Emma Hayes unveiled a new lineup against Arsenal, one that I had been somewhat unsure of her being bold enough to use against top competition. Arsenal is the toppest of top competition, not only league leaders, but a side whose only blemish was a hard fought 2-1 loss to Chelsea earlier in the season. Aside from that, they’ve won eleven matches and drawn none, and they’ve done so by scoring goals in bunches. Defensive solidity, then, would appear to be something of importance for a match Chelsea needed to win.
Emma Hayes chose to defend, instead, with a buzzsaw.
Sam Kerr, Bethany England, Ji So-yun, Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten all started for the first time since Kerr’s January availability. Earlier in the week, after a 3-1 win over Aston Villa in the Continental Cup, Emma Hayes said “I don’t know how you can stop us scoring, I feel that about the team. It will be a hard task and I don’t think it’s about shutting one player down in our team.” Perhaps this was foreshadowing, and at the very least a window into the thought to task Arsenal with shutting down every brilliant attacking player Hayes has at her disposal.
The result was pure dominance. Arsenal was shell-shocked from the opening minutes as crosses whipped into the box slightly too high, and shots just missed. The Gunners were stuck in their own half thanks to the work of Chelsea’s front five swarming the ball at every opportunity. Arsenal couldn’t find the feet of their teammates for their traditional buildup play and instead found themselves having to turn and defend nearly every time they were in possession.
Of particular note was Ji So-yun, who usually operates strictly as a #10 in and around the box, becoming a demon in midfield. She roamed side to side trapping Arsenal players in possession and sliding her body in between players and the ball. It was a remarkable performance from the South Korean, who, along with solid defensive midfield work from Sophie Ingle, completely suffocated Arsenal.
It paid nearly instant dividend.
Ten minutes in Beth England received a pinpoint pass from Guro Reiten’s left foot to find her making a run wide toward the penalty area. She collected the ball, checked from her right to her left and curled in a stunner. 1-0, ’10.
Three minutes later Guro Reiten’s left foot featured again, as she sent a long looping cross toward the far post to find the head of Sam Kerr. 2-0, ’13.
Seven minutes after that, and with a lot of Chelsea still rabidly pressing and creating chances in between, Sophie Ingle stepped up from defensive midfield to make Arsenal’s job even harder. Another cross was whipped in wide to a bunch of hungry Chelsea attackers and trembling Arsenal defenders but the Gunners did just enough to send it bouncing out of the box — but toward Ingle. She caught the ball sweetly on the volley, sending it flying into the far side netting with nothing the Arsenal keeper could do about it. Take. A. Bow. 3-0, ’20.
Halftime couldn’t come soon enough for the Gunners while the Blues would have wanted to keep playing that half until the sun flickered and burned out.
The second half was more cautious from Chelsea, as Emma Hayes’ squad knew it would take a colossal collapse to give themselves something to worry about. This shouldn’t suggest a letup though, Chelsea still harassed every Arsenal touch in midfield and sprung on the break. Arsenal still failed to create chances until Beth Mead was introduced in the 58th minute. Her pace and directness led to a couple panicky moments in defense, but Chelsea either cleared or had the ball smothered by goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger.
After another Arsenal turnover, Ji gathered the ball and dribbled toward her favorite space at the top of the final third before laying the ball off to left back Jonna Andersson, who was making an overlapping run as Guro Reiten headed toward the penalty spot. Andersson let Reiten know what it felt like to be on the other end of a perfect delivery for once and Guro showed appreciation by nodding the ball into the far corner of the net. 4-0, ’68.
Pure Chelsea dominance.
Beth Mead would get the goal her persistence suggested, but in truth it was more down to some sloppy goalkeeping by Berger, who let a downward header pop off her knuckles and spin across the line. Chelsea made sure the fluke was the only response, as Emma Hayes slowly introduced fresh, defensively-minded players to continue to keep any Arsenal joy miles away from Meadow Park.
This was a must-win match if Chelsea wanted to atone for their to draws that allowed Arsenal to reclaim the top spot on the table. It could have felt a cruel stroke to need to beat the best team in the league again just to prove — via points — that you’re equal to or better. Instead, Emma Hayes’ side used it to leave no doubt. Though the table may suggest that the title chase is wide open, Chelsea’s dominant destruction of the Champions surely has them back as favorites.