Chelsea claimed their third successive Women’s Super League title last season, chasing, matching and finally usurping Arsenal in the final stretch.
They operated in the Gunners’ shadow for more than half the season. But when Arsenal lapsed against Birmingham, the unlikeliest of opponents to be beaten by, Chelsea took advantage to propel themselves to another title.
This season there is no doubt Emma Hayes has eyes on more than domestic glory. Last season’s discouraging Champions League campaign means there is work to be done. Chelsea’s exit at the group stage after losing at Wolfsburg, where they had no response to four goals, revealed an inability to shore up midfield gaps and prevent high-pressing teams from wreaking havoc.
Cast your mind back to the season before where the Blues made it to the final and were rocked by four goals from Barcelona; you may remember similar issues in the knockout stages against Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich.
Hayes has been ruthless in seeking to resolve those problems, evident in Chelsea’s summer transfer business.
Enter stage right: former Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan, France’s Ève Périsset, wing-back Katerina Svitkova, Swedish powerhouse Johanna Rytting Kaneryd and Serbian pass-master Jelena Cankovic – signings that Hayes claim “fit the profile Chelsea were looking for”.
They may take time to gel, and that much was evident in Chelsea’s pre-season defeat by Lyon in the Champions Cup. But if anyone can bring calm to the chaos in September’s games, it is Hayes.
Hayes enters her 11th season with Chelsea, and perhaps her most compelling yet. The past few campaigns have made it apparent she is adapting with the rest of Europe, transitioning to a more possession-based style. Players such as Melanie Leupolz and more recently Cankovic suggest as much. The next level is to reproduce that in Europe with a strong midfield pivot and a ruthless No 10.
Fran Kirby plays in the hole with an unrelenting ferocity, and is the key to unlocking defences. Alongside Sam Kerr, Kirby has become one of the league’s most potent attackers. This summer she was able to give England fans a taste of that same fervour in a winning Euros campaign. Kirby was sidelined with a fatigue-related illness in the months preceding the tournament but, with professional help, was able to return to fitness and become one of the standout players.
Big summer signing
The centre-back Buchanan, a former member of Lyon’s all-conquering team. If you don’t already know the name, memorise it. The introduction of the Canada international signifies a likely use of a back three – a defensive formation that served Chelsea well in the latter half of last season’s campaign. If Chelsea are to improve on their Champions League efforts, they will need Buchanan’s prowess to do so.
Euro 2022 delight/heartache
Millie Bright’s Euros campaign warrants a mention. She was part of a terrific England rearguard that kept clean sheets until Spain’s Esther González scored in the 54th minute of the quarter-final. Blocks, tackles and headers weren’t her only forte. When asked to go forward and play up top late in games, Bright was able to bring about mayhem to allow others to score vital goals.
Bring on the crowds
Hayes detailed recently what the WSL could do to stimulate positive change: commercialisation, grassroots funding, and government intervention. Chelsea will be looking to encourage those measures into inception by rallying more people to turn up to games. “We begin our title defence at Stamford Bridge,” Hayes wrote. “These stars you saw at the Euros, you can see them every week at a very affordable price, in a game that’s free of violence.”