Chelsea boss Hayes loves to tinker but WSL and Champions League success could hinge on knowing her best side

The Blues pride themselves on innovation, yet their most successful teams have been settled ones. Hayes can now use the international break to figure out her strongest squad, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

Embed from Getty Images

Emma Hayes has been in charge of Chelsea for the past decade. In that time she was won 11 trophies, as well as a FA WSL Spring Series and a Community Shield. You do not spend that much time at the very top without being prepared to constantly innovate.

In fact, Hayes has developed quite a reputation for sending out teamsheets that are absolutely confounding. Her penchant for repurposing players into a myriad of different positions, as well as an eye in the transfer market for versatile footballers, means there are often multiple options available, and Hayes tends to pick the one you least expect. It is fair to say that absolutely no one would have predicted Lauren James to be playing at right wing-back in Chelsea’s opener against Liverpool.

Hayes has made clear in the past that she sees formations as just a guide. This is of course true. Most modern football teams will now set up differently depending on whether they are in or out of possession. They might also look to cycle through different formations in order to unsettle or react to what their opponent is doing.

But that is not the whole story. Just because Chelsea are not going to come out every week and play the clear 4-3-3 that Manchester City do does not mean Hayes is not using formations. Her best Chelsea teams tend to be very well-structured; you only have to look at the Liverpool performance to understand the difference between a Chelsea team that knows what roles individuals are supposed to play and one that does not.

It is already clear this season that Hayes is going to iterate on her Chelsea side yet again. She predominantly used a 3-4-3 last season, a formation that first came in at half-time during the Champions League final embarrassment at the hands of Barcelona. It was supposed to give Chelsea more defensive control, but there was a sense that they never looked that comfortable in it.

Embed from Getty Images

So it is all change again as Chelsea find themselves three games into the new season. It seems like there are two options being trialled by Hayes: either a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-3-1. The Liverpool match involved an attempt at the former whilst the wins against Manchester City and West Ham were much more successful uses of the latter.

The success of the back four might be the most pleasing aspect for Hayes. Whilst Chelsea did concede early on against West Ham in a 3-1 win, that was an issue with set-piece defending and poor decision-making from Kadeisha Buchanan when it came to conceding the corner that Dagny Brynjarsdottir headed in from. But Magda Eriksson looks assured at left-back and Buchanan is certainly growing into her role, looking more confident at bringing the ball out from defence. There are obvious rotation options in Maren Mjelde and Jess Carter, who can both play all across a back four, whilst Eve Perisset is available to play at left or right-back.

It is further forward where things haven’t quite clicked. Hayes has moved Fran Kirby into the number 10 role she played for England this summer, the latest in a long line of attempts to bring Sarina Wingman’s England ideas into her Chelsea team. But it has clearly and unsurprisingly altered the relationship which Kirby has with Sam Kerr that was so devastating in the 2020/21 season. Now Kirby is behind Kerr rather than out on the right. Both players are too good not to pick up eventually on their new positioning, but Kerr in particular looks unsettled right now. She finally got her first goal of the new season against West Ham, a tap-in from a poorly cleared corner, having already hit both posts in the first half.

Embed from Getty Images

Guro Reiten has looked predictably excellent back in her preferred role at left wing, and James has lit up the league on the right, even if a missed penalty last night put a slight dampener on her first three matches. But the decision to start new signing Katerina Svitkova against West Ham on the right felt a strange one. Perhaps it was Svitkova’s knowledge of her former team-mates which made her an attractive choice, but given she had not started a single pre-season game, and had never played right wing in the WSL, it was a strange one.

For all of Hayes’ delight in tinkering, Chelsea’s most successful teams have been settled ones where relationships have grown gradually stronger over the season. There are the sketches of a first-choice XI here, although we have not even got on to how Pernille Harder might fit in once she returns from the hamstring injury which has seen her miss the entire WSL season so far. Hayes now has a two-week international break before heading into a five-game run across October as the Champions League group stages get underway. The success of Chelsea’s season might be determined by how quickly Hayes can come to conclusions about her best squad in the next fortnight.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: