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Chelsea FCW vs. Arsenal WFC: State of the WSL title race

Can Chelsea make it three titles in a row?

Arsenal v Chelsea: The Vitality Women’s FA Cup Final Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

The two best teams in England this season, Arsenal and Chelsea, are squaring off for a six pointer and potential Women’s Super League title-decider today (Friday).

When the two teams met on the first matchday of the season, only an egregious missed offside call separated them. Chelsea dominated the ball but couldn’t find the cutting edge in the final third while Arsenal were able to run in behind the backline with ease. Chelsea have exacted revenge for the season opener by emphatically defeating Arsenal in the FA Cup final (postponed from last season due to COVID).

Title Race

However, immediately after that win, Chelsea’s season went off the rails a bit as we failed to score in the next three games and, as a consequence, were knocked out of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. This gave Arsenal breathing room at the top going into the winter break, a gap Chelsea have since clawed back due to Arsenal’s own faltering form of late.

Chelsea are now just a point behind Arsenal with a game in-hand and a win would mean that we would go top of the table for the first time this season.

Breaking down the numbers

Chelsea’s dominance in the WSL cannot be overstated. When looking at data from the past four seasons, Chelsea’s xG difference is off the charts. In the past three seasons, Chelsea have ranked in the top 5% of xG difference.

I have used a template developed by the excellent Ben Mayhew (@experimental361) to illustrate this dominance.

Chelsea have the tightest defense and the most dangerous attack over the past three seasons, with very few sides close to matching these numbers. Arsenal this season are quite far away from where previous title winners have been and they are wildly over-performing their xG with Goals-xG difference of +9.4. Arsenal have scored 33 goals this season from an xG of 23.6 and conceded 8 goals from an xG-conceded of 11.2.

The major contributors to this over-performance are Kim Little and Katie McCabe but pretty much everyone on this team has had a goal glut this season, but which seems to have tapered off in recent weeks. While their hot start gave them a very solid foundation to compete for the title, their troubles in recent weeks are perhaps seeing them regress towards where their expected performance should be.

Beth Mead however has been the revelation this season for Arsenal and their most creative presence in the team. She is currently contributing 5.74 shot creating actions per 90 and 0.38 xA per 90. Mead has the freedom to drift in and make runs in behind the backline, taking full advantage of her pace to roast defenders.

Miedema meanwhile is dribbling less and creating more shots this season and this has made her a more clinical player than last season.

While McCabe, Mead and Miedema provide the main thrust of attack, Kim Little and Frida Maanum often join in attacks and arrive in the box late. The addition of Stina Blackstenius in the January window may well prove to be the second wind they need to keep racking up points to win the title.

The return of Leah Williamson will be a boost for Arsenal today, as she is the most important player to their build-up and ball progression, not to mention defensive organization. She missed out on the cup final in December due to a hamstring injury and Arsenal were at sixes and sevens on and off the ball.

Chelsea’s deep squad

Due to COVID, the Asia Cup and injuries, Chelsea have missed the likes of Kerr, Eriksson, Leupolz and Ji since the beginning of the winter break — all four are major contributors and starters.

However, Chelsea have a deep squad, especially at forward and attacking midfielder positions, and we’ve been relying on the likes of Jessie Fleming and Erin Cuthbert to play in midfield. They have both stepped admirably with Cuthbert making a case for becoming the player of the season. Her contributions on and off the ball have been stellar in multiple positions across midfield and defense, and her set piece delivery continues to cause all sorts of problems for the opposition.

Fleming has been equally impressive as well. Her tactical discipline shone through in the game against Manchester City last weekend, where she helped to successfully marshal Lauren Hemp. Her work rate is impressive and she shows great intelligence in movement and passing. While she’s not as prolific a creator as Ji, the potential is there for her to be a difference-maker from deeper areas of the final third. She also has the legs to get into the box if needed as well. While both her and Cuthbert are some ways off of impacting games the way the more experienced Ji, Kerr, Kirby and Harder do, the potential is clearly there and it is very exciting.

Of late, Chelsea have also changed the way we play. There has been a gradual shift away from the 3-4-3 formation to a 4-4-1-1 setup. We are engaging opposition players from slightly deeper positions and there is a clear emphasis on playing through the thirds quickly to set the likes of Harder, Kirby and Kerr loose on backlines — either in behind or in between the lines. The major contributors in this scheme are Jonna Andersson and Guro Reiten. Both of these players were on the outs at various points last season but have worked their way into the team.

Reiten and Andersson combine intelligently and find runners regularly. Reiten’s technical mastery has been coupled with a more robust approach to dribbling and defending. She currently plays 7.86 progressive passes per 90 minutes and 6.3 progressive carries per 90, both of which are close to double her career average. Her deeper role has meant that she creates fewer chances directly but her influence on this team’s attack in undeniable. In the absence of Ji, Reiten has also taken on the role of springing attacks by playing passes in behind. Recently she has even been turning up in the box to score!

Thanks to these players, Chelsea have managed to mitigate various absences in the forward line and close the gap to Arsenal. With all of those absentees having returned or on course to return, Chelsea should have a full squad again and can continue to compete for all three domestic trophies. We’ve already reached the final of the Continental Cup and will resume the defense of the Women’s FA Cup after the international break.

But first, a chance to decide the title!

Chelsea Women v Manchester City Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

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