Chelsea FC Women, the most successful team at the club season, are about to embark on another season, which kicks off Sunday, September 5 away versus London rivals Arsenal, at The Emirates.
But before we get into that, we need to talk about last season.
Though Sam Kerr, one of the top strikers in the world, joined in January of 2020, last season was her first full season at Chelsea. It was also former Wolfsburg star Pernille Harder’s first season, as well as ex-Bayern Munich midfielder and captain Melanie Leupolz’s. Olympic gold medalist Jessie Fleming also had just signed for Chelsea, as did young and talented Niamh Charles, from Liverpool.
This collection of new arrivals, along with the magnificent return of Fran Kirby, plus seasoned veterans like Captain Magdalena Eriksson and her central defensive partner, Millie Bright, plus crafty midfielder Ji So-yun, and second-year winger Guro Reiten, and Erin Cuthbert, and Bethany England, and so on ... combined to win three of four available trophies. By the end of the season, the Blues had hoisted the Community Shield, the Continental Cup (i.e. League Cup), and repeated as Women’s Super League (no relation to the scammy Super League dreamt up over the spring) champions.
Given the talent, it wasn’t unexpected, but the way it came together over the course of the season was brilliant to watch. Manager Emma Hayes tweaked and tinkered with the squad until a relentless goalscoring machine emerged. The team finished the season with 18 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss, scoring 69 goals across the 22 games and conceding just 10.
The only disappointment last season was the Champions League run ending in a brutal loss to Barcelona in the Final. Winning that competition remains the unclaimed jewel for Emma Hayes and the players, who now enter a second full season together, with even more talent, and even more familiarity.
All in? Good, here are a some other things you need to know...
Who’s new? Where do they fit?
Aniek Nouwen — CB (22 years old; Formerly of PSV Eindhoven)
Before Chelsea had even played the final match of last season, Hayes had already added to the squad for this season, securing the young defender’s signature. We had been lacking capable backups for our first-choice center back pairing of Millie Bright and Magdalena Eriksson. Nouwen made her Dutch national team debut when she was just 19, and most recently started every match for the Netherlands at the Olympics, where they reached the quarterfinals before losing to the USWNT on penalties.
Nouwen is composed on the ball and solid in her positioning. She doesn’t possess top tier acceleration but is a smart defender who uses her body well and is good at reading play to anticipate and disrupt. She can get caught in transition by pacy attackers, and can panic a bit when pressed at speed, but there are plenty of existing tools to rely on, and for Emma Hayes to develop.
Lauren James — LW/FWD (19 years old; Former club: Manchester United)
Yes, Lauren is Reece James’ sister. But more than that, she is one of England’s brightest young stars. She is, quite simply, an incredible dribbler, with unbelievably good close control and above average strength leaving defenders with the choice of being embarrassed or fouling. Chelsea were once faced with such a conundrum and elected not to foul, so this happened:
However, James has joined the deepest in attack in the WSL. While there will surely be plenty of minutes to go around in plenty of competitions, James is at an age and ability level where playing will likely be more beneficial than merely training. At 19, she is definitely one for the future, but hopefully Emma Hayes has some ideas on how to let her shine now, especially as she possesses such useful skills.
Will it be enough?
For the WSL, probably.
Manchester City, who lost the league title to Chelsea by two points (and a +7 in goal differential), improved their squad with some clever singings, but they also suffered some departures. Last year’s marquee signing, Sam Mewis, headed back to America, as did Rose Lavelle. City’s best wide creator, Chloe Kelly, tore hear ACL in early May and will be out until at least the new year. To compensate, they added star striker Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw, whose twenty-two goals for Bordeaux won her the Golden Boot (Bordeaux scored 50 goals overall), Australian defender Alanna Kennedy, and completed the deadline day signing of Swedish midfielder Filippa Angeldahl.
Arsenal finished nine points behind Chelsea in third, and are going through some changes. Joe Montemurro, who had managed the club since 2017, is out in favor of Jonas Eidevall, a Swedish tactician who should help them rediscover their one-touch roots. The Gunners lost midfielder Danielle van de Donk to Lyon, but were able to hold on to one of the top forwards in football, Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema, whose contract runs out at the end of the season. Arsenal also added Nikita Parris, Mana Iwabuchi and Frida Maanum. All of these additions, plus a new coach might result in some growing pains, but if they get in-sync during the season, they’ll be formidable.
Everton also deserve a shout after a good back-to-back summer windows could see them supplant Manchester United as the team threatening the most to break into the top three.
However, Chelsea remain an unbelievably strong and deep squad helmed by one of the best managers in women’s football. A three-peat as league winners will be difficult, as competition has improved, but we topped the table last season while integrating new pieces and going on a deep and emotionally exhausting Champions League run. A second year of familiarity can only help improve links between several of Chelsea’s brightest stars, which should keep us as titles favorites.
As for the Champions League ... well, it’s a bit more complicated.
Chelsea were humbled by a bonkers but not undeserved 4-0 scoreline by halftime of last season’s final versus Barcelona. And they have only improved since, adding even bigger names and better players into an already egregiously dominant team. Lyon, winner of the previous five Champions League trophies, had their tournament ended by PSG (who also ended Lyon’s run of FOURTEEN CONSECUTIVE league titles), and thus responded with a transfer flurry of their own.
