Chelsea FCW’s season got underway against Arsenal at The Emirates in front of 8,705 spectators. The Gunners were looking for their first competitive win over Chelsea since 2018, and got it by an unseen offside foot and some rusty finishing from the Blues.
Emma Hayes confirmed our suspicions and Chelsea came out in a 343 formation (Magda Eriksson LCB, Bright central, and Jess Carter RCB). Melanie Leupolz and Ji So-yun were tapped as the midfield pivot, and the forward line had Bethany England central with Pernille Harder on the left and Erin Cuthbert right.
For the first half hour, including Vivianne Miedema’s goal, Chelsea very much looked like a team without many full squad training sessions attempting a radical change in formation. Miedema’s opener came fifteen minutes into the match with Arsenal isolating Jess Carter on their star forward. Berger took a slight step toward the center of her goal as Miedema put moves on Carter and the Dutch international snuck the ball inside the near post.
At the half hour mark, Chelsea started to find a bit more comfort and some passing range in the new system. Ji had drifted high into her familiar #10 spot and facilitated a couple nice moves that ended with blocked or off-target shots. Just before halftime the Blues got the chance they needed.
A ball in from a short corner routine deflected to Millie Bright whose powerful shot was blocked to Melanie Leupolz in the box. The German did well to turn her back to goal to shield the ball and spot Erin Cuthbert crashing in unmarked from the right. Leupolz fed Cuthbert whose shot across the keeper found the net.
Chelsea get the equalizer! What a game pic.twitter.com/EeduKIPdts— ata football (@atafball) September 5, 2021
After halftime the match was delicately poised, and Arsenal going into the match level after a dominant half hour were probably the more down of the two. They unfortunately came out like it. The Gunners pounced on opportunities to get behind with early balls through the back line. It became the sole source of their tactics for the majority of the second half, and it led to two goals in eleven minutes, with Beth Mead scoring both. The first was a ball straight through the center of the pitch, splitting Bright and Eriksson. Both recovered well but Mead checked, found space, and hit a powerful shot into the far corner.
The second goal was less clean cut, and in fact probably shouldn’t have counted. New Arsenal signing Mana Iwabuchi found space wide on the left side of Chelsea’s defense and bent a ball into the box for Beth Mead to run onto. Chelsea keeper Ann-Katrin Berger came flying out but couldn’t beat Mead to the ball and was caught in no-man’s-land and Mead rolled into an empty net as Chelsea scrambled. On replay Iwabuchi’s pass looked to be released with Mead having an illegal step advantage behind the line, but the flag never came and VAR hasn’t been implemented in the WSL — something Hayes is not pleased about.
Emma Hayes on Sky: "We shouldn't accept lower standards in women's football." Wants goal-line technology and VAR brought into the WSL.— Tom Garry (@TomJGarry) September 5, 2021
Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr and Sophie Ingle entered the match in the 56th minute for Bethany England, Melanie Leupolz and Niamh Charles. Erin Cuthbert was dropped back to RWB to make way for Kirby, Kerr replaced England centrally, and Sophie Ingle added some defensive stability in midfield in place of Leupolz.
Eight minutes later Chelsea had the ball in the back of the net again, this time through Pernille Harder. Cuthbert found space wide and clipped in a perfect cross that Harder rose to meet and bury in the back of the net.
PERNILLE HARDER— ata football (@atafball) September 5, 2021
How are we feeling ata fam?? Tell us in the comments below… we’ll go first pic.twitter.com/EEqn4JBpVR
The final twenty or so minutes, plus six minutes of stoppage time, were filled with wave after wave of Chelsea attack. Some last ditch defending, decent positional goalkeeping, and rusty finishing combined to keep the equalizer at bay. Kerr had a header straight into the arms of Arsenal keeper Manuela Zinsberger, and Kirby found the ball at her feet in the box with a window to shoot at the far corner but her shot floated high.
It’s an annoying loss for Chelsea for a multitude of reasons. It’s annoying to lose a season opener; it’s annoying to lose to a rival who hasn’t beaten you in competitive play since 2018; it’s annoying to shift goals via the same defensive problems that plagued you at the end of last season; and it’s annoying to lose three points due to a missed offside call. The latter is especially hurtful because the margins at the top of the WSL were very tight last season (Chelsea topped Manchester City by two points) and promises to be this year. An early slip-up means Chelsea will likely need to take points off City and Arsenal in their remaining matches if they are to three-peat as league champions.
As for the defensive issues, well, that’s the more immediate concern. After the match Emma Hayes admitted that the club tried to address the fullback situation but weren’t able to secure anyone on their list.
Question from @SuzyWrack to Emma Hayes, asking about no full-backs recruited in the summer window: "It's not that we didn't target players, we just didn't get the ones that we wanted."— Ameé Ruszkai (@ameeruszkai) September 5, 2021
The new formation shows promise, particularly to exploit wide spaces. If some finishing had been sharper there’s no doubt the Blues would have come away with points. There’s also the fact that, thanks to having to play their way into the group stages of the UWCL, Arsenal has been played three competitive fixtures while Chelsea are just a couple of weeks into folding their Olympic stars to full training. Chelsea will surely improve offensively with sharper finishing and the return of Kerrby into the starting XI, but solving the defensive problems is a lot less straightforward.