Chelsea manager Hayes has to solve unexpected attacking dilemma

The Blues are dominating games but somehow just can’t seem to score. Should their boss be worried? By Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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Emma Hayes is facing a rare problem. You have to go back to October 2018 to find the last time Chelsea failed to score in back-to-back WSL games. In fact, that was the end of a run where the Blues managed only two goals across their opening six games in the league. It was a start to the season that Chelsea were unable to recover from, leaving them out of the Champions League places, and arguably providing the catalyst for the supersonic development which has seen them win five of the six domestic trophies available to them over the subsequent two seasons. It would be another 38 months before they failed to score in a league fixture.

Chelsea would have wanted a quick start to the new year after a mixed December which saw a dominant FA Cup final win over Arsenal tainted by an exit from the Champions League at the group stages and a shock loss in the WSL to Reading. However, two match cancellations due to COVID-19 cases left them returning over a month after their last game.

When they did return, against West Ham in the Continental Cup, there was some rustiness, as was to be expected. Chelsea were playing a 4-3-3 as Hayes continues to move away from the back three she began the season with, while Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder and Niamh Charles acted as a fluid front three. Despite a sluggish first half, the Blues were able to score through a typical counter-attacking break, and added three more goals in the second half as they found more of a rhythm.

Despite conceding twice, Chelsea progressed to the semi-finals of the Continental Cup and seemed to have moved on from their December blues. A WSL trip to a Brighton side who had conceded 11 goals in their last four WSL games seemed like the perfect next step. Yet a 0-0 draw where Chelsea dominated the possession and chances suggested Chelsea’s problems were not going to disappear as easily as they imagined.

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Chelsea have undeniably created more than enough opportunities to deserve to score against both Reading and Brighton. Their cumulative non-scoring xG of 3.79 far outstrips that of any other team’s run of form this season. And while according to Opta, Chelsea did not have any big chances against Reading, they missed two against Brighton — one from Guro Reiten and another from Kirby.

It is telling that Chelsea’s strength and depth is such that there has actually been little discussion about the absence of their top goalscorer, Sam Kerr. The striker has been averaging 1.4 goals per 90 minutes for Chelsea this season, even more than last year when she won the league’s Golden Boot. It would be ridiculous to suggest that without her Chelsea do not have sufficient goalscorers to win games, but it has obviously led to a readjustment of the attack. It was notable against West Ham that all three of Pernille Harder’s goals were exactly the kind that Kerr normally scores for the team — tap-ins, rebounds, headers. But against Brighton, Harder tended to drift a bit deeper, trying to pick up space between their lines. Instead Kirby was the main striker with Millie Bright often trying to play her in behind the Seagulls’ defence to little effect.

Chelsea’s goalscoring might also have been affected by Kirby. She scored an astonishing 16 goals off 7.2 xG last season, and whilst she has not entirely reverted to her underlying numbers, her goals per90 has dropped from 1.04 to 0.81. Last season she was able to magic even the smallest chance into the back of the net. This weekend she looked a lot more human when played through one on one against Megan Walsh as she just shot rather limply at the Brighton goalkeeper.

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Hayes remained upbeat after the match, though, saying she believed her team had played well. In many ways, she was right. The performance was a lot more fluid than the Reading loss and had none of the chaos of the Wolfsburg loss either. On another day, Chelsea would have easily romped home.

Fortunately for Chelsea, the title race is still in their hands, as other rivals falter. But with sides like Manchester United hitting their stride, Hayes will know there is not much room for error here, with big games against Manchester City and Arsenal coming at the start of February. The most important thing for Chelsea will be not to get in their heads about the missed opportunities. They are creating the chances. If they are patient, the goals will come.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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