Failure to capitalize on chances created was a running theme this past weekend for both the Chelsea men’s and women’s teams — though the latter did manage to get all three points with a narrow 1-0 victory.
While the chance to pad the goal difference was lost, not conceding a goal in a moment of weakness was far far more important, especially as Emma Hayes chose to rest all of her first-choice attacking players and wingbacks. Hayes has not hesitated to rely on her squad this season and so far she has been able to spread minutes around at the right times and in the right games.
Aston Villa departed from their usual 4-2-3-1 to match Chelsea’s shape, which is becoming a bit of a trend from weaker opposition. Chelsea continued with our usual 3-4-3 but with a rotated lineup from the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City. The back three of Bright, Nouwen and Eriksson remained unchanged, with Ann-Katrin Berger in goal, and Erin Cuthbert and Sophie Ingle also keeping their places. The five changes came in midfield and attack. Niamh Charles and Jonna Andersson filled in as wingbacks in place of Jess Carter and Guro Reiten. Ji So-yun replaced Melanie Leupolz in midfield with Beth England and Jessie Fleming starting in place of Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby.
The pattern of play was set in the early minutes of the game. Aston Villa would launch the ball up to Alisha Lehmann and hope that she made something of it. Lehmann received only 10 of the 63(!) passes launched towards her: 90 minutes spent chasing lost causes. Overall, Villa ended the game with 26% possession and their complete lack of initiative shows in the fact that they had 378 touches altogether, which was only marginally more than Bright, Ji and Eriksson combined (361).
Villa refused to build from the back with goalkeeper Hannah Hampton choosing to go long (passes longer than 40 yards) with 87.5% of her passes and 92.3% of her goal kicks — the average pass length being 63 yards. The team altogether managed to complete only 5 progressive passes. Chelsea were able to successfully squeeze the pitch high up. Our pressing was very effective, cutting out all options to move the ball forward. When forced to retreat and recycle the ball, the Villa goalkeeper just pumped it long. Any challenge posed by Lehmann running in behind was dealt with aplomb by Nouwen and Erikssen.
Unsurprisingly this meant that Villa lacked any real threat. They took a total of 3 shots, none on target. So non-existent was their threat that Ingle, often the deepest-lying midfielder joined the front three in trying to occupy space in the final line of Villa’s defense, to gain a numerical advantage against the back-five. This is something Leupolz usually does.
Chelsea on the other hand had all the ball and created more than enough chances to see the game out comfortably, though it was a slow start. We were able to find spaces in behind the wingbacks in wide areas, especially on the left side, but the final ball was lacking and we were unable to find purchase within the penalty box. Ji and Erikssen on the left were combining very well in possession. Fleming made a lot of clever movements to find space in behind the Villa wingback but was never really found early enough for it to turn into a truly dangerous situation.
Andersson pushed high but stayed wide, her job was to release Fleming in behind so that she could finish moves. She functioned more as a recycling option/escape valve in the final third than as an attacking threat. In fact, both wingbacks ended up playing this role. Both Charles and Andersson lack the dynamism and variety in possession that Cuthbert and Reiten can offer.
Twenty minutes into the first half, Chelsea had registered only two shots, both from distance and neither really threatened the goalkeeper. We were lacking quality around the penalty box and it took a moment of individual brilliance from Ji to unlock Villa.
She was able to find a delightful chipped pass from the halfway circle to in behind the Villa backline, while England’s movement towards the ball coincided with Fleming’s run in behind. This meant that two Villa center backs had to make a decision of whether to push up or drop and neither chose the right option, remaining rooted as Fleming spun in behind and had a free sight of goal. Thankfully, she didn’t miss and her composed finish through the goalkeeper’s legs gave Chelsea the lead.
Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come as Chelsea never quite managed to fashion a chance that clear cut throughout the rest of the game. We continued to probe around the Villa defense, trying different avenues of attack but the moves always broke down around the penalty box. The rest of the first half was as lacking in attacking incision as before, even though both Ji and Cuthbert hit the woodwork in quick succession.
At half time, Chelsea took Nouwen off, later confirmed as precautionary by Hayes, and introduced Jess Carter into the middle of the back three, but the second half followed a similar pattern to the first.
Chelsea created some notable chances but Villa put bodies in the way and Hampton took care of anything that got past them with ease. Chelsea threw on Kerr and Kirby with 20 minutes to go to try and wrap the game up but nothing came of it. This led to a rather needlessly tense final ten minutes as Villa started to get the luck of the bounce with their strategy of long balls behind the Chelsea backline. Thanks to some weak clearances (ever the bane of this Chelsea defense) and a series of throw-ins, Villa were able to pin Chelsea back. Two of their three shots came in the 90th minute and added time. Thankfully, Chelsea survived this period and came away with all three points.
Keeping pace with Arsenal this season requires Chelsea to not just win, but win flamboyantly. Granted, we didn’t play our best attackers against Villa, but the opportunity to put them to the sword was there and we just didn’t take it.
There are some positives to take from this performance as well however, including the three points. This was by far the most comfortable Eriksson has been on the ball this season. She seems to be finally getting to grips with her new role in the back-three and is being more adventurous and expansive with her passing and positioning. Nouwen did well when she was on the pitch and Ji continues to be a bright spark on the ball.
All in all, getting all three points without any of Kerr, Kirby or Harder really needing to get involved is a good thing and indicates the depth of this squad, with more to come in the form of Lauren James. The squad’s built to go the distance in multiple competitions and seem up for the challenge, which only bodes for good things.