Arsenal travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the Women’s Super League on Friday night knowing that a win will take them level on points with both Emma Hayes’ side and Manchester City. Can they set up the best WSL title battle ever, and damage Chelsea’s dream of a quadruple?

As the Women’s Super League title race ignites, it could not be any closer as champions Chelsea prepare to host rivals Arsenal in a huge Friday fixture at Stamford Bridge.

With only seven games to go, we’re now reaching the latter stages of what has been the closest battle for the league title in recent memory, with three teams fighting for glory. By the end of the game on Friday night, all three could be tied on 37 points.

Chelsea still have the opportunity to make history by winning four trophies and Arsenal remain right in the mix to triumph in two competitions, with the Blues standing in their way on both fronts. Indeed, Chelsea will take on the Gunners in the League Cup final at Molineux later this month.

Chelsea’s dominance of the last decade has not been an easy watch for the Arsenal faithful, who are proud of their team’s illustrious history as the most successful team of all time in England, having won 15 domestic titles, 14 FA Cups and the coveted UEFA Women’s Champions League.

That continental success is a feat Chelsea have long dreamed about, and they came so close before falling short against Barcelona in 2021, losing 4-0 on a painful night in Gothenburg.

Still, Arsenal have been forced to watch on as their rivals grew into a domestic force to be reckoned with under Emma Hayes.

And as the Blues prepare to bid an emotional farewell their manager at the end of the season, they know three points against Arsenal would all but end their opponents’ title challenge, giving Hayes’ side a crucial six-point advantage over their London rivals as they bid to make history with a quadruple.

Leaders of the Pack

Arsenal’s last WSL title came in the 2018-19 season. Led by Joe Montemurro, Arsenal were able to lift their first title in seven years on that occasion. But of course, it is Chelsea who have led the pack since with four consecutive titles, the only team to have achieved this since the inception of the WSL in 2011.

In the last four years, Arsenal have finished third three times, and they were pipped to the title by just one point in the 2021-22 season as a dramatic final day saw Hayes’ team come from behind to beat Manchester United 4-2 and snatch the title from the Gunners.

Hayes has largely found facing Arsenal a happy task, only losing six of the 22 games she has faced the Gunners, winning 10 and drawing six.

Arsenal’s first six WSL meetings with Chelsea all ended with a win, but they’ve won just four of their 20 games against them in the competition and lost half (10).

They did, however, stop the rot in the previous WSL meeting this season, winning 4-1 in a Christmas gift Jonas Eidvall could only have wished for in a full Emirates Stadium. It was, at that stage of the season, a record-breaking WSL attendance record of 59,042, with the Gunners breaking records on and off the pitch this season as they make the Emirates their own and attempt to halt the Chelsea juggernaut.

Arsenal 4-1 Chelsea WSL

Arsenal took no prisoners against their rivals and Beth Mead opened the scoring inside eight minutes. Johanna Rytting Kaneryd equalised as Chelsea responded almost immediately, but a poor defensive performance led to two quickfire goals from Amanda Ilestedt and Alessia Russo, helping the hosts to take a 3-1 lead into half-time. Russo added her second from the spot in a game where Arsenal dominated in all areas.

Arsenal’s expected goals (xG) total of 2.97 was the most that Chelsea have conceded in a WSL game on record (since 2017-18), while they only tallied 0.78 themselves – their second-lowest total of the season.

Hayes did not try to hide from the one-sided statistics, saying post-match: “We were bullied in the duels, in the number of duels we lost in the game. You can’t concede [like that] at any level of football and expect to win a game. I felt as a team, we just struggled. This isn’t about any one player, we struggled as a team. It was a long 98 minutes.”

Eidvall’s side will look to do the double over Chelsea and replicate a feat Arsenal last managed more than a decade ago in 2013. They will take hope from their emphatic performance in the reverse fixture as well as the fact Chelsea recently fell to a 1-0 defeat to Man City in the league.

The hectic fixture list is certainly talking its toll on the Blues with three games in 10 days and injuries building up.

Arsenal will be the more rested of the two having only played twice in that time and will have to find some inspiration from their home performances to take to Stamford Bridge.

Their only two defeats on the road this season have been in London derbies away at Spurs and West Ham, and they know if this fixture makes it a hat-trick of away defeats in the capital, their title hopes will be all but over.

A Red Wall

Despite their success last time around, Arsenal will need to build a red wall if they are to keep Chelsea quiet.

With 45 goals, Hayes’ side are the top scorers in the 2023-24 WSL, while they have also posted the highest xG total both overall (39.2) and from non-penalty shots (37.6). Their 3.00 goals-per-game average has only been bettered by four teams within a WSL season, while their 2019-20 side are the only one on record to have had a higher average xG per game (2.67 vs 2.61).

