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 and this is not luck but 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 weekend’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 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 have 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 have 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 if 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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Chelsea have the experience of Hayes on their side. She has led the team to four of the past five WSL titles, proving she knows a thing or two about winning them. She has been coaching in the women’s game for 20-odd years, including in America, and she understands the league, the business side of things, how to assemble a team and she’s a good man-manager in terms of how she communicates with players and motivates people to get the best out of each individual. Her biggest strength, though, is to generate a winning culture within a club. To create that and replicate it is incredible. It has taken time but now it is being sustained.
Chelsea have spent a lot of the season chasing and closing the gap but the mindset will not have changed since going top. There are still some tough fixtures for both sides: Chelsea have to face Tottenham twice and travel to Manchester United on the final day, and Arsenal have a rearranged north London derby to cope with. Tottenham are in good form, are looking at the Champions League spots and will be desperate to take a late scalp of one of their capital rivals.
It’s been another brilliant WSL season as the women’s game continues to grow. It is an exciting time with the Euros coming up in England and we want a thrilling league finish that gets people even more excited for the summer as the game tries to attract a new audience who will then look forward to watching quality players in the WSL next season.
The title race is too close to call and – as someone who played for Arsenal and Chelsea – being a neutral may be the best way to enjoy a tense finale that could come down to the last kick.