15 September 2019 – Chelsea require a 91st-minute equaliser from Finnish striker Adelina Engman to salvage a point against Brighton at The People’s Pension Stadium in Crawley.
7 February 2021 – Two goals from corners see Brighton come from behind to end Chelsea’s 33-game unbeaten run.
23 January 2022 – Erin Cuthbert hits the bar as Chelsea are held to a 0-0 draw by Brighton despite having 26 shots
There are few fixtures in the Women’s Super League that have developed as much lore around them as when Brighton and Chelsea meet each other. Brighton are the only side to have taken points off the title holders in each of the last three seasons. Arsenal have not managed to, Manchester City have not managed to, but Brighton, a team who average 27 points a season seem to just specifically get at Chelsea.
Victoria Williams, Brighton’s longstanding central defender and captain, insists it is something much more simple than some kind of curse placed on Chelsea.
“Really, I think it is just more about the diligence and your preparation.”
“I just think we prepare for every game meticulously. The technical staff give us every realistic situation that might occur. But ultimately, when it comes down to it on the day, it’s the players on the pitch that ultimately decides it.”
“So, I can’t tell you whether they underprepared for us or not – only they know that.”
When it comes to Chelsea in particular, Williams is keen to emphasise that the way Brighton set up to play is not just a passive reaction.
“I’ve seen teams just go out and press Chelsea from the front, and I’ve seen the devastating effects of that. It’s not a case of just opening yourself up to that quality of player because if you turn the ball over in the wrong areas, they’ll just punish you. And then before you know it, you’re out of the game.”
“Every game, we have to prepare to win. So even though that might look like ceding possession, so it looks like we’re just sitting in a block and we don’t want to win the game, that’s not the case.”
“It’s all about finding a way to win, finding a way to get something out of the game.”
Brighton have endured a tough start to the season with heavy losses to Arsenal (who they played against with ten players for the majority of the game after an early red card for Emma Kullberg) and Manchester United, although they did pick up a win against Reading. As they were last season, Brighton remain one of the most direct teams in the WSL, but Williams is keen to stress the context around some of their stylistic choices at the start of the season.
“Obviously, the first game against Arsenal, we went down to 10 players within seven minutes which ultimately changed how we were going to have to manage that game.”
Brighton started their own passing sequences 28.4m from their own goal against Arsenal, the deepest of any side in a single game this season.
“Based on the data that came out from that game, we’re obviously in a low block, quite deep, which means then the outlet ball comes on regain and playing against a team that counter press quite well when they turn over the ball, especially in our defensive third. I think it meant that a lot more passes went direct a lot sooner.”
“If I think about the Reading game, we were maybe a bit disappointed about how we played in possession in terms of ball retention. Because it’s actually our idea not to be direct. Most of the pre-season, we’ve actually been focused a lot more on maintaining possession and moving the ball around the pitch.”
Brighton played their match against Reading at the American Express Community Stadium, a change from their normal home at the Broadfield Stadium in Crawley.
“We actually trained on the exact pitch dimensions because the AmEx is bigger. We had to have our pitches adjusted for it. So ideally, obviously, the game plan was to utilise that extra space and the players that we have got in those areas.”
Despite Brighton’s stellar record against Chelsea, they have struggled against other bigger teams. When it comes to approaching those games, Williams says they try and be realistic.
“First and foremost, it’s just sort of the acceptance of the quality that you are coming up against. Generally against the top three, if you turn the ball over in certain areas, they are a lot more clinical and ruthless than other teams. In general, you tend to get pressed a lot higher, as well as in your build up play. So sometimes it’s about bypassing that and not giving them the opportunity.”
“All the things we do are [about] trying to counteract their strengths and still play to ours. You have to accept that you might not have as much of the ball as you’d like. But that doesn’t mean when we have the ball that we want to rush the game.”
Williams uses last year’s draw with Chelsea as an example.
“We played on the front foot quite a lot in that game. Where we might have a mid to low block in general, you always have to add context, so if the game starts feeling like we can enjoy a little bit more of the ball, and they’re beginning to drop off, you can move forward. So, it’s about game understanding.”
“Obviously, the longer you hold those teams, the more confidence you gain from that and actually start thinking about opportunities. Most of the time, I presume they’re coming to those games, quite confident. But if you can knock that confidence during the game, by being hard to break down, in general, I’ve noticed they get frustrated a lot sooner. And that’s when gaps start to appear. Then we can really start to impose our game on them rather it being one-way traffic.”
When it comes to Williams’ own game, she is a very front-foot defender who last season led Brighton in terms of clearances per 90 and blocks per 90. Only Louise Quinn at Birmingham made more headed clearances per 90 than Williams.
She is particularly proud of her increase in the number of progressive carries she made per match, finishing second behind former Brighton defender Maya Le Tissier, who made a summer move to Manchester United.
“A couple of the targets I set myself last year from the beginning of the season were based on raw data. I wanted to complete more passes but also move the ball forward, so they were easy things for me to identify in terms of steps.”
“Looking at video footage, I was able to pinpoint areas where you know I passed when I could have travelled, or I’ve travelled when I should have passed.”
“I put in progressive passes and carries because I didn’t just want to be completing passes for the sake of it.”
At the same time, Williams emphasises that when it comes to considering her actions within Brighton’s backline, balance is key.
“We’ve been looking at team structure and like ‘What are the players in your team trying to do?”
“If I can provide balance by just retaining the ball and recycling the ball, that’s not always in a negative sense.”
It is something she has had to reassess this season with Brighton having undergone a huge squad turnover in the summer, including losing two key members of their defence in Maya Le Tissier and Emma Koivisto. A further blow came when returning signing Rebekah Stott picked up an injury before the season had even begun.
“It is quite a new look squad. Even in terms of players that we’ve retained, at the minute one of my centre-back partners is Kayleigh Green, who is actually a striker.”
“Defensive partnerships are all about relationships and understanding each other. So I wouldn’t say it’s had a negative impact. It’s more just a case of getting used to situations and learning. I think, for me as a defender, what is important is knowing where players are more likely to pop out into.”
Once Williams knows what her defensive counterparts are likely to do, it allows her to put herself in a position between the event and her own player. “The more you play together, the easier those decisions get,” she explains. “It allows you to be more active and make decisions sooner, knowing the likelihood of [what they are going to do]”
For Brighton and Williams, there is certainly a need to sure up that backline quickly. The games against Arsenal and Manchester United will not define their season, but there has certainly been a sense early on that this is a team who are not as defensively solid as they might have been in the past. Despite that, you would not bet against them being able to find a way to frustrate Chelsea once again come Sunday.
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