FA Women’s Super League: Week 11 Review

We should perhaps refer to this as the week 10-and-a-bit review. Why? Well, Chelsea beat Reading convincingly, and that’s it. Everything else was called off – a mixture of positive Coronavirus tests and / or teams unable to field the full complement of players through injury. (So, it will at least be interesting to see how that all falls out in terms of any point deductions or forfeits.) Elsewhere, the mainstream media revealed that the WSL’s top four sides all let some of their players go abroad over the pandemic-trashed Xmas period. Turns out men’s football doesn’t quite have the monopoly on ‘stupid’. Right let’s crack on with it, week 11-ish of the Super League

Reading 0-5 Chelsea

Emma Hayes – “Over the moon…honestly.”

“We’ve returned since Christmas after a bad bout of Covid-19 in the camp and we’ve been making sure we take care of players in the right way so we can be in a position to perform today. That’s a big thank you to my medical team and the performance staff behind the scenes and the coaches because we have a responsibility and a duty of care to the players. We were decimated before Christmas, so to put in a performance knowing what we’ve experienced, I’m over the moon, I really am.”

Emma Hayes, Chelsea Manager, via Chelseafc.com

Chelsea moved up to 2nd in the table after they crushed Reading 5-0 at the Madejski Stadium. Player of the match, Fran Kirby, scored a ‘perfect’ hat-trick (right foot / left foot / header) in the first half against her old club, and nodded in another after the break, before substitute Ji So yun rounded off a five-star performance with a late strike.

Reading manager Kelly Chambers largely stuck with the line-up that beat Brighton before Christmas, but brought in Emma Mitchell for Molly Bartrip at centre-back – which meant the Royals effectively (or ineffectively) had two left backs on that side of defence.

Chelsea’s previous WSL match had also been against Brighton – on the 13th December. Manager Emma Hayes also adjusted her central defensive partnership, benching Magda Eriksson and shifting Sophie Ingle back from midfield. Niamh Charles got her first league start replacing Ji and Norwegian winger Guro Reiten came in for Pernille Harder.

Right back Maren Mjelde was originally named on the team sheet, but it was Hannah Blundell who appeared to make her second WSL start of the campaign.

The pattern of the match was set early. Reading would work hard to win possession of the ball, only to be horribly wasteful when they got it. Chelsea, meanwhile, played with intensity, pressing the Royals in their own half and making opportunities through quick transition.

The first goal arrived on 16 minutes. Sam Kerr flicked on Ingle’s long, high ball out of defence, and Kirby was on to it, rounding Grace Moloney and firing into an empty net.

Seven minutes later Kirby fizzed a 20-yarder against the cross bar after good build up involving Melanie Leupolz and Jonna Anderson. But just moments later she intercepted Mitchell’s pass out of from the back, showing strength, pace and balance to hold off the defender and clip past Moloney for 2-0.

Reading showed little attacking resistance and wasted several good set-piece opportunities, but just before the half hour Natasha Harding tried an audacious lob from outside the box that had Ann-Katrin Berger scrambling before it drifted wide.

The Blues pressed for a third. Kerr tried to tee Kirby up for her hat-trick but Mitchell was able to clear. Niamh Charles had an effort blocked by Lily Woodham.

But Kirby wasn’t to be denied her match-ball moment. As the first half meandered into stoppage time Chelsea won a free kick 35-yards out on the left. Erin Cuthbert curled it over the defence, Kerr cushioned it back across goal and Kirby arrived unmarked to head in from the middle of the six-yard box.

Match Ball secured. Fran Kirby has been in great form for Chelsea since returning from a long-term illness…

Lauren Bruton came on for the Royals at half time, replacing youngster Emma Harries – purportedly an attacking midfielder playing as the only out-and-out forward they had in their line-up.

A collection of ostensibly attacking midfielders and full backs, Reading couldn’t find their way back into the match and when Kirby – the smallest player on the pitch – won Reiten’s out swinging corner and glanced it past the keeper in the 53rd minute, it looked like the hosts might cave in completely.

Mercifully, then, Chelsea took their foot off the gas and the substitutions started around the hour mark. Although the mercy was in fairly short supply to be honest – such is the stellar cast of the Chelsea squad. Kerr, Cuthbert and Reiten were replaced by Beth England, Ji and Canadian international Jessie Fleming respectively. Later Eriksson and Harder would appear giving Andersson and Charles a well-earned rest.

