Without fans in stadiums, one of the most brilliant things about this dystopic era of football is being able to hear chatter on the pitch while sitting in your living room.
Thankfully, the scourge of artificial crowd noise hasn’t made it to women’s football. In fact, due to the unique way women’s football is supported — UEFA are selling the rights for next season, but for some reason were uninterested in profiting from the 2020-21 tournament — some feeds didn’t even have commentary. As a footballing experience, it was pure and refreshing, even if it’s not what the players deserve. In any case, an unmistakable feature of both experiences was Emma Hayes conducting the symphony that is 2020-21 Chelsea FCW.
We heard much of the same in the first leg, but thanks to Om Arvind, managing editor of Managing Madrid, we now have a subtitled video from the second. I’ll pick out some highlights, breakdowns and tactical directives, but you should indeed watch the whole thing.
For the 13 people who liked this tweet: @emmahayes1 providing tactical instructions while offering @samkerr1 & @PernilleMHarder encouragement & motivation for the difficult shift they had to put in pressing-wise.— Ted LassOm (@OmVAsports) March 31, 2021
Apologies if I misheard or misinterpreted some instruction. https://t.co/qfLUIaBfUn pic.twitter.com/vzOf5IanPG
This kind of stuff gives me goosebumps. It’s normally the type of audio you’d hear once someone put together a documentary some time later — NFL Films or Drive to Survive style. Instead, this was live, and happening right before our ears and eyes.
Chelsea changed personnel, formation and style for of the second leg versus Wolfsburg. In the first, Die Wölfe battered Chelsea with 22 shots on just 378 passes with the Blues’ 433 struggling to contain the midfield and especially the flanks.
Now in a 442, Hayes was directing a modified version of the team’s usual press to keep the opposition pinned back and out of sync. Here you hear her telling Sam Kerr to “do the double”: to press the right center-back while also blocking the passing lane to the central defensive midfielder. The plan was to funnel Wolfsburg wide, then pounce, which can be seen more clearly in the next bit.
Erin Cuthbert came off the bench in the first leg but was given the start in the second, on the left flank of the midfield. Her job was to use her athleticism and tenacity to frustrate and interfere with Wolfsburg’s buildup.
Here we see Hayes directing Cuthbert to “force her backwards” then praising her when she’s done so. Then Hayes directs the rest of the players in the area to close in tight, and force a loss of possession. After Wolfsburg misplay a pass to give Cuthbert a chance to intercept, Hayes praises the effort to win the ball back.
Hayes doesn’t treat her players as soldiers, or subscribe to typical sports theories that coaches are drill sergeants who should command a blind following.
This was a new system for Chelsea, and a new approach. In these shots Hayes is not only telling Pernille Harder what she has to do, but why. It’s fantastic coaching, because explaining why she wants a particular thing done means that when Harder encounters the same scenario again, she’ll be able to identify it, and know how to react to it. This is how you turn a team of eleven into a cohesive unit of one, even as your opponent makes tweaks and adaptations to their style of play.
It could just be a sensitivity brought on by these times and everything around me, but this part of the video made me tear up a bit. It’s revealing of how much Emma Hayes respects her players.
By acknowledging — mid-match! — that what she’s asking of them is difficult, she’s validating whatever levels of exhaustion they were feeling, and sympathizing with the enormity of the task they’ve been given. Hayes doing so was not only respectful awareness, but motivational on a psychological level. By Hayes making this note in-game and in front of everyone, she let Kerr and Harder know that their work was being acknowledged, and would be appreciated.
Most humans respond positively to being seen and having their work noticed, indeed much more positively than a coach who uses the “shut up and do your job” approach. Treating humans like humans shouldn’t be rare but unfortunately it is, especially across many aspects of sports. Hayes’ coaching style and connection with her players is rare, and the reason the team is able to be the cohesive monster that it is, even if it appears that many of its key pieces are redundant.
These clips aren’t awesome because — surprise! — Emma Hayes is a good manager and great tactical mind, it’s awesome because of how honest and encouraging she is with her players. It’s not just a peak behind the curtain, it’s a full on whooshing back of that curtain to see how and why Hayes can convince the top players in the world to join Chelsea.
(P.S. This GIF, in case you do, in fact, not know the one.)