Chelsea Goals WSL 2023-24

Their goals this season have come from 16 different players, equalling an all-time WSL record in a season alongside their own efforts in 2022-23 and 2019-20 as well as both Arsenal and Man City in 2021-22. Jess Carter (15 apps), Sophie Ingle (10) and Ève Périsset (10) have played the most games without scoring for them in the WSL this season.

The Blues lost PFA WSL Players’ Player of the Year Sam Kerr to long-term injury in January at their warm weather camp in Morocco, which initially looked like a huge blow to their title chances.

Kerr last scored on 17 December, but despite the setback Chelsea have responded strongly by scoring 13 goals in the league and winning 12 of a possible 15 points since.

Eidival’s side have proved that they can restrict Chelsea in attack already in the competition this season. Overall, in 2023-24 they have the lowest expected goals against total at 11.5 in the WSL this season, while only 10 teams have a lower xG against average per game (0.77) across the last seven seasons of the competition.

They are the most aggressive pressing team in the league, having the lowest passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) in the WSL (8.6), while there has been a noticeable increase in Arsenal’s press in attacking areas, too.

Their tally of high turnovers – the number of open-play regains made 40m or less from the opponent’s goal – is the highest in the league (261) and their average per game has risen from 13.6 last season (fourth best) to 17.4 in 2023-24 so far.

Arsenal Pressing WSL

Crucial to any potential Arsenal success this weekend will be stopping Chelsea from taking a lead. All 12 matches that Chelsea have done so this season, they’ve won.

In fact, the last time that they lost a league game from a leading position was on the opening day of 2022-23 (2-1 loss to Liverpool) and they have won all 31 WSL matches that they have taken the lead in since then.

Ones to Watch

There will be plenty of top talent on display on Friday evening at Stamford Bridge, with both Chelsea and Arsenal having a plethora of attacking options.

Arsenal welcomed England superstar Alessia Russo in the summer as she transferred from Manchester United. After the club’s injury woes with Mead and Vivianne Miedema last season, it was crucial to bolster their attacking ranks for a potential title challenge this time around.

While far from prolific in front of goal – her six goals are fewer than seven other WSL players – her all-round presence in the Arsenal attack has given them another string to their bow. In the number nine role, she’s been involved in a team-high nine goals (three assists), while no player has attempted as many shots (44) or created as many chances from open play as she has (19) for the Gunners this season in the league.

Alessia Russo Arsenal 2023-24

Alongside Arsenal’s other forwards, she’s been working with club legend Kelly Smith on the training ground. Smith won five league titles and five FA Cups over three different spells with Arsenal, while she was also part of the Gunners team that won the 2007 UEFA Women’s Cup.

Smith’s mentoring has seemingly helped Arsenal improve their chance quality this season compared to 2022-23. They have averaged a much higher non-penalty xG per game (2.25) than last season (1.78), while their average non-penalty xG per shot has risen from 0.10 to 0.12. This hasn’t seen an increase in goals yet, however.

Albeit a minor difference, they have averaged 0.03 fewer goals per game than last season (2.23 vs 2.20), converting fewer of their non-penalty shots (11.0% vs 11.9%) despite finding much better positions. Over time, you’d expect that to improve, with Friday’s match an ideal opportunity to display their quality in attack.

Another reason for Arsenal’s improvement in chance creation was the arrival of Victoria Pelova from Ajax in January 2023. Since her competition debut on 5 February last year, only Chloe Kelly (9) has more WSL assists than she has (8), while she’s created the second most chances from open play at Arsenal (32) behind Katie McCabe (34).

Victoria Pelova Arsenal

After a cruel ACL injury that kept her out of the Women’s World Cup last summer, Beth Mead has returned to action in fine form. Coming back with the hunger and desire to once again be among the best players in women’s football, she’s averaged a goal involvement every 129 minutes since her return to WSL action on 15 October thanks to four goals and two assists.

Of WSL players to have played at least 500 minutes since her return to league action five months ago, Mead is among the top five for expected assists per 90 (0.37), while only five players have averaged more chances created per 90 than the England international (3.0).

Arsenal will also be boosted with the return of Emily Fox, who will be on a high after winning the inaugural Gold Cup with the US Women’s National team – some redemption after a woeful Women’s World Cup last summer.

Fox has appeared in three WSL games since joining in January from North Carolina Courage, and across those matches she’s created more chances from open play than any other teammate (7).