Four minutes before the end of regulation, Blundell and Harder worked a crossing opportunity on the right. Fleming couldn’t direct her header on target but the ball broke to Ji just outside the six-yard-box and she made no mistake on the half volley.

Fun fact: Reading are the only team in the Women’s Super League that hasn’t had a league fixture postponed.

While the Royals certainly don’t look like a squad that’s going to end up in trouble at the end of the season they need to get rolling again, having secured just one win in their last eight league matches.   The converse of that statistic – for balance – is that there were four draws in that run, so at least the scoreboard was moving.

But where’s the centre forward that they can pivot their attack around? Danielle Carter looked a positive signing over the summer, but having started a few matches early on she only played a handful of minutes in the games either side of Christmas. This suggests that Kelly Chambers is still protecting the player’s fitness after a long period on the side lines. Jeon Ga-Eul hasn’t featured much and players like Harding, Rachel Rowe and Amelie Eikeland tend to look more comfortable in a wider role.

This is an issue. Reading do have attacking players who can ‘make a fist’ of playing up front (those named above, plus Brooke Chaplen, Bruton, or Harries, for instance) but they could do with a fully fit out-and-out central striker. (See also Everton, who have one in Gauvin, but she got injured)

So, is now the time to get the cheque book out. The January transfer window is open. The other option is to continue pushing pieces around and praying the midfielders can come up with enough goals. But that won’t get Reading above their current ceiling of 5th in the table.

“This season’s been a real transitional one in terms of the amount of players that exited the club and the amount that we’ve brought in. It’s taken us this long – minus the game against Chelsea – to get where we wanted to be, so obviously the Chelsea result is a setback, as prior to that, we were in a good place performance wise and started turning those performances into results. We need to make sure we work hard on turning things around ahead of next week.”

Kelly Chambers, Reading Manager, via readingfc.co.uk

Chelsea, it’s fair to say, have hit the ground running at the start of 2021 and were able to rest a few key players in the process. This was a dominant performance.

Kirby will rightly get the plaudits for a superb attacking display, but the ease with which Melanie Leupolz controlled midfield (without Ji or Ingle in there with her) was astounding. When it comes to discussions about the best signings of 2020 the German has flown well under the radar, but she has been an excellent addition to Hayes’ squad.

Reading can be thorny to cope with on their day, but wouldn’t typically be expected to expose too many chinks in Chelsea’s armour.  So, in terms of the Blues’ title defence, bigger tests are yet to come for them – starting with Manchester United at home next weekend. Both sides are unbeaten in the league and both have given up points in just two matches – one of which was against each other.

The Londoners are highly resilient and the defence remains difficult to score against, although West Ham recently showed that pace, combined with a bit of attacking ambition can cause them problems.

Manchester United played well at Kingsmeadow last season and will arrive in no mood to defend for the majority of the match. Like Chelsea, they have clinical finishers in their group and have shared out the goals that propelled them to the league summit.

Currently three points behind the leaders, the Blues’ destiny still lies in their own hands but a United victory would change that. So, Chelsea need to get something. It’s unlikely, then, they will let the game become as open as both City and Arsenal allowed when they matched up against Casey Stoney’s side earlier in the season.

Sam Kerr – Two assists against Reading and forming a good understanding with Fran Kirby…

Chances are likely to be at a premium and the individual who can take the one opportunity that comes their way may determine which way the result goes. Emma Hayes, then, will be delighted with Fran Kirby’s start to the year – the England international has now reached seven goals for the campaign and is bang in form. Alongside her, Sam Kerr (pictured) – despite a few shaky afternoons in front of goal – has matched Kirby’s tally and the two have developed a good understanding.

‘All of us are only as good as the people around us and Fran will be first to say that. While [she] scored four goals and four brilliant goals, it was a total team performance. The front four, in particular, did a really good job to create space, I thought we got our pressing right, we were very dynamic but it’s what I’ve seen in training the last week.”

Emma Hayes, Chelsea Manager, via Chelseafc.com

Should United decide that attack is the best form of defence – thereby turning the match from dogfight to gunfight – Chelsea have proven that they can rise to this kind of challenge. Last season’s 3-3 at Manchester City showcased their adaptability and mindset perfectly. And swashbuckling players such as Bethany England, Pernille Harder and Erin Cuthbert could be perfect for this kind of chaos…

Earlier this year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above or our new Links page, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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