Having won the Women’s FA Cup last weekend, thus completing last season’s domestic quadruple, Chelsea have followed that up with two frustrating outings over the past week that have complicated the current season.
The Blues drew 0-0 against Juventus in the Women’s Champions League midweek before a heavily rotated side succumbed to a shock 1-0 defeat to Reading in the league. The draw against Juventus means that Chelsea need to not lose by more than 1 goal against Wolfsburg to go through. A draw or a win means Chelsea go through and be confirmed in first place. Wolfsburg have everything to play for and matches between the two teams have tended to be goal-fests of late. While we control our own fate, this will be a tough game against an erstwhile bogey team whose curse was broken only last season during our run to the final.
In the league, Arsenal now have a four-point lead. While this gap may not seem like much, both teams are head and shoulders above the competition and Arsenal haven’t slipped up often. That being said, the Gunners do have a thinner squad and are on a very hot finishing streak. So all is not lost.
Other teams will study these two games and try to take some lessons on how to frustrate and stop Chelsea. That said, Chelsea did not do much wrong in either game. Juventus set up to sit deep and maintain shape with very little desire to press Chelsea or attack. They were playing for a draw and their goalkeeper had a stormer. Hayes prudently decided not to go gung-ho and leave the team open at the back. In the end, both teams settled for a draw.
Reading on the other hand put good high pressure on Chelsea early in the game. They forced Chelsea to play long earlier than needed in possession throughout the first half, from which they countered. This early pressure paid dividends in the third minute. Zecira Musovic’s unblemished clean sheet run in the league was broken by an emphatic run and finish by Deanna Rose. Chelsea tried one too many direct forward passes and Reading were able to win the ball back and launch a counter with Rose leading the charge. Chelsea dealt with this counter poorly, backing off at first then, when Carter finally tried to face up to Rose, creating a huge gap for Rose to run into after laying it off wide.
Chelsea had a lot of time to overcome the deficit, but poor performances from the changes Emma Hayes made stunted the attack. Carter was chasing shadows in midfield and struggled to impose herself on the game. Leupolz was too aggressive with her passing, while staying deep and controlling possession is not really her forte. Beth England offered no threat and either dropped too deep to affect things or had poor touches in the final third. Jonna Andersson couldn’t provide the offensive threat Reiten offers.
All in all, Chelsea were very toothless in the first half and as a result, Hayes made the obvious changes. Kirby, Harder and Reiten came of for England, Spence and Andersson. Jessie Fleming dropped into a deeper, play facilitating role, which allowed Leupolz to play her natural game.
After these changes, Chelsea had far more control of the game and regularly threatened the Reading goal. Pernille Harder in particular looked very dangerous. She had 6 shots and the most passes and crosses into the penalty box and received the ball well under pressure in the final third. Her injury doesn’t seem to have affected her sharpness and rhythm at all; a very encouraging sign.
Chelsea had a total of 32 shots and an xG of 2.3 against Reading — enough chances to win this game but the overall quality of chances was lower than one would expect. Chelsea average 0.14 non-penalty xG per shot. Against Reading, that fell drastically to 0.07 npxG/Sh. The best chances were headed shots taken from within ten yards, but Chelsea just couldn’t put them on target or trouble the goalkeeper. Reading stayed deep and put their bodies on the line with more than 40% of shots being blocked. It’s disappointing how few saves the Reading goalkeeper had to make given the shot volume. Overall, it never really felt like Chelsea would score multiple goals in this game. The blunted attacking performance in the first half left too much to do in the second half and it never quite came together for Kerr or Harder either.
Everyone will be rightly disappointed with these results and performances. We can only hope that these hiccups don’t end up becoming too costly.