The WSL’s defending champions Chelsea Women made several big signings over last summer, aiming to strengthen their squad to give them the best possible chance of retaining the crown. However, their most high-profile signing, and possibly the most high-profile signing of the entire summer, was the arrival of Denmark star Pernille Harder at Kingsmeadow from Wolfsburg for a world-record fee for a female player. The UEFA Women’s Player of the Year has settled in well to life in west London, quickly establishing herself as an important player in the Chelsea squad.
This tactical analysis will look at the reasons why Harder is tipped to be a player to watch this season, analysing how she fits into Chelsea’s tactics. The scout report will focus on different aspects of her passing ability and positioning, as well as how she has seemingly formed a link with star striker Beth England.
However, before we begin the analysis of these areas, we need to first look at her heatmap for this season so far, as it will set up several ideas for us.
We can see how Harder doesn’t just limit herself to one area of the pitch, and instead is able to and does play wherever she sees space on the pitch. This is evident by the even spread of the heatmarks across the image. This means that she is the ultimate utility player for them in the midfield and attacking areas, and, with Chelsea’s tactics being very fluid, with multiple formations used, it means she can be deployed in any position and help her team out. As we now look at some specific parts of her play, we will see how this works within the Chelsea tactics.
Playing behind the attack
The first section we will look at is how Pernille Harder plays when operating behind the main Chelsea attack, in an attacking midfield role.
In this image, we can see how Harder, in the blue circle, is in possession on the far side of the pitch. From this position, she can move the ball to whichever area she wants to, with teammates positioned all over the pitch, offering a mixture of short and long passing options. We can see how much influence she has on the team, and how her teammates expect her to pass the ball into one of them, because their body positions are all turned forwards, on the move towards the box. Therefore, they anticipate that, when Harder gets the ball in these areas, she will move the ball forwards, getting an attack going for Chelsea Women. Harder’s passing accuracy this season is 74.6%, backing up how her teammates can get into a good area and know the pass from Harder will get to them.
If we look at one passing option in particular, which is striker Beth England, positioned between the Arsenal Women defensive line, then we can see how Harder is provided with the option of moving the ball forwards into the space behind the Arsenal defence, and we know the Denmark international has this type of pass in her range. The accuracy of her passes into the final third is 67.6%, which highlights how she looks to make these passes and succeeds in accessing the space behind them. Therefore, again, when Harder is in these areas, she carries a threat to opposing defences, and this is why she is such a dangerous player to play against.
However, when she doesn’t have the ball, she often pushes forward into spaces that cause problems for opposing defences. In the first image here, she is in the blue circle, indicating that she wants the ball passed ahead of her, into the space behind the Arsenal defence. This would allow her to get on the end of it and create a shooting opportunity for her teammates further forward. We know that she is in a midfield role here, and not the forward line, because she is in the same area as defensive midfielder Sophie Ingle, wearing number five for Chelsea. Therefore, it is clear that her role here is to get the ball and be the creative player centrally for her team.
The second image, which comes from the game against Everton Women, is slightly different, because she is in a position further forward, in the blue circle, rather than in the midfield. However, again, she is looking to offer a passing option to her teammate, into the space available on the far side of the Everton defence. Therefore, we can see how she directs the play, and ensures her team always has a way of unlocking opposing defences, and that is why she is such a crucial player for this team.
What we can say, therefore, is that Harder has good awareness of where she is on the pitch, and this relates back to the heatmap at the start of this piece, where we saw how she operated all over the pitch, in midfield and attack.
We have seen how Harder plays in midfield, but she is also a striker, capable of playing in the forward line. In the image below, we can see how she takes up a position as a wide forward, making the pitch as big as possible for her team.
By taking up this position, she makes it harder for Arsenal Women to stretch across the pitch and cover all the spaces. If we look at the way Arsenal’s defence is set up, there is one player with the ball, who is looking to close down Harder, but the others are positioned more centrally, meaning that a gap has been created between them. This is where Chelsea Women can then attack through and into the space behind, so we can see how Harder helps her team to get behind opposing defences.
Chelsea have moved into a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, with either Beth England or Sam Kerr playing at the top, but the wingers and attacking players further back are encouraged to get forward and support them. This leads to situations like this, and again shows Harder’s awareness of where she can be most effective on the pitch.
In a similar situation, against Everton Women, we can see again how Harder is in a wider attacking position, with Chelsea having formed a diamond shape in their attack. This comes from having so many attacking players on the pitch, and their ability to form these structures is a reason why Chelsea are so hard to beat.
If we look specifically at Harder’s positioning, she has stretched the play out much more. If she wasn’t there, then Chelsea would have only covered the far side of the pitch, and it would have been easier for Everton to surround them and cut them off. However, Harder forces the defenders to come across, and that opens up the space for Chelsea to attack into.
Whilst the last image showed Harder in a wide attacking position, she is also capable of operating as the striker when her teammates are in other areas of the pitch. This image shows how she has looked to occupy this role, getting between the Everton defenders, and offering her side the option of getting the ball into the space behind them. Harder is capable of scoring goals, so her teammates know that, when she gets into these areas, they can move the ball into the central channel and she will be able to get a shot away.
The fact that we have now seen her in a wide position and a central position indicates her versatility on the pitch, and her ability to play wherever her team needs her to. This is why she is so highly valued at Chelsea, and why they look to her to create a passing or shooting option when they need it.
However, this image is perhaps the most notable in this section, because it shows her ability to transition from midfield to attack with ease. Beth England, in the yellow circle, has moved to meet the ball in front of the Everton defence, and Harder sees this and moves forward to fill the space she has vacated, as indicated by the blue arrow. Therefore, when England turns to pass, she will have a passing option available, and Chelsea will have a way of getting the ball behind the defence.
Harder’s movement stops Everton from closing the gap, which would have made it really hard for Chelsea to get the ball behind them. Therefore, with Harder in the middle, it causes problems for the defence, and the Dane’s ability to spot these spaces and move to occupy them as soon as they are left is why she is such a highly-rated player, and why she will be one to watch this season.
Linking with Beth England
If we build on that last point, we can see how Pernille Harder’s link with Beth England is not an uncommon occurrence in the Chelsea team, and is something they can really build on as the season goes on.
In these two images, we can see how Harder and England operate very close to each other when the Denmark international is in an attacking role. This means that the threat that Chelsea pose in the forward areas is doubled, because the defence doesn’t just have to watch one player, but two, which can lead to mistakes and space being left too open at times.
The first image shows how both players are behind the Everton Women defence, and this means that the chances of Chelsea scoring have been doubled. With only Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver between them and the goal, it means that whichever player MacIver moves to close down, the other can get the ball and score. Therefore, we can see how Harder has helped her team in this situation to increase their chances of scoring.
The second image shows the ball on the far side of the pitch, with England and Harder both in the box, ready to receive it. However, it is their positioning which is particularly notable here. England has gone close to the goal, looking to pounce on any balls that come across the box towards the goal, whilst Harder has looked to position herself slightly further back, in an area where, if England misses the ball, or if the ball is crossed in too high for her to get to, she can get on the end of it. This means that there are now two potential passing options in the box for Chelsea, increasing the chances of them scoring. Therefore, what this shows is how Harder adapts her run and positioning in order to help her team make the most of every attacking opportunity.
It isn’t just in areas where they are close together that they see where each other is and work together. In this image, we can see how they are on opposite sides of the pitch to each other, which makes the pitch as big as possible, and also makes it harder for Everton to defend here. Their problems are increased by the fact that both Harder and England are quick players, so Everton have to work hard to get to the ball first.
What we can say so far, then, is that Harder’s partnership with England gives Chelsea more options on the ball, and therefore gives them a better chance of scoring in every attacking situation they create. However, it also gives them both a player that can help them to increase their own personal goal tallies, as we can see in the image below.
This image shows a goal scored by Harder against Everton. The yellow arrows indicate how the ball was passed into England by Harder, before it was then played back into the space for the Denmark international to score from. The blue arrow shows Harder’s movement after passing the ball to then meet it again. Given Harder’s expected goals (xG) per game on average this season is 0.69, and the number of goals she has scored is 0.86, it is clear that getting into these positions is really benefiting her.
Therefore, this confirms what we have already looked at – Harder’s presence in Chelsea’s attack, and her ability to see and move into spaces is a key reason why Chelsea are likely to retain their WSL title.
In conclusion, given what we have analysed in this scout report, we can see that Pernille Harder is definitely a player to watch in 2021. We have analysed how she plays in different positions across the pitch, as well as how her spatial awareness and versatility means she can play wherever Chelsea Women need her to, increasing her importance to them.
The thing that Chelsea will find really useful is her apparent partnership with Beth England, because it means they can give other players like South Korea midfielder Ji So-yun more freedom to move around and get into good areas. Therefore, it is clear that Harder’s arrival will only benefit Chelsea going forward.