All of this is to say that Chelsea’s path toward a Champions League title is more difficult than it was last season. Barcelona ripped the Blues apart in a way that ruthlessly exposed our weaknesses (outside back and defensive midfield) yet neither Chelsea transfer fixes those issues. Without a bit of luck and a favorable draw, it’s hard to see this being the year Hayes’s Blues finally lift the Champions League trophy.
How might Chelsea play? Same or something new?
Every offseason, Emma Hayes implements a tactical wrinkle to improve the team. Last season the team came out with a patient, well-drilled and devastatingly effective press and counter-press. Shadow covering and space manipulation to dictate and predict the opposition’s passing helped the Blues unleash an intensely effective direct style that could change a match within minutes.
So what might Hayes do to keep the squad fresh and unpredictable this season?
One idea is Hayes shifting the team to a back-three formation. I think it could be a good way to integrate some players who have been left out in the proverbial cold. For instance, in a 3-4-*, Jessie Fleming’s eternal engine, passing range and intelligent reading of play complements Melanie Leupolz in midfield. Fleming would more readily and capably share the defensive workload, in a way that Sophie Ingle and Ji So-yun struggle to do. Please read Abdullah Abdullah’s article on the potential switch for more in-depth analysis.
Chelsea’s other glaring problem, as mentioned above, is outside back. Jonna Andersson took a step back on the left, and Maren Mjelde, Chelsea’s nailed-on starter for years on the right, tore her MCL in March, after which Hayes rotated Jess Carter and Niamh Charles (a true winger) in those positions. Since bringing in new players at outside back didn’t happen, Hayes could improve wing defending with a wing-back system. Jonna Andersson could reclaim her starting role and once fit, new signing Lauren James could be worked in at the position as well. Guro Reiten could also be a possibility in an extremely attacking lineup, something Hayes has no problem fielding against the appropriate opposition. Charles showed last season that she deserves more time on the pitch, and right wing-back would allow her space and opportunity to use her skills. Jess Carter and Erin Cuthbert could also fill in.
One of the biggest reasons for switching to a back three would be to take advantage of the full suite of versatility players like Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Bethany England could provide. All can be effective from wide forward areas, and all but Kerr have shown the ability to score from half spaces outside the box. There isn’t a defense in the league that wouldn’t be kept awake at night thinking of all the way an attack with any of those three could shape-shift throughout a match and make 90 minutes feel like an eternity.
Also, Aniek Nouwen is an intriguing signing and has a profile that would work well as the central or the right-sided defender in a back three. Sophie Ingle, a left-footer who struggled when filling in for Eriksson or Bright last season, could find a comfortable role as the left-sided center back as well. The aforementioned Mjelde would probably be a better in the center than wide right at this stage of her career, and coming off a fairly serious knee injury.
This is of course just a guess, and Chelsea could still implement some of these tweaks without the drastic change to a back three. But Emma Hayes did toy with it already in the middle of last season, and switched to a back three for the second half of the Champions League Final. Whatever wrinkle Hayes crafts, I’m excited to see it.
A most pleasantly unexpected part of Chelsea’s 2020-21 season was Fran Kirby’s full recovery from pericarditis and immediate switch into God Mode. Kirby going from not being able to make it up a flight of stairs without extreme exhaustion to the best form of her career was incredible to behold. She also formed a partnership with Sam Kerr, dubbed ‘Kerrby’, which tore the WSL to shreds.
10 - @samkerr1 and @frankirby have combined for their 10th @BarclaysFAWSL goal of the season, with only Kerr (20 goals, 6 assists) having a direct hand in more league goals this term than Kirby (15 goals, 10 assists). Iconic.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 9, 2021
Left out from most of the fun was Pernille Harder, the most expensive transfer in women’s football at the time, who had scored 27 league goals in her final season with Wolfsburg. In her debut season with Chelsea, Harder had just 9 goals and 3 assists in the league, and while her role grew as the season went on, we’ve yet to see the best of her at Kingsmeadow.
Emma Hayes’ biggest task, and the one with the most upside, is putting Harder’s full array of skills on display to create an even more terrifying front three. Harder is a dangerously effective dribbler who can operate on the left, right or center. She uses clever touches and impeccable body control to get defenders off balance to create openings from which she can beat goalkeepers with anything from clever chips to outright thunderbolts. Getting Harder space to work is paramount if we are to ever see her at her best in Chelsea Blue. If Hayes can facilitate this, Harder could easily rack up 15+ goals and double-digit assists.
Key early matches
Sunday, September 5, WSL:
Arsenal vs. Chelsea, The Emirates, 12:30pm GMT/7:30am ET
Sunday, September 12, WSL:
Chelsea vs. Everton, Kingsmeadow, 12:30pm GMT/7:30am ET
Wednesday, September 29: 2020-21 FA Cup Quarterfinal:
Birmingham City vs. Chelsea, Damson Park, 7:45pm GMT/2:45pm ET
Favorite moments from last season
That time goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger created a goal by baiting Manchester City’s press, then throwing the ball over them.
The time Fran Kirby scored a perfect hat-trick in the first half.
The time Sophie Ingle hit this absolute BANGER against Manchester City.
And, of course, Sam Kerr’s first Chelsea backflip, in the League Cup Final!