Coming hot off the heels of a thrilling, if self-inflicted draw against Wolfsburg on Wednesday, Emma Hayes decided to shuffle the pack on Sunday against a Leicester City team who had yet to get a point on board in their debut season in the WSL.
Pernille Harder, Sam Kerr, Ji So-yun, Guro Reiten, Jess Carter, Melanie Leupolz and Ann-Katrin Berger were all watching from the sidelines. Fran Kirby started this game having missed out on doing so midweek due to a minor illness. She was joined in attack by Bethany England and Jessie Fleming. Jonna Andersson and Niamh Charles were played as wingbacks with Drew Spence dropping into midfield alongside Sophie Ingle. Summer signing Aniek Nouwen was flanked by Millie Bright and captain Magda Eriksson. Zecira Musovic filled in the goal, although for all the attacking threat Leicester were able to muster, she may as well have been watching from the bench.
Leicester lined up in typical relegation-fodder Allardician manner with two banks of four and two up front. They set up to frustrate Chelsea first and foremost with no thought given to even attempting an attack. Chelsea’s dominance of the ball and the match was therefore so complete that Leicester only managed 2 touches in the penalty area, won zero corners and failed to get a single shot on target. Their total xG for this game amounted to 0.1 compared to Chelsea’s 2.5. It was very much a game of attack versus defense.
That said, Leicester did manage to frustrate Chelsea for much of the game, especially in the first half. Chelsea were stringing some good passing moves together, often involving intricate buildup on the left side before switching to Charles on the right, who had the freedom of the pitch — often receiving very close to the top of the penalty box with very little immediate pressure. However, the final ball was found to be lacking. Charles was not able to beat her marker and run down the line (completing only 2-of-6 dribbles), and only managed to put in one cross. This meant that there was very little threat created out wide. Hayes had to address by bringing on Cuthbert and the deadly left foot of Reiten on to play as wingbacks while Charles dropped into a left-center back role.
Jonna Andersson had a better go of it on the left, she completed both her dribbles successfully and put in 4 crosses and was involved in 7 Shot Creating Actions.
Chelsea had 12 shots in the first half but only managed to test the goalkeeper 3 times. Many attempts were blocked and a couple chances went agonizingly wide.
Hayes decided enough was enough and brought on Harder and Kerr to replace Spence and England at half time.
This was a game for Jessie Fleming to shine and shine she did. She was the glue of the team in attack, starting from the right in the first half, drifting left towards the end of the first half and once Emma Hayes decided to throw the kitchen sink at Leicester in the second half, dropping into midfield. She took a total of 85 touches, received the ball very well in tight areas (83% of passes targeted were collected successfully, while completing a team-high 12 passes under pressure) and then passed it forward very well (85% pass accuracy). She was involved in 7 Shot Creating Actions — joint highest on the team.
Most importantly, it was Fleming who picked out Harder arriving at the top of the box with a perfect cutback to break the deadlock in the final ten minutes, and seal the three points. Emma Hayes handed out special praise for Fleming, appreciating her intensity and tempo-setting (she had the most pressures of anyone on the team) especially given some of the sluggish performances strewn in from her teammates.
Aniek Nouwen was also impressive on the ball, she played her role as the central defender in possession quite well. Her flat switches out to the left were impressive and she was also able to break the lines centrally at times. It remains to be seen if she has the ability to cover behind the front-foot defending of Eriksson and Bright in this formation and also deal with aggressive pressure from her blind side while running back towards her own goal (a weakness shown by Carter when played in that position). Leicester offered no such challenges so it was a rather comfortable evening for Nouwen, however, she is certainly one to keep an eye on. Finding the right combination in the back three may well define how successful Chelsea can be this season. The onus is very much on Carter and Nouwen to step up and win their place.
All in all, this game was an opportunity for Hayes to rest some key players in anticipation of the upcoming Champions League game against Juventus on Wednesday. While she may have preferred not to have to bring on Kerr and Harder so early, she did get to see the likes of Nouwen and Fleming perform very well. Andersson seems to be getting her form back as well, which can only be a good thing. While Kirby was not able to provide the cutting edge as she usually does, she was able to get a goal in the last minute to make sure of the points and pad that goal difference. Something tells me that’s going to be significant again this season.