The Women’s Super League often seems to boil down to one crunch match which decides who wins the title. Recently, the team who has come out on top of those has been Chelsea.
Back in 2019-20, Manchester City and Chelsea played out a 3-3 draw. Neither team knew it at the time, but that would be their final match following the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, and that single point was enough to see Chelsea take the title on points per game.
A season later, they faced each other three games from the end of 2020-21, both aware that a win would more than likely seal the league crown. Once again, they drew, and once again it was Chelsea who went on to win the WSL title.
On one hand, it feels simplistic to anoint Friday’s match between Arsenal and Chelsea as the title decider, given this season has been defined by its upsets – both these teams have dropped five points to opposition other than Manchester United or Manchester City. But conversely, recent history suggests that Chelsea could gain an overwhelming psychological advantage with a win in this match.
The Story So Far
There is a sense this year that neither Chelsea nor Arsenal have been entirely able to consistently perform at their very best over long spells. Arsenal started off the season incredibly brightly, defeating Chelsea 3-2 at the Emirates Stadium in the opening game before backing up their credentials with a spectacular 5-0 win against Manchester City only three weeks later.
Across their first six games of 2021-22, Arsenal averaged 3.83 goals per game, but their underlying xG numbers (1.98 per game) suggested a downfall may soon arrive – but this didn’t take away the fact that they looked revitalised under new coach Jonas Eidevall.
After six wins, the Gunners dropped their first league points of the season in the north London derby against Tottenham. That 1-1 draw was made even more frustrating with the injury to influential Leah Williamson with a hamstring tear.
Up to and including that draw with Spurs, Williamson had been involved in 293 open play passing sequences in the WSL for Arsenal across the opening seven games, with 69 of those started by their captain – only one player produced more for the club than Williamson in both metrics over that spell. One of the main attributes that Williamson brings to Arsenal’s play is the ability to spray passes from the back to wide areas and quickly transition defence to attack in an instant.
Of all Arsenal players in the Women’s Super League this season, Williamson has the longest average successful pass distance of 25 metres (over 411 passes), while of all players to have made at least 500 passes in the competition this season, no outfielder has averaged a longer successful pass distance.
December’s 3-0 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup final started a poor run of form that saw them win just one of seven competitive matches. The shock 2-0 loss to Birmingham in the WSL on 9th January was the nadir, with the Gunners thoroughly outplayed by the bottom-of-league club.
Emma Hayes’ Chelsea side had a similarly bleak winter period. Despite winning the FA Cup with that dominant win over Arsenal, they contrived to get themselves knocked out of the Champions League following a 4-0 trouncing by Wolfsburg, when they only needed to avoid losing by more than two goals to progress. That was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Reading and a 0-0 draw with Brighton, as Chelsea went from having scored in 59 consecutive WSL matches to failing to score in back-to-back games in the competition.
Mead vs. Harder
If you were to pick a player from each side that you’d expect to have the deciding influence on this fixture, Vivianne Miedema and Sam Kerr would have probably been your pick at the start of the season. Months down the line, however, it’s the impact of Arsenal’s Beth Mead and Chelsea’s Pernille Harder that have arguably shone in 2021-22 so far.
Sam Kerr remains a cheat code for Chelsea but it is Pernille Harder who has particularly stood out this season.
During Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Chelsea on the opening day, Mead scored twice and was the star of the show. Her opening goal was a fantastic left-footed strike, beating Chelsea goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger – one of only eight left-footed goals that Mead has scored in the WSL, contributing just 17% of her 46-goal total, which led to Berger reportedly telling the English forward that she “didn’t know [she] had a left foot,” post-match.
With her assist against Brighton in January, Mead racked up her 35th in the Women’s Super League across her career – that tally matching the all-time competition record set by Karen Carney. Her next assist will see her move to outright top in the ranking.
Pernille Harder, meanwhile, has looked particularly sharp for Chelsea over the past couple of games as she has taken on the side’s attacking mantle with Kerr away on duty with Australia at the Asian Cup. Now being predominantly used in a front two, she has had much more freedom to drift across the pitch than when she was playing in Hayes’ slightly more rigid 3-4-3 at the start of the season and 4-3-3 the season before.
Of course, for Hayes to play this system, she has to leave one of Sam Kerr or Fran Kirby out, but with Harder scoring five goals in her last six appearances for Chelsea, it seems a sacrifice worth making. Her movement helps Chelsea in attack and defence. It was not a coincidence how much control of the game Chelsea lost in their 1-0 win against Manchester City last weekend when Harder was substituted.
It is impossible to talk about this match without looking back at the two previous competitive meetings between Chelsea and Arsenal so far this season.
The opening day matchup at The Emirates Stadium was a dream MD1 fixture for the Women’s Super League – a showpiece fixture in a great stadium to kick off both sides’ campaigns.
Arsenal dominated Chelsea in a high-intensity battle, with Beth Mead running riot, to pick up their first WSL win over the reigning champions since October 2018. The images of Mead running towards fans at the Emirates with her arms outstretched and Jonas Eidevall sinking to his knees in celebration at the final whistle have become the standout photos of the season.
Three months later, in the FA Cup final, it was a completely different story. Chelsea had gone into that WSL season-opener with an under-strength squad, having given some of their side an extended break following the Olympics, so were without key attackers Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby. Both of those returned for the final, while Arsenal were missing their influential leader Leah Williamson at the back – a combination of factors that led to the Gunners wilting under the pressure.
In the opening game of 2021-22, Arsenal allowed Chelsea to play without much pressure on the ball. Their PPDA value (passes allowed per defensive action) of 20.5 was their highest ever in a WSL match. Compare this to their seasonal average of 11.1 in every other match across the season combined, and you can see how much this was an outlier.
Arsenal’s average open play sequence start distance in this 3-2 win was only 33.3m from their own goalline – the nearest to their own goal that’s been recorded in a WSL game on record since the 2015 season. In comparison, Chelsea’s was 41.3m from their goal, but this allowed Arsenal to exploit space in behind the Blues’ backline – something they did twice to score their opening two goals in that victory.
For the FA Cup final, Chelsea changed tack. They pressed Arsenal a lot less – their PPDA fell from 12 in the WSL match to 16.6 in the FA Cup – but still constricted Arsenal to having the ball in their own half. Arsenal made 432 passes in their defensive and middle thirds, compared to Chelsea’s 217. When Chelsea did get the ball, they attacked quickly, putting together only two passing sequences of 10 or more passes in the whole game, and creating three direct attacks, scoring from one of them.
Of course, some of this might have been influenced by game state – with Fran Kirby scoring after only three minutes, Chelsea were happy to sit back and see what Arsenal would come up with in response – but it was stark how different Hayes’ approach was.
The FA Cup final showed that Hayes had learned from her chastening opening day loss to Eidevall. In fact, it has become a cornerstone of Hayes’ management that when she gets a second bite of the cherry, she seldom gets it wrong. Whether Jonas Eidevall can do the same could determine whether Arsenal win the league.
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