Survival of the jitters: how Chelsea beat nerves to win historic third WSL title in a row and save their season

The champions may be serial winners but their biggest challenge this season has been handling the heat on their way to securing a record-breaking three-in-a-row, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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At half-time on the final day of the WSL season, it looked like Chelsea were once again going to fumble their way out of a trophy. Twice already this year they had allowed a competition to slip out of their grasp, but this one would have hurt even more. In the Champions League they capitulated to Wolfsburg when they only needed to avoid losing by more than two goals to progress from the group stage. Then in the Continental Cup final, they gave up a one-goal lead over Manchester City to end up losing 3-1.

Here they were 2-1 down to Manchester United and only had 45 more minutes of league football to play this season. It seemed as if Chelsea really could hand the title to Arsenal and bring up a trio of disappointing moments from a season which has had its fair share of lows as well as highs. In the end, the 4-2 comeback win ensured that Sunday was one of the highs, but the game itself contained lots of the narratives that have defined Chelsea’s season.

One of the first words associated with Emma Hayes’ Chelsea side is mentality. They are undeniably a team of serial winners, but ever since the Champions League final heartbreak back in May last year, some nerves have crept in. They were there to see on the opening day when Arsenal ripped through them at the Emirates. They shone through in the frustrating moments against Brighton, Reading, Aston Villa and Birmingham, where Chelsea were unable to turn pressure into goals. And they were present again from kick-off against Manchester United.

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United are a team who should ostensibly have perfectly suited Chelsea as a final-day fixture. Their stylistic preference of playing out from the back suits the champions’ high-press attacking line, with previous meetings between the two this season seeing the Blues thrive off turnovers of the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch. Yet on Sunday, Chelsea looked rattled. Guro Reiten looked flabbergasted at Millie Bright as Bright hoofed balls out of the ground when she had the opportunity to take a touch. Erin Cuthbert screamed incomprehensibly at the defence behind her, desperate for them to keep hold of the ball and give them some respite in possession.

United’s deserved early lead came from this nervous energy. Sophie Ingle played an under-hit pass towards Bright, before being forced to chase after it to stop a United player nicking the ball. The foul itself might have been soft, but it was an unforced error that more than once has allowed opponents to see Chelsea’s soft underbelly.

Yet one thing Hayes has emphasised this season is the desire for her side to be tactically flexible. She has used a variety of formations throughout the season: defensively, switching between a back three and back four, whilst shifting between a traditional front three or using a 10 behind two forwards in attack. At half-time, she abandoned the 4-4-2 which was leaving Alessia Russo, Martha Thomas and Ella Toone with far too much space, in favour of a 3-4-3. Beth England’s introduction placed more pressure on United’s make-shift centre-back pairing of Hayley Ladd and Maria Thorisdottir, whilst Ji So-Yun, playing her penultimate game for the club, immediately connected attack with midfield. Chelsea’s third goal — the one that put them ahead and the title in their hands — was a perfect summary of Hayes’ changes as Ji began a slick passing move that saw Reiten ghost into the Manchester United penalty area from her left wing-back position, firing the ball past Mary Earps.

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Of course, the Reiten goal was sandwiched between two moments of outstanding quality from Sam Kerr. The striker has bailed Chelsea out on a number of occasions this season, but never as spectacularly as this. Here it felt like she was personally laying down a marker of herself as one of the best finishers in the world, celebrating becoming the first player in WSL history to score over 20 goals in consecutive seasons. The two volleys showed how Chelsea can utilise their individual brilliance when things on the pitch are not playing out as might be hoped. It is not the kind of plan that always works out for them, but on the final day of the WSL season, it played out gloriously.

The combination of Hayes’ tactical switches, drilled into her team throughout the year, with a twist of unfettered talent, saw Chelsea over the line to win a record-breaking third consecutive WSL title. No other team has ever managed even back-to-back wins, and with an FA Cup final next Sunday, they could secure seven trophies in three seasons. It is undeniable that the meltdowns which have happened have taken some of the sheen off this Chelsea side. But not since the great Arsenal team that kicked off the WSL era has one team been so utterly dominant.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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