“Couldn’t hit a barn door”: Why Chelsea’s WSL title defence started badly against a “robust and clinical” Liverpool – tactical analysis
For all of the conversation between fans about which team may or may not make the WSL’s top three this year, there has been little debate about which is most likely to win the league, with many expecting Chelsea Women to seal a fourth consecutive top-flight title.
Emma Hayes’ side have certainly been busy in the transfer market this summer, adding the likes of France defender Ève Périsset, Sweden forward Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and Canada defender Kadeisha Buchanan to their ranks, and their first assignment of the new campaign was a trip to newly-promoted Liverpool Women, who, under Matt Beard, had returned to the top flight last summer after two years in the Championship. Not many expected Liverpool to take anything from this game, but they ended up sealing a shock win and handing Emma Hayes’ side an opening weekend to forget, and this tactical analysis will explain why that was the case.
The analysis will focus specifically on Chelsea’s attacking play and how they looked to create opportunities, as well as the areas where their poor accuracy let them down. The analysis will also examine Liverpool’s game plan, seeing how their shape in and out of possession frustrated their opponents and ultimately helped them to walk away with an unexpected win.
Chelsea Women went with their now-customary wing-back formation for this game, with Emma Hayes deciding not to change what had worked so well for them last season. However, some of the players were in different positions, such as Niamh Charles who started at left wing-back rather than on her favoured right of the pitch. Lauren James was instead given that role, whilst Scotland star Erin Cuthbert and Wales captain Sophie Ingle started in the middle, with the latter coming into the starting eleven after a problem for Denmark’s Pernille Harder in the warm-up.
Another notable inclusion was England’s Fran Kirby, who had missed the last part of 2021/2022 with fatigue, and she slotted into a playmaker role behind Sam Kerr and Guro Reiten, who partnered with each other in the forward line. The only new face included was former Lyon Féminin defender Buchanan, who joined Millie Bright and captain Magdalena Eriksson in the back three.
Liverpool Women also went with wing-backs for this match, having used them to great effect during their Championship-winning campaign. New signing Emma Koivisto came in at right wing-back with Taylor Hinds on the other side, whilst captain Niamh Fahey and former Bristol City Women centre-back Jasmine Matthews were joined by the experienced Gilly Flaherty, who was another of Matt Beard’s summer additions, in between them.
Homegrown fan favourite Missy Bo Kearns partnered Wales international Ceri Holland in the midfield, whilst Melissa Lawley and Leanne Kiernan started either side of Katie Stengel in the forward line. Holland and Stengel were making their first-ever appearances in the WSL, having both joined whilst the team were in the second tier.
Chelsea Women’s attacking play
Chelsea Women went into this game knowing that they had an opportunity to capitalise on Manchester City Women’s defeat earlier in the day and join Manchester United Women and Arsenal Women at the top of the table, and, as a result, they played with a lot of confidence and had a good tempo at the beginning of the game.
A lot of their early play saw them move the ball around at speed, with the advantage of using wing-backs being that there are opportunities for players to link up on the wings and look for gaps in the opposing lines to exploit. In this case, three Liverpool Women players have come towards the ball, but Emma Koivisto and Gilly Flaherty have come too far forward and Fran Kirby now has time to send it towards former Liverpool player Niamh Charles, allowing her to create a goalscoring opportunity in the middle.
Chelsea knew from their pre-match preparations that these spaces would be there, and it was evident from moments like this that they had also worked on getting players out to the wings in order to take advantage whenever they opened up. The key component for this to this work was having Kirby in the playmaker role, because that enabled her to drop back and have time to weight passes correctly, giving the visitors a better chance of creating promising chances. The knock-on effect of that was that both Charles and Lauren James recognised that they would have plenty of chances to deliver balls into the box, and it was common to see them running behind the Liverpool defence in the first half as a result.
It was interesting to watch the two Chelsea wing-backs in this game though, as they had been given very particular roles. The key point is that they weren’t only tasked with staying tight to the wings and providing a wide threat, and instead cut inside on plenty of occasions in order to work more closely with the central players, as Charles is doing here. Only one wing-back came inside at a time though, ensuring that there was still width when they were on the offensive, and that was important in keeping the pitch as big as possible. As a result, Charles’ pass across the pitch to James here took the ball into open space, with Chelsea now in a position to look for another way into the middle.