Friday will also see the home side show off their own collection of superstars, with Chelsea having quality all over the pitch, even factoring in the loss of star striker Kerr. One of the top performers across 2023-24 has been Lauren James.

Heading into this matchday, James sits second in the race for the WSL Golden Boot award with 12 goals, behind only Man City’s Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw, while she also ranks second for direct goal involvements (13).

Her 12 goals are already double the tally she’d ever scored in a league season before now (6 in 2019-20 at Man Utd), with a major factor being her lethal finishing, converting 24% of her 50 shots this season in WSL – a huge improvement on last season’s average of 11.9%.

That improvement has been aided by her increased ability to shoot from better positions. The average xG of her non-penalty shots this season in the Women’s Super League is 0.10, up from 0.07 last season at Chelsea. She’s also been getting into the box more often, averaging 6.4 touches in the opposition box per 90, up from 5.6 last season.

Lauren James Touches Chelsea

James is particularly dangerous when running with the ball. Only two WSL players this season have been involved in more shots following a carry than the England international (25), while she leads the ranking for goal involvements following a carry (6).

Lauren James Dribbling Chelsea

It is Fran Kirby who leads Chelsea for chances created (26), with every one of those being from open play. She will be dangerous when it comes to the key periods in the game and Kirby also leads the squad for big chances created (nine). She pulled out of the recent England camp with a knee injury, but she featured in Chelsea’s 1-0 win against Everton in the FA Cup, playing 63 minutes, so Hayes will hope she is fit and firing.

Another injury concern will be record signing Maya Ramírez, who had to come off with an injury after 33 minutes in the League Cup semi-final clash with City. The striker also did not feature in the FA Cup win against Everton.

Ramírez has scored just one goal in her four appearances so far, though she has created four chances for teammates, and her physicality has brought a new element to Chelsea’s play.

Hayes was buoyed in the last WSL matchweek by the return of USA women’s national team star Catarina Macario, who has been out with injury since the summer of 2022. The forward marked her Chelsea debut by scoring after coming on as a substitute 641 days after suffering her injury, helping the Blues to a 4-0 win over Leicester.

She continued to show she is back with a vengeance last Sunday, coming on for Kirby as a substitute and scoring the winner against Everton to send the Blues into the semi-finals and keep the dream of a quadruple alive.

A Dilemma Between the Sticks

Hayes has used all three of her goalkeeping options across cup competitions and in the league this year. Ann-Katrin Berger made two key errors in the previous fixture and will not want to replicate that performance if selected.

Maybe this, combined with the higher number of shots Chelsea are allowing compared to their title rivals, is the one chink in Chelsea’s amour that Arsenal can exploit, and it is fair to say Hayes still does not have a favoured number one. Overall, in 2023-24, Chelsea’s opponents have averaged 0.87 xG from non-penalty shots in the WSL – above last season’s average of 0.69.

Hannah Hampton shone in the League Cup semi-final, keeping out a Man City team who had 10 shots on target (23 attempts overall). She’s played six games in the WSL this season, more than either Zecira Musovic (four) or Berger (five). Hampton also leads the way in clean sheets (four) with Berger and Musovic on two and one respectively.

Hampton is also the best performer of the trio when it comes to goals prevented, having conceded three fewer goals than would have been expected based on the quality of shots she has faced – the second-best figure of any goalkeeper in the WSL, behind only Man City’s Khiara Keating (6.3). Musovic also has a positive goal prevented figure of 1.5, the fourth best in the competition, while Berger is at -1.2.

Hannah Hampton Chelsea

Hampton’s 88.2% saves-to-shots ratio is the best in the league of any goalkeeper to have made more than one WSL appearance this season. Musovic, meanwhile, is the second-best in that regard, at 85.7%.

Should Hampton get the nod to play, and Manuel Zinsberger start for Arsenal, then this will see the two goalkeepers with the most WSL clean sheets this season (four each) take to the field.

Hampton has saved 15 of 17 shots on target she has faced, while Zinsberger has made 20 stops from the 31 shots on target she has come up against. Overall, Zinsberger has been the solid choice for Eidval this season.

Will Hayes’ rotation pay off in the crucial weeks of the run-in with so many key games in all competitions or will it hinder Chelsea’s defensive consistency not knowing each game who will be in the Chelsea goal?

Chelsea are looking to secure a perfect send-off for Hayes, and they have all the tools to do it, but Arsenal stand in the way of their quadruple hopes, something only they have managed to achieve in the history of the English women’s game.

Eidevall’s team will be channelling the winning mentality of that historic Gunners 2006-07 team as they try to thwart this record-breaking Chelsea squad, and Friday will be their first of two huge opportunities to spoil Hayes’ farewell.

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