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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Chelsea are winning but the search for control and leadership goes on

Sometimes, you just have to get things done.

That felt like the priority for Chelsea on Wednesday as they reached the quarter-finals of the Women’s Champions League with a 2-1 win over Real Madrid. The Spanish side had already been knocked out of the competition and a 0-0 draw between Paris FC and BK Hacken earlier in the day meant three points would ensure Chelsea finished as group winners.

This was not a confident victory, however, with Chelsea looking like they are still finding their feet without Sam Kerr. Guro Reiten’s penalty gave them the lead in the 62nd minute but it took Madrid just seven minutes to find an equaliser, as Hannah Hampton palmed an effort from Hayley Raso to Athenea del Castillo’s feet.

Fortunately, an even bigger goalkeeping error from Mylene Chavas meant Erin Cuthbert’s deflected shot squeezed in just two minutes after that.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes had referred to the Women’s Super League win over Manchester United at the weekend as their best performance of the season, focusing particularly on the control they had been able to exert, especially during the earlier parts of the match.

“We have been evolving throughout the season,” Hayes said after that game. “We haven’t wanted to be a counter-attacking team. We’ve come away from being that type of team and it shows if you look across the board, we have much more control in many of the games we play.”

That did not feel like the case at Stamford Bridge last night, with Chelsea at points struggling to find the patience and direction to allow them to take proper control.

“The goals we have given up have come in what we call the final finishing phase,” Hayes said. “So we were in control, lost the ball, and then, at the other end, goal. We’re more possession-oriented, but we’ve got vulnerabilities in the opposite direction in transition.

“We have worked at being more compact and it has got harder for teams. Sometimes we’re so invested in going forward, getting things right and doing nice things around the box, that we’re not switched on to our rest-defence shape and our roles because we’re so interested in getting goal after goal after goal.”

Chelsea did not concede against Madrid from transition but it did come about as they failed to get back into shape from their own attack after Chavas collected a harmless Niamh Charles shot.

Part of the issue might be that Chelsea are still figuring out who their leaders are on the pitch.

Without captain Millie Bright, Kerr had taken the armband. But since her recent injury, it has been shared around. Charles was skipper for Sunday’s WSL match, while Cuthbert led the team out here. Sophie Ingle did it for Chelsea’s first game of 2024, the FA Cup tie against West Ham United 11 days ago.

“I am intentionally trying to develop their leadership,” said Hayes. “I am intentionally picking younger players to do that but they are senior enough to take that.

“I thought Niamh Charles managed that really well against Manchester United and I thought Erin Cuthbert’s management tonight, when situations were happening that we had to make adjustments in, she was on top of those things.

“We can’t just be relying on Millie Bright — she’s been absent. Yes, there are senior experienced players that are doing it without an armband but I want to put that responsibility on Erin and Niamh in particular.”

Nowhere was that clearer than Cuthbert’s driving run forward that led to Chelsea’s eventual winner.

“The equaliser is indicative of everything Erin is doing,” Hayes said. “She’s taking more and more responsibility — and she wants it.”

But regardless of their individual performances — and there is no doubt Charles and Cuthbert have been two of Chelsea’s best performers this season — these are still players in their mid-twenties who are stepping into roles vacated by two players who led their respective nations in a World Cup semi-final last summer.

There is a sense they are still struggling to figure out how best to calm the team down when moments go against them — we saw a similar swing in the United match, after Marc Skinner’s side got a goal back, when Chelsea looked suddenly spooked, despite still holding onto the lead.

With no fixed return date for Bright — Hayes indicated she should be back on grass around the time of the international break next month — these younger players are learning on the job. It is not an easy task by any means, particularly as Chelsea move towards the part of the season where the games begin to pile up and their importance rises.

But while results continue to go their way, it gives them time to rejig.

The signing of Nathalie Bjorn, who could not be registered for this match, has clearly offered a big boost in defence, while the reported transfer of Mayra Ramirez from Levante will give them an attacking boost.

Chelsea have used January to steady the ship, even if it is not yet full steam ahead.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)



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