How is this going to work?
This was the simple yet fair question being asked ahead of this season. Chelsea had won already won the Double and without many of the big name talents that now filled the squad. Fran Kirby was limited to just four appearances due to a wicked battle with pericarditis and Sam Kerr was a January arrival who had to adjust to a new league, new life, new teammates, new environment (cold), and new style of play. As such, it was Guro Reiten, in her first WSL season, and Bethany England who led the Blues to the top of the league and the League Cup trophy.
Not only was Sam Kerr getting a full preseason and Fran Kirby coming back to full fitness, but Chelsea had successfully lured the 2020 European Player of the Year, Pernille Harder away from Wolfsburg. And that wasn’t all either, as the Blues also brought in midfielder Melanie Leupolz, ex-Liverpool winger Niamh Charles, and Canadian prodigy Jess Fleming.
Emma Hayes gave herself a lineup selection headache, trying to assemble an attack from a squad that included the aforementioned Kirby, England, Kerr, Harder, Reiten, and Charles, as well as Erin Cuthbert and Ji So-yun. A delightful problem to have, goes the saying, but in reality and indeed tactically...
How is this going to work?
Early in the season, it didn’t work much at all. The Blues stumbled in the season opener away at Manchester United, who hadn’t even had their USWNT stars, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, to call on yet. Chelsea meanwhile started Guro Reiten, Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Ji So-yun, and then brought on Bethany England, Erin Cuthbert and Pernille Harder off the bench. Still, we lost the possession battle and managed just five shots on target.
The Blues then ran rampant all over Bristol City, 9-0, but then needed to hold onto a ninth-minute Fran Kirby goal to secure a 1-0 win over Birmingham City. There were signs of life as Chelsea beat Arsenal 4-1 and Manchester City 3-1 in the span of four days, but had to grind out a 2-0 win over Tottenham with a goal in the 70th minute and a penalty in the 84th, a 1-1 draw with Arsenal two weeks later, and one-goal wins over West Ham (3-2) and Brighton (1-0).
Of course, these results weren’t bad — picking up points and being hard to beat — but gone were the goal-fests and marauding performances of a year ago when the squad had substantially less firepower in the ranks. The squad looked disjointed in attack and heavily reliant on Fran Kirby and Fran Kirby alone (three goals and four assists).
How is this going to work? was turning into Was this going to work at all?
It wasn’t an unfair conclusion given the rule-bound limits of the game: eleven players, one goalkeeper, and ten spread out across defense, midfield and attack. Football demands balance, especially to achieve sustainable results. If a defense can’t defend or advance the ball, the team struggles. If a midfield can’t keep the ball, read opposition play, manipulate space and transition the ball up to the attackers, the team struggles. If an attack can’t find the gaps to create scoring opportunities, the team struggles. Perhaps he problem wasn’t so much tactics, but math(s).
Over the November international break, Emma Hayes decided to ditch the 433 in favor of a 4231 (or 4<4>2/4132 versus teams who sit deep). Hayes also moved Ji – Chelsea’s key central attacking midfielder since 2014 – deeper into midfield to play in a pivot alongside box-to-box midfielder Melanie Leupolz or defensive midfielder Sophie Ingle. Ji’s craftiness and ability to identify space, even if it wasn’t yet open, had powered our attack in the final third for years; now it would be used to pick through an opposition’s press and give us the ability to transition from defense to attack in the blink of an eye.
Hayes complemented those moves by implementing a vicious counter-press. Chelsea would run at back lines with the central forward and the two wide-forwards, but would drop the central No.10 to squeeze the midfield instead. Meanwhile, a defender, usually Millie Bright would push high to intercept attempted through balls, as the fullbacks contained the flanks to keep the opposition trapped in midfield.
But perhaps the most diabolical move has been to free up the central area for any attacker to rotate into. With the veritable plethora of talent on offer, this makes Chelsea as unfair to defend as expected at the start of the season. Hayes found a way to not only take advantage of Sam Kerr’s relentlessness, Fran Kirby’s deftness and acceleration, Pernille Harder’s movement and shot creation, Bethany England’s versatility and Guro Reiten’s laser-guided left foot, but she’s developed a system that makes it impossible for defenses to anticipate how they’re going to be attacked.
Sam Kerr is a handful on her own, and Hayes is using her ability to torment center backs in a smart and sinister way. Not only does a defense have to worry about keeping an eye on Kerr and identify her runs, they also have to pay attention to any space that develops in front or beside them. It isn’t only a matter of who would be filling them, but also, and more frustratingly, of when.
Imagine all the variations this interchange can create. It’s downright obscene.
- We’ve seen Millie Bright hit a pinpoint pass from the center circle to the boot of left back Jonna Andersson to play down the line for Kirby to cut back towards Harder. Goal.
- We’ve seen Ji force a turnover and find Harder in the central area to dribble towards the penalty spot before playing wide for Kirby to cross low first-time towards a sliding Kerr. Goal.
- We’ve seen Kirby collect the ball down the right after another turnover, dribble into the box and find Harder drifting into space created by Kerr’s darting run. Goal.
- We’ve seen Ji split a defense with a perfect through ball for Harder to find Kerr alone at the far post after Kirby drew the defenders away. Goal.
- The true beauty of it all is that anyone can get in on the act. We’ve also seen Drew Spence slide the ball up the right flank to Jess Fleming to play ahead to Sam Kerr to lay off the ball to Kirby to push it across to Reiten for a simple finish in the center. Goal.
How is this going to work?
Emma Hayes has responded with: D) Yes, All of the Above.
By pushing for the acquisition of some of the best players in the world in the same one-third of the pitch, Hayes backed her own tactical abilities. It wasn’t easy, and it was difficult to ever see how it might ever work, but it is working now, and it’s stunning.
Chelsea’s success this season is also a testament to Hayes’ (hu)man-management. Some of the best talents in world football have bought into not being the focal point of a team, and instead selflessly allow and help create opportunities for all to show their best.
What now exists is a many-headed beast, with the cruelty of surprise to boot. Final bosses in video games tend to have tells, letting you know what type of attack is coming. With Chelsea, that tell doesn’t exist. By the time a defense have worked out where the fatal strike is coming from, Chelsea are already celebrating.