Ekt is hard to describe what it has been like to watch what is surely one of the best women’s teams to ever play in England’s top flight. Magical yet intense, sleek yet gritty, there are juxtapositions aplenty in Emma Hayes’s all-conquering Chelsea team.
In many ways it is the marriage of these opposites that has made this team exhilarating and set it on course for a historic quadruple – a feat achieved only once before, by Arsenal in 2006-07. With the Women’s Super League title wrapped up on the final day of the season on Sunday and the Continental League Cup already secured it is two down, two to go.
How, wel, has Hayes built a side capable of even coming close to winning all three major domestic titles and the continent’s premier prize when two seasons ago her team were trophyless and failed to qualify for European competition?
After securing the second league and FA Cup double of Hayes’s tenure in 2017-18, it was time to rebuild. The club captain, Katie Chapman, announced her retirement while record goalscorer Eni Aluko, full-back Claire Rafferty, goalkeeper Becky Spencer, the tricky forward Gemma Davison and centre-back Gilly Flaherty were all moved on by Hayes. The extent of the clear out was colossal but the trophyless year of 2018-19 fuelled the fire.
“If you know me, then you know that [it drove the back-to-back title wins],” said Hayes on Sunday. “I don’t take losing very well. But what I’ve learned in losing throughout my career, whatever that loss is, to be really self reflective. I knew that I had to do some things both in the squad and with myself. That’s why we are here today, part of the reason.”
It took just a single season for the manager to get the Blues back on top, winning a first Continental Cup and a third WSL title in last year’s truncated season – undoubtedly aided by fewer games as a result of a lack of Champions League football after a third-place finish in 2018-19.
A big part of the successful revamp, which also saw Kingsmeadow purchased and rebranded and the training ground expanded, has come from shrewd recruitment. Australian forward Sam Kerr, who won the golden boot in five back-to-back seasons in the United States and Australia (2017-18 en 2018-19 in the W-League, 2017, 2018 en 2019 in the NWSL) was brought in at the end of 2019 after a lengthy pursuit.
Following a somewhat quiet start, Kerr has lit up the league and, met 21 doelwitte in 22 WSL games this season, is the first player to win the golden boot in Australia, the US and England.
Pernille Harder, the current European player of the year, joined for a world record fee last summer as Hayes set her sights firmly on the prize that has similarly eluded the Danish forward, the Champions League. But it has been the lower profile signings in the two years since the exit of so many key players that have proved invaluable, those who provide the base of the squad on which the jewels – Harder, Kerr and company – can be elevated.
Ann-Katrin Berger’s arrival from Birmingham when Chelsea already had three experienced goalkeepers on the books because Hayes “refused to let her go anywhere else” speaks to the thought and planning that goes into the long-term build. The former Bayern Munich captain Melanie Leupolz has been outstanding in midfield since joining in the summer, while Guro Reiten has continued to shine in her second season at the club. Jess Carter and Niamh Charles have both risen to the challenge of having been shifted from more attacking roles into solid full-back options.
Other than the shock 2-1 defeat to Brighton, which ended a 33-game unbeaten run, Chelsea have been remarkably consistent. Their three draws came away at the rest of the WSL’s top four – Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal – but they beat each of them at home.
Another important contributor to this stellar season has been decisiveness of players in handling complications or curveballs. With five national team captains in the squad Hayes’s desire for a team of leaders is evident. The manager wants her players to be able to solve problems for themselves.
Perhaps most symbolic of Chelsea’s journey is the resurgence of England forward Fran Kirby. That it is Kirby, rather than Harder or Kerr, who has surely etched her name into every individual award before voting has even taken place is a testament to the scintillating form she has been in this season having recovered from the debilitating heart condition pericarditis.
But it is also a testament to the way Hayes manages her players, the caring arm she wraps round them in all aspects of their lives and the belief she has in their talent regardless of what setbacks or struggles they may have experienced or may be experiencing. She fights for them and they fight for her and that is the secret to their success.