With important win against resurgent Manchester City, Chelsea became the first team to do the league double over our erstwhile title rivals. More importantly, the win puts Chelsea just two points behind leaders Arsenal, with a match in-hand as well.
Chelsea started the game with purpose and found ways to threaten the City box in multiple ways. However, once the goal was scored, Chelsea became oddly passive and let City control possession, and without being able to break out and pose a threat on the counter. However, the backline stood strong with multiple standout performances and repelled all City attacks with aplomb. The result leaves Chelsea with the opportunity to take the lead in the title race for the first time this season, when we face off against the Gunners on Friday.
Manchester City have taken some time to find their footing this season — after an injury-stricken start ruled them out of title contention — though their away form has been impressive all along, and they came in with a run of four wins and at least three goals scored in each of those wins. City were hoping to set the scales right after losing 4-0 at home to the Blues earlier in the season.
City attempted to threaten the box by crossing from out wide rather than through the center with the majority of their play coming up the left wing. However, the usually dangerous Caroline Weir and the fleet-footed Lauren Hemp were subdued and well marshaled by the defensive diligence of Carter, Fleming and Cuthbert. Carter in particular was impressive in defending Hemp. She won 5/6 challenges when players were trying to dribble past her.
The visitors simply couldn’t find a cutting edge in the final third despite all of their possession. They had just as many shots as Chelsea, and had the same number of touches in the penalty box as well. They were denied access due to the defensive diligence of Ingle, Cuthbert, Carter and Andersson defending from the front. They all had an impressive number of pressures, cutting out passing angles and not allowing players to run through. While Chelsea were pinned back as the game wore on and couldn’t break out, we were equally resilient in defense and able to protect the box.
After a bit of a hiccup prior to the winter break and a run of four games without scoring a goal, Emma Hayes has changed her approach. She has recently favored a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation with an emphasis on directness rather than possession control. Chelsea have focused on finding runners in space between lines or in behind as early as possible and this approach has unleashed the attacking group and particularly Pernille Harder. Her ability to receive and advance from the middle third to the final third with her marauding dribbles has been a joy to watch.
Players like Cuthbert and Fleming have stepped up in the absence of the usual headliners Kerr, Ji, Leupolz and Kirby, and have delivered impressive performances on and off the ball both in midfield and out wide. Guro Reiten meanwhile is in the form of her Chelsea career, finding herself routinely in positions to score while also providing quality from out wide. She has made herself undroppable.
In this game however, after a good start, Chelsea tapered off rather sharply. After going close on multiple occasions and finally finding the breakthrough in the 14th minute, the Blues found it harder and harder to play out from the back and instead resorted to long balls in behind for Kerr and Harder to chase. Both centre backs chose to play it safe by either circulating the ball between themselves or punting it long. City were able to handle these situations very well and this meant that Chelsea couldn’t find purchase in the final third as the game wore on. The situation became worse once Harder and Fleming were taken off. Chelsea will need to examine this performance and rectify these problems as we prepare for the next huge game.
Arsenal have been in patchy form of late and have been forced to chase games rather than score early and control them, but the threat of Miedema and Mead has been augmented with January signing of Stina Blackstenius. We should be rightly wary of the threat these three will pose. However, if we can repeat our performance from the FA Cup final in December, we will bag all three points and finally take a lead in this season’s title race.
Chelsea have course-corrected well after the hiccups in December, and are well on course to completing another domestic treble. The depth of the squad has stepped up in the absence of important players and gotten results. Let’s hope that we can continue in that same vein and keep winning games in style.