This is not a normal feature of a wing-back formation, as they tend to stay wide and allow those in the middle to perform these roles, but the advantage of playing this way was that Chelsea now had more options to pass to in the middle, with those central players now able to focus purely on exploiting any gaps that Liverpool left open in their lines. Matt Beard’s side didn’t often fall into these traps and did remain largely compact, but this once again demonstrates how the visitors had thought carefully about how to approach the match.
Chelsea Women’s lack of quality
However, for all of this careful planning, Chelsea Women lacked quality in key moments, which was why they ended up losing this match. There were no major tactical problems that need to be addressed, with it simply being a case of individual players lacking timing, touch or accuracy, and the fact that Hayes commented afterwards about how her side “couldn’t hit a barn door” on Sunday evening shows how this was what ultimately let them down.
Situations like this were where this was especially noticeable, with Chelsea having done well to get the ball into a really dangerous position here and with them now having space to advance forwards and take a shot on goal. However, Guro Reiten rushes the pass and neither Kirby nor Sam Kerr can reach it in time, with Liverpool Women seeing the ball out of play for a goal kick. This was not the only time when Chelsea got themselves into promising situations and then lacked quality with the final pass or cross, and it was the main reason from their point of view that they failed to convert their dominance of the match into a commanding win.
The quick passing and movement of the ball that was previously highlighted also disappeared as the game went on, with this situation showing Kirby in space and in the area of the pitch where Chelsea want her to be. As a result, substitute Johanna Rytting Kaneryd passed into the England star here and instantly made a run forward, expecting Kirby to read her mind and send the ball back in her direction with her first touch.
However, Kirby instead took too many touches of the ball and appeared to hesitate, assessing her options and then looking to make the return pass, although it was too late at that stage as Liverpool had closed off the space and Rytting Kaneryd had dropped back again, having realised that the quick pass was not going to come. Therefore, again, key players not making decisions quickly enough was another reason for Chelsea’s struggles in this game.
The return of Kirby to the starting lineup did allow Chelsea to reignite the partnership between her and Australia star Kerr that proved so fruitful two seasons ago when Kerr scored 21 times and assisted seven whilst Kirby scored 16 times and assisted 11, and there were signs in this game that both players were beginning to get back on each other’s wavelength. However, as with most of the visitors’ play, everything was just off the mark, with the pass from Kirby either going marginally too far or Kerr starting her run a fraction of a second too early, again meaning that none of their creative play was rewarded.
Ultimately, for all of the positives in their build-up play which were highlighted in the first section, these mistakes reminded those watching that this was the first game of the new season, as players looked rusty and lacked the necessary quality in possession that many have come to expect from Chelsea. This will improve as players find their rhythm, but it is definitely something that needs to be identified when looking for reasons for their defeat.
Liverpool Women’s game plan
However, nothing should be taken away from Liverpool Women’s performance, which was organised and disciplined, and they will have now answered many questions about their ability to compete in this league. The togetherness of their squad was perhaps the biggest positive to take, as, without that being present, none of their tactics in this game would have worked and Chelsea Women would have been able to tease them apart on more occasions.
The home side’s game plan was clear, as they knew that Chelsea would dominate possession and so instead focused on preventing them from playing to their strengths. As mentioned, they were compact when out of possession and didn’t allow their opponents to break them down in central areas, and all three of their lines were set up with this in mind.
By playing with this structure, they knew that they had a good chance of preventing key Chelsea players from playing to their strengths. Limiting the space between their ranks stopped Kirby and Erin Cuthbert from having too much of an influence on the game, whilst Millie Bright can’t send a long ball into the final third here, as she is known for, due to there being no teammates in a position to get on the end of it. As a result, her only viable passing option is a short one toward James on the nearside of the pitch, which Liverpool knew and could look to prevent, and that showed how Liverpool were working as a team and each knew their role in making life as hard for their opponents as possible.
However, in order to fully assess why this shape worked so well, this analysis will now break down the role played by each section of the team, beginning with the forward line.
