and Fleming as No.8s. Cuthbert was trusted as the right back against Hemp and she pretty much shut Hemp out of the game. It was a phenomenal performance Cuthbert, who ended the game with two assists and got special recognition from her manager as well. Her versatility brings to mind José Mourinho’s classic quote about eleven Azpilicuetas winning the Champions League: she is simply that good no matter where she plays on the pitch.
With the change in shape, Chelsea were on top and started creating chances regularly in the second half, scoring two goals from set piece situations to put the game to bed before the hour mark.
The first of these two goals came from the same situation in which Cuthbert scored the opener in the Cup match. She ran in from the top of the box to receive a short corner from Reiten and this time laid it off to Kirby. After a bit of pinball around a static City defense, the ball fell again to Cuthbert whose cut back fell again to Kirby, who this time was under no pressure. Her looping shot towards the far post went almost as in slow-motion.
Shortly after that, Eriksson scored from a deep corner, heading the ball in from pretty much under the bar as the goalkeeper came out and failed to make contact. She wheeled away to celebrate in front of the very vocal Chelsea contingent.
With the game wrapped up and the fight taken out of City, Chelsea were able to coast to the victory, closing the gap to Arsenal at the top to just one point after they had dropped two points in a close-fought North London Derby.
Last week, I accused the team of not being ruthless enough in their 1-0 win against Villa. They have more than made up for that by scoring four against erstwhile title rivals in Manchester City. This team continue to show the mentality of champions: ruthless and resilient in equal measure.
City, on the other hand, are dealing with a massive injury crisis but still should have enough quality to not be where they are currently in the league table. While the first half performance remains a net positive for them in the context of their other results and performances, it may be too little too late for manager Gareth Taylor.
Emma Hayes has been masterful with her in-game changes this season and has managed around the lack of proper fullbacks in the squad. Her desire to improve and win flows through this team. She is such a deep thinker of the game, which comes through when she moonlights as a pundit, but also marries that with a healthy dose of pragmatism and it is this blend that makes her so successful and well suited to Chelsea. Long may that continue!!