Manchester United head to Kingsmeadow on Sunday one point clear at the top of the WSL table. With eight matches of the season left, they are beginning to get tantalisingly close to what would be a historic league win.
Yet Chelsea are no fools and, with a game in hand on United, surely remain favourites to add this season’s title to their collection.
A win in south-west London for the Reds could change all of that. Not only would it put United definitively clear in first place, but it would also mean that they had taken points off all three of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea this season.
Chelsea come into the match under some pressure, having been comprehensively beaten by Arsenal in Sunday’s Continental Cup final. It was only the second game the Blues have lost in 2022-23 and ended an unbeaten run of 21 games that had stretched back to their very first WSL match where they had a surprising loss to newly promoted Liverpool.
Manchester United meanwhile seem to have recovered from the slight slump in form they faced prior to the most recent international break. Comprehensive wins over Durham in the FA Cup and Leicester City in the WSL have demonstrated a renewed goalscoring verve, but Chelsea will obviously be a much sterner test.
Last Time Out
Earlier this season, Chelsea inflicted Manchester United’s only defeat, running out as 3-1 winners in a cagey match.
Chelsea struggled to create good chances until Sophie Ingle was gifted the ball by Millie Turner allowing Sam Kerr to open the scoring. Kerr then turned creator as Lauren James made it 2-0 against her old club. Despite Alessia Russo pulling one back for United, Erin Cuthbert sealed the deal right at the death.
The Manchester United error which led to the first Chelsea goal was reminiscent of an unwelcome theme. They regularly seem to be forced into unnecessary errors against Chelsea, with last season’s 6-1 loss at Leigh Sports Village a case in point.
Chelsea are a side who tend to inspire panic. Despite having the highest passes allow per defensive action of the top four and ranking only seventh in the league when it comes to high turnovers, they have benefited from three errors leading to shots this season. That puts them joint highest in the league with Manchester City. Emma Hayes’ side have also scored four goals following a high turnover this season, which is the second-highest mark by a side in the league. They don’t always press, but when they do it is highly efficient.
One area where United will need to be particularly wary is on their left-hand side. As can be seen on the map above, they have a tendency to be dispossessed in exactly the area where Lauren James is at her most effective. James’ defensive actions map below shows just how high up the pitch she disrupts the opponent out of possession.
James’ signature move recently has been to pick up the ball on her right-hand side and drive centrally, often with devastating effect.
With 21 successful take-ons, the most in the league, once James gets going, it is hard to get her to stop. United will want to be extra wary of losing the ball in her vicinity.
Battle of the Assist Machines
One of the most fascinating matchups in the game will be between the two players with the most assists in the WSL this season. Chelsea winger Guro Reiten has nine whilst Manchester United full-back Ona Batlle has seven.
Over the past few seasons, Batlle has established herself as one of the most creative full-backs in the league. Her expected assists per 90 rate of 0.34 this season is more than double the full-back in second place (Aston Villa’s Sarah Mayling with 0.15). In fact, only three players (Reiten, Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly) average a higher open-play xA per 90 than Batlle.
It is no surprise that 41% of United’s attacks come down the right-hand side she plays on.
She’s more than capable performing the defensive side of her duties too. Her combined tackle and interception rate of 4.2 per 90 is the second highest of any player in the United team.
Despite her all-round ability though, she does tend to get pinned back by better teams with Batlle yet to get assists against any of Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City in three seasons in the league.
And the Spaniard will likely want to be particularly wary of Chelsea’s Reiten who is having her best ever season in a Blues shirt. Reiten leads the league with 0.39 xA per 90 and is creating 2.2 chances from open play per 90.
With nine assists in total from just shy of 900 minutes played, the Norwegian is basically creating a goal a game.
Both her and Sam Kerr like to exploit the space in behind defences meaning that if Batlle does end up getting caught upfield, Chelsea will likely look to quickly play the ball into the vacated space for either runner.
Whoever comes out on top between Reiten or Batlle might hold the keys to the overall match.
Can United Topple Chelsea?
Manchester United have never beaten Chelsea (D1 L7) and there would be no better time for them to start than now. To do so, they will have to try and usurp Chelsea’s unbeaten home record which stretches all the way back to a loss to Brighton in February 2021.
Manchester United are defensively the best side in the Women’s Super League both in terms of expected goals against and goals conceded. They are still yet to concede a goal from a set piece, and their goalkeeper Mary Earps was recently named the best in the world at the Best FIFA Football Awards.
Among goalkeepers with more than 900 minutes played, only Ellie Roebuck is facing fewer shots on target per 90 minutes. Manchester United’s excellent defensive performances on top of Earps being in strong form makes the Reds exceptionally hard to break down.
Yet Chelsea have scored three or more goals in each of their last four meetings.
The Blues have scored in every single match they’ve played this season. Sam Kerr might be lagging in the race for the Golden Boot but ever since the turn of the year, she has not stopped scoring. Kerr now has 13 goals in her last 11 appearances for club and country, and Manchester United are one of her favourite teams to play against. She’s been involved in eight goals in her five WSL appearances against Manchester United (6 goals, 2 assists), scoring and assisting in the Blues’ 3-1 win in the reverse fixture.
So if United are to get something out of this match, you’d think it likely they’ll also have to score.
Fortunately for them, Chelsea seem allergic to clean sheets right now. They have only kept four in the WSL this season, putting them joint fifth in the league with West Ham. And for all Kerr’s fine form, United’s Alessia Russo is also ticking along quite nicely.
Russo scored Manchester United’s first ever WSL hat-trick at the weekend. She has eight goals in 12 league games this season, just one fewer than she managed in 22 appearances last term.
When comparing her shot maps across this season and last, we can see how she has refined her shooting. Her xG per shot has increased from 0.08 to 0.10 and she is also shooting from closer to goal – her average shot distance has decreased from 15.7m to 13.7m. She already has three goals from inside the six-yard box in comparison to only one last year.
Recent history plus the form of both teams would suggest this game has the potential to be quite a high scoring one, despite United’s defensive organisation. That might play into United’s hands with Chelsea quickly falling apart against Arsenal in the Continental Cup final after they went 2-1 down
For United, the key will be not to give Chelsea any of the freebies they have handed out in past meetings, whilst Chelsea will want to avoid giving United any time to grow into the game.
Manchester United like to make fast starts – they have scored more goals in the first 15 minutes of matches than any other side this season – and have yet to concede a single goal in the first half of a game.
A draw would probably suit both sides but a win for either one would surely make the victor the definitive favourite for the league.