The end of the Olympics is already in sight and the advent of the new Women’s Super League season is around the corner. Most Chelsea fans are bullish that Emma Hayes’s side can continue their recent WSL dominance.
The all-conquering Blues swept aside the competition last year. The side blended attacking brilliance with defensive steel. Towards the business end of the season, they added a healthy dose of grit. As a result, they rightly claimed the honour of being champions.
However, defending a title is never easy. Chelsea also will have painful memories of their capitulation in the UEFA Champions League Final. Barcelona Femeni comprehensively outfoxed and outclassed them. Hayes has talked about her team’s mentality before and this season will be the ultimate test. Having reached the final, she will expect them to now push that one step further. This will be while also retaining their domestic honours, and winning the delayed 2021 FA Cup competition.
Chelsea have a fantastic squad, the best motivator in the WSL, and facilities that few clubs can match. So why will they not retain the grip on the trophy? Well, Chelsea will not win the WSL because…
Too much Kerr-by?
First and foremost, it’s unlikely that Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby – the omnipresent and omnipotent duo that soared Chelsea to success last season – can match their extraordinary feats again. Both players recorded an average of over 1 goal per 90 minutes played. The Australian striker went one better, to average 1.05 xG per match over the season. The overperformance on expected xG is unlikely to be bettered.
Whilst Kerr’s improvement of 21 goals from a 17.7 xG (and the same npxG) is a modest improvement, Kirby’s 16 goals from 7.2 xG is frankly absurd. Moreover, both players demonstrated their eye for supporting teammates. Kirby’s average xA of 7.2 is lower than the 11 assists she actually claimed. Meanwhile, Kerr’s 8 assists are nearly double her xA of 4.7. Whilst both players are world-class talents at the peak of their footballing powers, it seems wholly unrealistic to expect them to continue to defy the stats in such a stark manner.
It’s also unrealistic to expect them to be as decisive in terms of deciding matches. Particularly towards the end of the campaign, Kerr and Kirby were crucial in this manner. In the 9 matches Chelsea played after their surprising loss to Brighton, either Kirby or Kerr grabbed the opening goal, or the match-winning goal in 7 of these contests. Their ability to step up in key moments is something Hayes relied upon. It is also something Chelsea will definitely miss if either player is injured for a period of time.
Defensive questions remain
Chelsea’s defence also needs to be scrutinised. It may seem unfair to lambast them too much considering Ann-Katrin Berger picked up the Golden Glove last season. However, at times this was more due to personal brilliance rather than defensive unity. Maren Mjelde’s injury did allow Niamh Charles chances to shine, but the switching between Jonna Andersson and Jess Carter on the left did little to aid defensive cohesion.
At times in the UWCL especially, Chelsea rolled with the punches and clung on for dear life, before mounting impressive comebacks. The signing of Aniek Nouwen is a top acquisition for Chelsea’s defence. Both Millie Bright and Magda Eriksson are elite players. There is still uncertainty over Mjelde’s fitness at the start of the season. And, with big games as early as the opening week, the Blues defensive frailties could come to light again. In a league as competitive as the WSL, even a couple of poor results can be fatal. Manchester City and Arsenal both found that out last year.
The Pernille puzzle
The other big puzzle that Emma Hayes has yet to crack is Pernille Harder. The world record transfer enjoyed a solid if not spectacular first year in West London. Her skill is undeniable. However, her role has fluctuated from wide attacker to winger to attacking midfielder and even sometimes playing in the centre. With her attacking ability, you want her as close to the box as possible. Yet, she has often been playing 2nd and 3rd fiddle to the aforementioned Kerr-by partnership.
It feels unfair to say it, but in a way, this wastes Harder’s ability. If either of those players suffers a crisis of form or an injury, Harder should be the natural superstar replacement. So far this has only been present in flashes. A full pre-season with the Blues might give the mercurial Dane a chance to really show what she can do.
The quiet transfer window
The final issue that the West London club have to contend with is transfers, or rather, a lack thereof. Whilst other squads across Europe – PSG, Lyon, Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester City – have bolstered their sides with a number of exciting options, Chelsea’s window to date has remained remarkably modest.
The signing of Nouwen is an exciting prospect for the Blues and she is a very cultured defender, apt for the ball-playing role. She looks like an excellent partner, or cover, for Eriksson or Bright. The long-mooted capture of Lauren James is viewed as a coup for the club too. Securing the services of one of England’s brightest young talents, particularly from a rival, is not to be sniffed at.
However, attacking talent is hardly a need for Chelsea. They already boast former WSL top scorer Bethany England, Scottish dynamo Erin Cuthbert and Norwegian creative force Guro Reiten. They also have the services of evergreen playmaker Ji So-Yun. There is a concern that the squad is looking top-heavy, and this was highlighted in some of the more competitive matches last season. If Sophie Ingle is injured, there is no natural option to sit in front of the defence.
Charles and Carter are both good younger players, but they are not finished articles. A world-class fullback such as Hanna Glas would be a welcome addition. It would also be a real signal of intent that Chelsea are determined to compete on multiple fronts. However, such an acquisition looks unlikely. Therefore, the Blues are still operating on the same parameters as last season: an outstanding 1st XI with solid squad players, but notable gaps that can be exploited by the best teams. Will too much upfront and not enough at the back be the reason Chelsea will not win the WSL?
The combination of these factors are the reasons why I believe Chelsea FC will not win the WSL this season. Of course, there is a chance that in 12 months’ time, looking back at this article will draw a mixture of amusement and confusion as to why a Chelsea fan has this view. Emma Hayes has talked about the importance of the return towards relative normality post-COVID. A more standard season means she has more of a chance to coach, rather than just jumping from game to game in a crammed schedule. In this way, it’s the acid test to find out really how good a manager she has become.
Chelsea have ambitions to be the top dog in the women’s game and now is the time to start making it happen.