Chelsea: How Emma Hayes formation change could help WSL title chase

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Chelsea manager Emma Hayes speaks to players during a water break during the Women's Community Shield at Wembley Stadium. (Photo by Andrew Couldridge)

Chelsea’s start to the 2021/22 WSL season might have ended in disappointment, but Emma Hayes’ switch to a three at the back formation is a cause for excitement going forward.

Chelsea men have already deployed this system under Thomas Tuchel, and it’s paid off in dividends.

Certainly, Hayes has already guided her Blues to unrivalled league success, but the competition is much fiercer this season and a tactical switch up may be what Chelsea need to reassert their dominance.

Once Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge, he immediately switched to a three at the back formation. In doing so, he noted the weaknesses of some of his players, masked them, and transformed the club’s fortunes. They went from struggling to reach a top four position under Frank Lampard to becoming European Champions.

Hayes’ need to switch is definitely not as essential as Tuchel‘s was – after all, the Blue boss is currently gunning for her fifth league title with the club.

Chelsea Women are still capable of playing with a back four when necessary. Yet, much like Tuchel’s system, Hayes can mask some of her squad’s deficiencies while accentuating their strengths.

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Formation breakdown

Throughout last season Hayes tended to use a 4-2-3-1 formation for the first part of the campaign. During the latter stages of their run to the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, she used a 4-4-2 diamond midfield set up. 

But during the latest pre-season, we saw Chelsea use a three at the back system. The team sheet may have lead supporters to suspect they had reverted back to a back four. However, Chelsea had set out this way during that opening day 3-2 defeat to Arsenal.

Arsenal ended up running out winners. And yet, Chelsea showed enough promise with a weakened team to suggest that Hayes will stick with this formational plan long term. When more key players return to full fitness, they will likely go this route.

The back three should be viewed as Tetris pieces. They can either stick as a horizontal line, or when the opportunity arises, the right and left sided centre-backs switch to vertical pieces. They then attack ahead of the midfield line to intercept possession.

Defenders

We saw this when Charlotte Wardlaw played in this position against Rangers. Within the men’s team, Antonio Rudiger mainly takes on this role. In Millie Bright and Magda Eriksson, Chelsea have defenders who have that capability. And now, new signing Aniek Nouwen has the ball-playing capabilities to act as the central defender and cover either side if those defenders step out.

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When in possession, Bright and Eriksson also have the ability to progress the ball. They can carry it themselves or play long passes either to the midfield or to the opposite full-back.

We know Hayes likes to take her time with new signings, slowly bedding them into the squad. But the performance of Jess Carter, who started as a right sided centre-back, could speed up the process.

Nouwen may come into the team earlier, with Bright and Eriksson either side of her.

Midfield

Within the midfield double pivot, Tuchel’s formation helped take Jorginho from a player Chelsea fans thought would be sold, to the European Player of the Year. With N’Golo Kante alongside him, (voted Best Midfielder in the Champions League last season) Chelsea men’s double pivot is one of the strongest in European football.

For Hayes, her midfield caused problems last season. Ji So-yun was moved back to create space for Pernille Harder in the No.10 role, but often got overrun and didn’t provide protection for the full-backs.

This use of two No.10s could put Ji back in her natural environment. It would also enable Erin Cuthbert to take over as one of the two No.6s alongside Melanie Leupolz. Cuthbert’s energy and dynamism can mirror the way Kante covers the pitch.

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Leupolz then becomes the one dropping to pick the ball from the back three. Or, as we’ve seen a on a few occasions with Jorginho, she becomes a passing option for the No.10s higher up the pitch.

We saw many examples of this during the game against Arsenal. For the opening 29 minutes, Chelsea really struggled, but once Ji was further up the pitch, they created many opportunities to score.

Plus we shouldn’t downplay the importance of Sophie Ingle, who replaced Leupolz in the game. Her experience and calming presence in the midfield will be crucial during the course of the season.

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Wing-backs

In regards to the wing-backs, Jonna Andersson is ready-made for the left hand side. She’s brilliant going forward and with that added protection behind her in the form of Eriksson and Cuthbert, she doesn’t have to be overly concerned with being too far up the pitch.

Andersson also has a Marcos Alonso-style ability to make something happen. This could be invaluable when teams try and smother the major attacking talents. On the other side, Niamh Charles looks like the obvious option – given she switched from an attacking player to a full-back last season.

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Additionally, there’s academy graduate Jorja Fox, who could play on either side.

The opening day defeat saw Guro Reiten as left wing-back and Charles at right wing-back. It was down the right hand side that Arsenal found the most joy. Arsenal managed to isolate Vivianne Miedema against Carter, and there was only ever going to be one winner.

Frontline

Another option on the right hand side could be Lauren James. This could provide Chelsea with the added bonus of pace coming from the wide areas. This is great for creating overlaps and then getting crosses into the box for the likes of Sam Kerr and Bethany England to feast on.

Or, as we saw in the second half against Arsenal, they can rely on the ever versatile Erin Cuthbert. She could provide cover until Maren Mjelde returns to the first team. The Norwegian star suffered a knee injury in the Continental Cup final back in February.

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In the No.10 roles, the first name on the team sheet is Pernille Harder. This switch enables her to pick up the ball in the areas where she can affect the game and not just create chances, but also score more goals as well.

Alongside her in the long run would be Fran Kirby, who can do similar things. She will be a nightmare for defenders not knowing whether to step out and follow her, or sit deep.

Chelsea looked more creative with Ji alongside Harder, and Hayes trusts the South Korean to do the jobs asked of her. However, there was a noticeable difference when Kirby and Sam Kerr joined the action.

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Strikers

Kerr will eventually be up front, but again, she had an extended summer break after a long season and a gruelling Olympics. For now Bethany England can lead the line.

Both Kerr and England are excellent in the air and they will convert any crosses into the box into chances and eventually goals. However, this was the most disappointing aspect of Chelsea’s performance against Arsenal. They didn’t play on the front foot enough, and at times we saw the likes of Harder defending in the 18-yard box.

This left England isolated and she really struggled to get into the game. If Chelsea are to pursue with this 3-4-2-1 formation, they need to be braver. They must play on the front foot and get the ball moving quickly between that front three.

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Hayes’ Chelsea squad has the players to mirror Tuchel’s approach with Chelsea men’s team. The biggest weakness in the Champions League final against Barcelona was the full-back and midfield area. It was disappointing to see Arsenal exploit those same weaknesses, especially on that right hand side, again.

The formation change, especially when the squad is fully fit, can help Hayes take players we didn’t quite think were good enough and turn them into European Champions.

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