“A cause for excitement”: Why Emma Hayes’ wing-back switch has given Chelsea new life – tactical analysis
Chelsea Women have sat relatively comfortably at the top of English women’s football over the last two seasons, having secured the WSL title in each of those campaigns. However, they face increased competition this time around, with Emma Hayes reacting to this by introducing a new style of play that will give them an edge. This new setup uses wing-backs to increase Chelsea’s numbers in all areas of the game, and this tactical analysis will pick out the positives and negatives of this formation, seeing how it has improved their attack but also given them a few defensive issues in the early stages of the season.
The wing-back role
Before analysing their attack and defence, we need to explain Chelsea Women’s tactical approach to games with this new formation.
In the last campaign, Chelsea struggled to get numbers into the same areas of the pitch when attacking, and it was often down to England star Fran Kirby and Australia striker Sam Kerr to provide the threat in the middle, with little consistent help from elsewhere.
However, this has now changed, with the wing-backs ensuring that Chelsea have a constant supply of balls into the middle, as well as getting more players into the central channel to create opportunities. By maintaining their width, Chelsea’s opponents, in this case, Brighton and Hove Albion Women, have to keep stretching out, when narrowing and outnumbering the three central players would be easier. This leaves gaps open for Chelsea’s three forwards to exploit, and we can see how having wing-backs has helped them to ask more questions in the middle.
The key thing is that their formation is not fixed, with every player able to move around and take up different positions on the field. In this instance, Norway international Guro Reiten, who has this season played mostly at left wing-back, has come off the wing and run inside the pitch, whilst Kirby has drifted out to fill the space she left.
The major difference here is the personnel inside the box. As mentioned, Chelsea had to use their wide forwards to cross the ball into the box last season, meaning that there was only one or two players waiting to receive the ball in the box. Now, however, there are three, which gives Kirby different passing options. This, and the fact that she and Reiten have switched positions, makes it harder for Brighton to defend against their attacks, so this is another way that having wing-backs has benefitted Chelsea’s offensive play.
When counter-attacking, the wing-backs are just as important. Here, Emma Hayes’ side have broken out from their half, following a Manchester United Women set piece, and Pernille Harder has possession in the middle. Niamh Charles, who played as a full-back last season despite being a winger at previous club Liverpool Women, has run towards the far side of the pitch, giving her team a passing option and continuing to stretch the play. This is essential here, as Manchester United are focusing on the ball, trying to crowd around it and prevent Harder from passing behind them. Without the wing-backs, Chelsea’s attack would be too narrow here, which would have made it easier for Manchester United to stifle it. Therefore, again, the wing-backs have played a critical role in the game.
This section has given us a basic idea of Chelsea’s use of wing-backs in different situations during matches, focusing on the options it has given them. However, we will now focus separately on their attack and defence, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each in this new team structure.
As mentioned, Chelsea Women’s attack last season revolved around Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr operating together, with Pernille Harder not looking comfortable in their setup. However, this season, the Denmark captain has been reinvigorated, playing in a role alongside Kirby and Kerr and looking much more like the player we know she is.
By playing in the half-spaces, rather than as a typical attacking midfielder, winger or striker, Harder has been able to drive through opposing defences at speed. As she doesn’t need to focus on crossing from wide or creating opportunities anymore, she has been able to link up with Kirby and Kerr more often and with more success, and this appears to be her best position and role within the Chelsea team.
However, it would not be possible for her to have this spatial freedom if the wing-backs didn’t hold the width, so the new formation has been a key reason for her improved form at the start of this season. This image showed her scoring a goal after a powerful run through the middle, and it is moments like this that demonstrate her newfound quality.
Another positive aspect of the wing-backs’ involvement in Chelsea’s attacks are that the three forwards don’t have to stay at the top of the field throughout games. Instead, because they effectively have five players in attack, one can drop back to act in a link role with the midfielders, as Harder has done here.
Chelsea like to play through the thirds, and generally rely on their midfielders to move the ball into the forward line. It is common to see Germany’s Melanie Leupolz and South Korea’s Ji So-yun drifting around the field to support attacks, often helping to outnumber opposing defenders when needed, but Harder’s run back here also shows the teamwork that Chelsea have developed through their wing-back formation. The main positive of receiving the pass from these areas is that the distance the ball needs to travel is decreased, which lowers the risk of an interception being made. Therefore, it gives Chelsea more chance of keeping possession, which in turn increases the chance of them creating a shot at goal.
