Manchester United have ‘blueprint’ but Chelsea still WSL team to beat | Women’s Super League
Marc Skinner has, of course, watched back last Sunday’s Continental League Cup final defeat of Chelsea by Arsenal. “There are parts of that performance from Arsenal that you would take and say that’s an excellent way of playing against Chelsea, but we’ve also got different players and we have to do it our way as well,” the Manchester United manager says before a game that many view as the ultimate test of his side’s title credentials.
Skinner’s side sit top of the Women’s Super League, one point clear of Chelsea but having played a game more. Chelsea have won three consecutive league titles, mastering the art of finding a way to win regardless of form. They are the team to beat and United have taken only a single point off Chelsea since joining the WSL in 2019-20.
However, despite being in contention for a fourth title in four years, Chelsea have not been their rampant best and last Sunday their steeliness dissolved in the final, when Arsenal came from behind to secure a comprehensive 3-1 defeat of Emma Hayes’s team.
“It was definitely a blueprint that worked,” Skinner says of Arsenal’s performance. “I thought Arsenal were very good in that game and I know that Emma wasn’t happy, but they had some good moments too.”
On the face of it Chelsea’s collapse against Arsenal could be a blip in an otherwise impressive season that could yet see them finish with more silverware. However, there are signs that all is not perfect. Hayes did not speak to the press before the showdown with United at Kingsmeadow on Sunday, with the general manager, Paul Green, filling in as she recovers from a viral illness.
Hayes is a smooth operator when it comes to dealings with the media, delivering her thoughts in a compelling and intelligent way. It is a skill that went uncharacteristically out of the window last weekend. Hayes’s response to defeat felt like a reflection of Chelsea’s performance: she seemed rattled.
The response was scattergun. There was a dig at Arsenal’s four-year dry spell: “We’ve won so much in recent years and they’ve won very little. Today was a reminder of all the work you have to do to stay on top.”
There was criticism of the seemingly tactically timed injuries of the Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger, despite her own Ann-Katrin Berger being mocked by fans for similar antics in recent years. “Zinsberger took three timeouts during the game,” Hayes said. “That for me is a problem we have to solve across the league. That’s not just today. I said [it] to the fourth official. Surely in this game, we’ve gone past the point where we have these tactical timeouts with goalkeepers?”
Then there was heavy criticism of her own players for “complacency” and a performance that she couldn’t do anything about: “When your team is not at it and you have to work that hard as a coach, you already know you’re going to have a tough day. It didn’t matter what I did today. It’s about the basics.”
This may be a blip much in the way the performance may have been, with Chelsea returning to winning ways against Brighton on Wednesday night. However, there are problems for Hayes to fix. It is expected that the influential duo Magda Eriksson and Pernille Harder will leave in the summer.
Kadeisha Buchanan, potentially seen as a successor to Eriksson when she was recruited from Lyon in the summer, has struggled to keep pace with the demands of the WSL and was fortunate to avoid being penalised for upending Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord in the box after coming off the bench.
Hayes has to choose whether to stick with the more reliable Eriksson and Millie Bright partnership, with Eriksson’s future in doubt, or continue to blood Buchanan as the season reaches its climax and mistakes prove more costly.
Further forward, Arsenal’s targeting of Chelsea’s right wing will be of concern. Lauren James has been exceptional and is increasingly irreplaceable, but she was left isolated against Arsenal and needs more support from those around her when the focus of opposition attentions.
Chelsea’s defeat by Arsenal will sting in the same way any cup final loss stings, but it will hurt more if the frailties that game exposed are leapt on. Can United pounce? Maybe.