Emma Hayes’s nous could give Chelsea edge over Arsenal in WSL title race | Karen Carney
Chelsea know the exhilarating feeling of edging a Women’s Super League title race. Last season they won the trophy on the final day and they go into the last five matches of this campaign one point clear of Arsenal at the top and will be confident of repeating the feat.
It seems like Chelsea always peak at the right time –this is not luck but all thanks to careful planning by Emma Hayes to get the best out of her players at the crucial points of the season. It is a risky tactic but when I played under her the idea was always to get the team to reach their optimum level when things started to matter. Chelsea were not at their best when this season started – losing to Arsenal – but as last Sunday’s 9-0 win at Leicester shows, they look unstoppable now.
When I was at Chelsea, you would start the season at 60-70% of your capacity and build up. There were no small-sided games because Hayes did not want any muscle injuries and the people coming back from international tournaments were gradually reintegrated, whereas those who had benefited from a full pre-season were pushed a little harder.
Through the season, Hayes will start working you harder during the week and tell you that you will go into the game fatigued but that you have to get through that – which is as much in the mind as it is physical – so you will come good towards the end of the campaign. There were times in games where we were fatigued and not at our best when I was there but we would tend to get the result because we had the quality; and then when it did matter we were strong.
Arsenal have a different approach and started like a house on fire, using the bounce from a new manager and signings to build momentum. Jonas Eidevall replaced Joe Montemurro over the summer and quickly brought in five players as he looked to return the intensity which seemed to have dropped off last season. Under Eidevall the team has become more direct, whereas the old Arsenal wanted to pass and keep the ball. They have been at their best this season when they have been direct, limiting their passes to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, and also using more width to deliver the ball to the players who can make a difference.
Arsenal lost momentum when Leah Williamson was ruled out for two months with a hamstring injury. If she had stayed fit, the league would be in Arsenal’s hands now. They were hugely affected by her absence and forced to change their style. She gives them speed and cover in defence and is their best player in terms of playing out from the back and building attacks.
My two players of the season are Williamson and Millie Bright, both right-sided centre-backs. Luckily for Chelsea, Bright has stayed fit and the team has continued to improve. It is not a coincidence that when Williamson was injured, Arsenal suffered their only league defeat of the season, went out of the Continental Cup and lost the FA Cup final. Since her return they have started to pick up again. You could argue the signing of the forward Stina Blackstenius has improved Arsenal but it does not matter how many strikers you have got or how many of the best players in the world you have up top, if you cannot defend, you will not win anything.
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