Tactical Insights

With Barcelona looming, Emma Hayes’ Chelsea look a very different prospect to a year ago

Wind back nearly a year to the day at Stamford Bridge, and Chelsea were on the verge of exiting the Women’s Champions League at the quarter-final stage, against the competition’s eight-time winners Lyon.

But two Chelsea veterans saved them at the death.

Maren Mjelde, then 33, scored a penalty eight minutes into added time at the end of extra time to make it 2-2 on aggregate and stepped up again moments later to dispatch the first kick of the ensuing shootout. Ann-Katrin Berger was the other hero. The then-32-year-old’s two shootout saves helping Emma Hayes’ side through to a semi-final against Barcelona.

Things look very different now.

Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Ajax at Stamford Bridge in the second leg of this season’s Champions League quarter-final (they won 4-1 on aggregate) was a perfect example of that.

Berger was on the bench and has made just five starts in the Women’s Super League this season. That has been due to a mixture of reasons: the manager’s decision to go with 23-year-old Hannah Hampton as her first-choice in goal and injuries — Hayes confirmed after last night’s game that Berger had been recovering from concussion.

Mjelde has gone from being a rock at the back in those games against Lyon and then Barcelona last year to not being a regular starter, for the same reasons as Berger. Injury has hampered her season and other centre-backs — Jess Carter, Nathalie Bjorn (when fit), Kadeisha Buchanan and Sjoeke Nusken — have played ahead of her.

But as Chelsea head into a potential repeat of last year’s semi against Barcelona — the European champions who are 2-1 up after the first leg against Norwegian side Brann, and play them in Spain this evening (Thursday) — what do they have now that they did not have before?

The key missing players are Sam Kerr and Millie Bright, both absent with long-term knee injuries. When Bright was ruled out of the first leg against Barcelona last April, it was a huge blow which felt like it could significantly impact Chelsea’s plans. And had Kerr’s injury happened a year earlier, the same would have been said. The game plan away for the second leg at Camp Nou, having lost 1-0 in the home game, was to stay tight defensively and go long to Kerr in the hope she could create something out of nothing.

Kerr is a special player and carries a goal threat that has and can never be fully replaced, despite Chelsea paying a then-world-record €450,000 (£385,000; $486,000) fee for January signing Colombia international striker Mayra Ramirez after losing the Australian to injury.

Chelsea, however, are less dependent on those players now. Despite Bright not playing since November — Hayes said she would likely be back after the international break — and Kerr’s absence since the post-Christmas winter break, they have coped well.



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The squad rotation has at times been forced because of injuries, but they are more resilient and accustomed to change. Hayes has, in her words, more “diversity” and “variety” in a squad teeming with attacking options. Ramirez, Sjoeke Nusken, Lauren James, Catarina Macario, Fran Kirby, Guro Reiten, Johanna Kaneryd and Aggie Beever-Jones are all at her disposal, fit to play in the Continental Cup final against Arsenal on Sunday and most have a strong case to start in that match and the Champions League semi-final later in April.

Such depth, and a 3-0 lead from last week’s first leg, allowed Hayes to make six changes from their 2-0 league win against West Ham on Sunday. The Chelsea manager named nine top-class substitutes against Ajax: Hampton, Berger, Nusken, Melanie Leupolz, Macario, James, Kaneryd, Niamh Charles and Jelena Cankovic. Just compare that to this stage of the competition in 2023 against Lyon. On that night, Hayes only named eight of the nine permitted substitutes, including now-loanees Alsu Abdullina and 21-year-old reserve goalkeeper Emily Orman.

She has curated this squad over many years, following a cohesive long-term strategy alongside her general manager Paul Green and the women’s team’s dedicated scouting department — a rarity in the WSL.

It is all very well having many pieces but, as Hayes said, changes disrupt the rhythm of the team. Getting those pieces to work effectively and adapt quickly to different systems in-game is another matter.

At times in recent months, the churn has been evident — and last night’s performance is a case in point. Chelsea lacked cohesiveness. In the first leg, according to Opta, Hayes named an unchanged starting XI, from the 3-1 league win over Arsenal the previous weekend, for the first time this season, ending a run of 27 games with at least one change. Gradually, however, the connections are starting to solidify, especially up front.

Variety sounds nice and looks good on paper but the question is whether Chelsea are secure enough defensively, especially given first-choice centre-back Bjorn is sidelined with a calf injury and Bright’s continuing absence.

Last time out against Barcelona, Hayes’s defence was disciplined, structured and resolute, led by then captain Magdalena Eriksson, who has since moved to Bayern Munich, and Mjelde. The 2023-24 back line will have to match that performance, if not better it, over the two legs to make the final in the Spanish city of Bilbao on May 25 (a day that could also see Chelsea’s men lift the FA Cup).

“We’ve been at the latter stages so many times,” Hayes said. “We know where we have to be to play in those sorts of games.”

Chelsea Women have indeed accumulated Champions League experience and will now play their fifth semi-final in six years.

Despite the absence of pivotal players, they must harness everything they have learned under Hayes and ignite their quality to progress.

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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