Again, none of this would be possible if the wing-backs weren’t there and Harder couldn’t come back, so this is another positive sign that this season’s tactics have given the team a new lease of life on the pitch.
We have already discussed how Chelsea have increased their numbers in the final third this season, but we haven’t yet analysed how this has led to them posing a greater threat in front of goal. Here, Manchester United are playing out from a goal kick, with Chelsea’s players working together to close them down and force them into this pocket of space.
To increase the pressure and further dictate how this situation plays out, Kerr has gone forward to force the pass to be made earlier than perhaps intended. Harder then presses the player who receives the ball, as the white arrow shows, with Chelsea subsequently winning possession and scoring through Kirby, only a few passes later. Therefore, by increasing their numbers, Chelsea have been able to press opponents individually and force turnovers in possession, which has been key to them keeping the ball as high up the field as possible and creating plenty of chances to score.
However, whilst the attack has shown a lot of positives this season, the defence has a few issues. Going to three centre-backs should, in theory, give Chelsea Women a greater advantage at the back, as they have one more player there to fill any available gaps, but this has not always been the case for them so far.
This is how a back five setup should look when the team has time to set up after losing possession. They have an organised structure, with the width controlled by the wing-backs and the central spaces being closed off by the middle players. Their opponents here, Arsenal Women, have implemented a pass-and-move style under Jonas Eidevall this season, which involves locating and exposing gaps in the opposing defence, but they found it hard to get through Chelsea when Emma Hayes’ side were set up with this rigidity. As a result, when Netherlands striker Vivianne Miedema does get possession here, she is forced to shoot from a greater distance than normal, and doesn’t connect well with the ball, slicing the effort well wide.
Another tactical aspect that Chelsea have introduced at the back this season is that, when the opposing team don’t pose as great a threat, such as Everton Women here, they don’t stay in their five-player shape. Instead, four players stayed back, whilst one of the central defenders came out to close the ball down. As we can see here, captain Magdalena Eriksson has this role on this occasion, and is positioned in front of her teammates. This structure keeps Everton further back and prevents them from exploiting the defensive gaps Chelsea have open behind the Sweden international. Therefore, whilst this indicates some weak areas, it also demonstrates how Chelsea have identified and tried to protect them as much as possible.
However, there are a few major defensive issues that they have experienced with this new formation. Here, Everton are attacking forwards, with the three Chelsea centre-backs working together to close off the space behind them. As a result, Everton’s Scotland winger Claire Emslie has to slow down and focus on keeping possession, which gives Ji the chance to come in and win the ball for her team.
The problem is not here, as such, but is that other teams, like Arsenal, tend to play around the sides of defences, and this was one reason why Chelsea lost against them on the opening weekend. Therefore, the wing-backs need to drop back quicker in these situations, closing off the wider gaps and forcing opposing attackers to move the ball around in front of them, as was the case in the first image in this section, and this is easier to defend against.
The other issue Chelsea have is that the three centre-backs naturally move up the field to involve themselves in the play. This is because the midfielders go forward, as we have already mentioned, so the instinct is for the defenders to then fill the space they have left. However, this opens up an enormous amount of space behind them, which Arsenal in particular exploited as often as possible. Here, Miedema has the ball on the edge of the Chelsea line, and ends up cutting inside Jess Carter to score the opening goal of this game. Therefore, this is something else that Chelsea need to watch, as teams with quick attackers will look to expose these spaces as the season goes on.
In conclusion, this scout report has shown that Chelsea Women’s switch to wing-backs this season has led to plenty of positives and some negatives for them. The attack has been hugely improved by it, but the defence still has some problems to address to make their backline as watertight as possible. However, there is no doubting that Chelsea will cause problems for opponents with this formation, and, as this analysis has shown, it gives them plenty of options across the field, with players having more freedom to move around the pitch and find spaces. Arsenal’s and Tottenham’s 100% starts to the season have shown that this will be a hugely competitive campaign, and having a way of keeping up with them will be essential to Chelsea’s hopes of another title victory.