It’s nearly impossible to analyze this team without veering into hyperbole. The only certainty is that pitches will turn to post-apocalyptic desert landscapes as the Chelsea XI roar across it in an octane cloud of goals and explosives, while Emma Hayes riffs on a fire-spewing guitar*.
In last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Chelsea FCW scored 47 goals in 15 league games. The vast majority of that scoring was done without arguably our best player in Fran Kirby, who was held to two starts and two sub appearances due to pericarditis (look it up, it’s an awful thing). Chelsea went 4-1-0 against rivals Manchester City and previous season’s champions, Arsenal. Chelsea didn’t just snatch the league title from Arsenal, we also beat them in the League Cup final (the Continental Cup) and pummeled the ex-champions across three matches for a combined scoreline of 8-3.
And then Chelsea got better.
Emma Hayes always talks about how the goal of the club is to win everything, with the crown jewel being a Champions League title. Chelsea underscored this seriousness by pulling off the January signing of Sam Kerr, one of the best goalscorers in women’s football. And that was just the start. In March, the club signed Bayern Munich captain Melanie Leupolz, a smart and composed midfielder with great passing range and technique. Then, Liverpool’s relegation opened the door to sign their best player, 21-year-old winger Niamh Charles. Chelsea continued. Twenty-two year old Canadian international midfield prodigy Jessie Fleming chose Chelsea to begin her professional career.
You may be thinking, ‘Wow, that’s amazing! What an excellent job addressing areas of need and convincing young gems to join the club!’; and while you would be right, we’re not finished. Because then Chelsea signed one of only two forwards who can claim to be better than Sam Kerr, Wolfsburg’s Pernille Harder.
Oh and Fran Kirby appears to be back, fully recovered and in excellent form already. Also, Bethany England has transformed herself into a force of nature. The talent added to this already stacked squad fully capable of scoring goals in bunches is absurd.
*Have you ever seen the movie Mad Max: Fury Road? If you haven’t, well, imagine a muscle car lover’s post-apocalyptic desert landscape painted with Pennzoil and at least two of the chemicals in C4. A consistent piece of the film is a pasty mutant-looking guy without eyes and clad in torn red pajamas whose only job is to wail on a guitar while atop a flatbed piled with speakers. Oh, and the top of the guitar spews fire whenever he wants it to.
I bring all of this up to say that, 1) you should watch it, and 2) it’s the closest facsimile to what I think the 2020-21 Chelsea FCW squad is capable of.
Striker Adelina Engman departed Chelsea after playing just 81 league minutes last season. Defensive midfielder Anita Asante exited Chelsea as well, after three years but just six league starts. Defender Deanna Cooper left after three years as a Blue as well. Dribbler extraordinaire Ramona Bachmann signed with PSG and will be the Blues’ biggest miss. Bachmann played in 12 league matches (5 starts), but scored only one goal and collected just two assists (Kirby, who appeared in just four matches, had three).
But seriously, watch this:
January 2020 – Jamie-Lee Napier and Sam Kerr
March 2020 – Melanie Leupolz
June 2020 – Niamh Charles
July 2020 – Jessie Fleming
September 2020 – Pernille Harder
What does the full squad look like then?
Goalkeepers – Ann-Katrin Berger (starter), Carly Telford
Defenders – Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson, Maria Thorisdottir, Maren Mjelde (RB), Jonna Andersson (LB), Hannah Blundell (RB), Jess Carter (LB/RB)
Midfielders – Sophie Ingle (DM), Drew Spence (DM), Charlotte Fleming, Melanie Leupolz, Jessie Fleming, Ji So-yun (CAM)
Forwards – Fran Kirby, Erin Cuthbert, Guro Reiten, Jamie-Lee Napier, Niamh Charles
Strikers — Bethany England, Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, Emily Murphy
How will Chelsea line up?
I honestly have no idea. Emma Hayes calls the number of attacking options at her disposal “a privilege”, but there must be some headaches as well. It will be very difficult to keep everyone satisfied while maintaining some semblance of balance in the squad. There have been no shortage of jokes about Chelsea reviving the ol’ 2-3-5.
For more realistic options, we can look at last season’s toggling between a 4-4-2, 4<4>2, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Those can all still work, but it becomes nearly impossible to get both a functioning midfield and England, Kerr, Harder and Kirby on the pitch at the same time. The good news is that of the three forwards, Pernille Harder is also comfortable playing as a 10, so I’m hoping Hayes experiments with a new formation altogether.
As an avid NWSL-watcher, I’m always in complete awe of how Paul Riley’s North Carolina Courage play, and in particular, how they press. They do it out of a 4-2-2-2 and it is smothering and ruthless. Chelsea have the pieces to replicate that, and in the Community Shield win over Manchester City, Hayes unveiled a newer, angrier Chelsea press.
(Seriously, look into this system if you’re a tactics nerd, it’s some sinister stuff)
Twitter friend and better Tactics Knower than me, Kieran Doyle, talked about doing the same after Chelsea announced Jessie Fleming, which made me relieved that I wasn’t just going all FIFA Fan mad scientist.
This is what I said when we signed Fleming and I’m super cool with it still. Glad we’re on the same page . https://t.co/te5kaTSbvU— Kieran Doyle (@KierDoyle) September 2, 2020
Emma Hayes isn’t afraid to play in multiple formations, but has never fielded a 4-2-2-2. I’ll be hoping that changes.
Players to watch?
All of them. Every single one. This team is absurd. Every possible iteration of an XI will have the capability of pulling off tremendous football and scoring tremendous goals.
Okay then, things to watch for?
- The fullbacks. If this juggernaut has any weaknesses, it’s there. Usual starters, Jonna Andersson and Maren Mjelde, are serviceable, but can be caught out when Chelsea lose possession. Mjelde lacks the pace to recover well.
- Who is left out of Chelsea’s strongest XI? There’s such a wealth of talent that it’s almost certain that someone who played significant minutes last season will see them drastically reduced.
- Fran Kirby. She’s typically been the best player on most of Chelsea’s teams. With the players brought in, plus Bethany England’s growth into a dominant force, Kirby gets to play with the most talented squad she’s ever been on. She could rack up assists at a record-breaking rate.
- Growth of young players. Chelsea have a couple very promising academy prospects already on the fringes of the first-team in Emily Murphy and Charlotte Fleming, in addition to incoming young talent like Jamie-Lee Napier, Niamh Charles and Jessie Fleming. It will be interesting to see how J. Fleming adapts to professional football after the college game in the USA (thought she’s been a Canadian international since 15 and played every minute of the 2019 World Cup). Charles is in an exponentially better place to develop than Liverpool, so it will be exciting to see what she can do alongside other world class players. (I also have a sneaky suspicion that Hayes might be trying to transform Napier into a modern fullback.)
Sold. Ok, how do I watch?
The FA Player is your first stop. However, women’s football is finally growing to be respected so matches selected for TV in the UK and US will be unavailable on the FA Player. As Chelsea are the best team in the WSL, expect that to happen a lot. In the UK, BBC and BT Sport will air matches chosen for TV (check local listings), and in the US NBC has nabbed rights to fifty matches, including the opener versus Manchester United. If you don’t have access to NBC via some paid subscription, you’ll likely want to look into signing up for one of their subscription services to access the games.
Yes, TO VALHALLA