The Chelsea Women team is domestically considered one of the almost unbeatable goliaths of English Football. This was underscored by their domestic quadruple win in the 2020/2021 season as well as the back-to-back WSL title wins over the past two seasons. While domestically, they have little to worry about and will always be contenders, Europe is a different animal that Emma Hayes and her troops aren’t ready for in their current incarnation.
European Hopes May Be Out of Reach for Chelsea Women
The biggest issue that was put on display in Chelsea’s Champions League endeavours is the team’s defence. In an attempt to pack the starting lineup with as many attacking minds as possible, Emma Hayes has taken to deploying a 3-4-3 formation.
When possible, Hayes favours a back three of Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson, and Jess Carter in the middle. Carter’s role is simple, she is the ball player in the defence as evidenced by her 446 passes attempted in the WSL so far and her 531 touches, Carter ticking the ball around in Chelsea’s half is a big part of the way the team plays. The issue? 23-year-old Carter is often lacking defensively and this has allowed some teams to tear the Chelsea defence apart with ease. When your central defender is weaker than the other members of the trio it presents more danger to the goal, as Chelsea will have no doubt learned by now.
Despite the talents of Bright and Eriksson they, along with Carter, the blues have allowed the backline to get breached far too often especially in European games. The blame doesn’t fully fall to the back three as wing-backs Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert should be better defensively at fitting in where needed and making sure the defence is rotating successfully rather than focusing too much on getting forward.
Chelsea Women: The Attack
Chelsea Women and their defensive woes are nothing new. In the past, the team has been a goalscoring juggernaut designed to outscore opponents rather than keep things clean. Recently this goalscoring flair hasn’t been on display and it is possible that teams are figuring out how to stop Chelsea’s array of attacking talent. Just to give some recent examples, the Blues had 34 shots against Reading with only five hitting the target and no goals to show for it, in a recent 1-0 win over Servette they only scored one goal from their 21 shots, in a draw against Juventus they had 25 shots with only five on target and no goals.
It is especially in European competition where we are seeing their offence snuffed out and it shows in the statistics for players like Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr who are getting fewer shots on target per 90 minutes than they have in this season and last season’s WSL campaign, they are also converting less of these with their goals per shots on target numbers lower for the Champions League as well.
The main issue facing Chelsea going forward is that they enjoy exploiting space, but in games where that isn’t readily available they are having trouble breaking teams down. Look at the two Servette games to see the difference. Chelsea walked to the win in the first game by exploiting space behind and between defenders, in the second game Servette tightened things up and Chelsea were only able to get one goal.
The midfield is one area where it’s clear Emma Hayes is trying to find the perfect combo. With the 3-4-3 formation, the wing-backs are essentially wide midfielders, and more often than not these spots are filled by Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert, who we have already mentioned are often caught out defensively due to their attacking mindsets.
This leaves a number of players battling it out to be in the two-woman pivot in the centre of the pitch. So far this season we have seen Melanie Leupolz alongside Ji So-Yun, Leupolz with Drew Spence, Ji with Sophie Ingle, and a couple of other combinations in the middle of the park. Finding the right balance here has been difficult as a lot is asked of that midfield duo in such a formation, they have to press, be useful on offence, keep the possession going with key passes, and help out defensively. So far, Chelsea Women have been unable to find that balance in the middle of the park and some tough decisions may have to be made over the possible need to bring in an elite defensive-minded midfielder to pair with someone like Leupolz or Ji, both of whom are fantastic playmakers.
Whether any change is made to the wider players remains to be seen as both Reiten and Cuthbert are very capable attacking players and with more solidity in the backline or central midfield pairing their defensive workload could be offset to fully free them up in the attacking third.
This article may seem nitpicky-y, and that’s large because it is. This Chelsea Women side is a daunting opponent for almost every team they face in a given season, however, they will need to achieve perfection if they want to seriously challenge in Europe. The difference in quality was on full display in last year’s final when Barcelona Femení tore the team to shreds in a 4-0 win.
This season’s group stage exit is further proof that the quality of opposition on the big stage will not allow for any weakness. Just like the men, the women of Chelsea football club are expected to bring home the top prizes in football and that means contesting for the Women’s Champions League on a regular basis. To do so, improvements will be needed from the squad.
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