When Chelsea’s back three had the ball, Melissa Lawley, Katie Stengel and Leanne Kiernan looked to press them and to try to force a mistake. However, they didn’t press together and instead only went forwards when the ball was in their channel, with Lawley moving forwards here once Kadeisha Buchanan plays a no-look pass towards Magdalena Eriksson. This was key, as it meant that there were never any gaps left open for Chelsea to exploit, as that would have enabled them to resort back to playing through the thirds and defeated the point of Liverpool’s tactics.
The way that each of their players pressed and then dropped back in such a well-oiled manner showed that this was something that Liverpool had been working on ahead of the game, and it was one reason that they stayed in it even after Chelsea had taken an early lead.
When the ball did reach Chelsea’s wing-backs, Liverpool players teamed up to prevent balls from coming into the box. This was something that improved as the game went on, given that this analysis has already shown how Chelsea initially had spaces available to play into, and, once Liverpool found their rhythm, it became harder for the visitors to play balls into the box. Here, Reiten and Charles are once again working together on the near side of the pitch, but Gilly Flaherty and Emma Koivisto have come out to clear the danger, each marking one player each, with the Finland international eventually putting the ball out of play.
The reason that the home side were able to get two defenders out to the ball was their wing-back formation, as they could have two players close to the opponents and still leave three players in the box to close off the spaces that Chelsea wanted to attack into. The away side didn’t have a good day in the final third, as mentioned, but Liverpool need to take some credit for that as they worked hard at the back to make it as difficult as possible for their opponents, and this was another major reason that they managed to stay in the game and end up taking the win.
However, arguably the most important contribution came from the two midfielders, Missy Bo Kearns and Ceri Holland. A lot of what Liverpool did well came down to how hard they worked in both defensive and attacking situations, giving the team either seven players at the back or a five-player attacking unit, and they were combative and happy to put their foot in the way when needed in order to block passes and make important tackles.
In this case, they have got tight to the three Chelsea players in the middle, with Holland winning the ball and instantly sending it up the field towards the attackers, and this again shows how they were not allowing Chelsea any time on the ball and preventing individual opponents from playing to their strengths. Chelsea at times couldn’t deal with the pressure applied by Liverpool’s midfield duo, and it was often the case that they were the ones at the heart of defensive efforts or promising offensive situations.
Both Kearns and Holland covered a lot of ground during the game, with this graphic illustrating the defensive territory covered individually by Kearns (although it was the same story for Holland as neither was ever too far away from the other). As can be seen, Kearns tended to operate between her goal area and the halfway line, which was the best area of the pitch for her to be in as it meant that she could quickly change from being defensive to attacking and vice versa.
It is also notable that, when defending, she didn’t only stay on one side of the pitch and instead she and Holland constantly moved around, covering each other and ensuring that any gaps behind them were quickly cut off. There is no doubt that, without the hard work of these two players in and out of possession, Chelsea would have been able to control the midfield and their general play would have potentially been much slicker, giving them a better chance of scoring from open play.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the WSL match between Liverpool Women and Chelsea Women on the opening weekend of the new top-flight season, picking out the reasons for Chelsea’s loss but also breaking down why Liverpool won it.
Chelsea will know that they were far from their best at Prenton Park and will need to work on some of the finer details of their play, but they will also know that there is plenty of time for them to get back on track as the season goes on. It is also important to remember that they lost their opening match of last season too, a 3-2 defeat to Arsenal, and yet still went on to win the league, so no conclusions should be drawn from this performance other than it being the start of the season and players still being a little rusty.
Liverpool, meanwhile, will be delighted with their performance, with their robustness without the ball and a clinical edge when in possession highlighting how they could wait for their opportunities and then take them when they came, even if it was two penalties in this match and no goals from open play. It was only the first game of the season, but there can be no doubting now that they have a squad capable of competing in this league, and a relegation battle might not be a concern this time around if they can maintain these levels as the season goes on.
Liverpool’s next game sees them host Everton Women at Anfield on Sunday evening, in the first WSL Merseyside derby since the 2019/2020 season. Chelsea are also at home, with Manchester City the visitors to Kingsmeadow earlier on the same day.