FAWSL 2021/22 Preview: Chelsea

The 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League kicks off on the weekend of the 3rd – 5th September. D2B is here to preview all twelve teams in the title race and assess their chances. We’re going back to an alphabetical approach this year and continue with Chelsea, who have just enjoyed back-to-back league titles, won the Continental Cup for a second successive season and contested their first ever UEFA Women’s Champions League final…

Chelsea celebrate back-to-back WSL titles.

Full Name: Chelsea Football Club Women

Nickname: The Blues

Founded: 1992

Ground: Kingsmeadow

Last Season, FAWSL: 1st Place (Champions)

WSL Pedigree / Club History

Formal affiliation with Chelsea FC began in 2004 when the women’s team started to be funded by the club’s Football in the Community unit. The following year they were promoted to the top flight and went on to become a founder member of the WSL.

The Blues have done pretty well since then, securing four league titles including the 2017 Spring Series.  They’ve also got two Women’s FA Cups and are the current holders of the Continental Tyres (League) Cup which they won back-to-back in 2019/20 and 2020/21.

Last Season

It would have felt good to win the league title again in 2020/21 based on a full season’s football as opposed to the points-per-game award of the previous season.

They only dropped points in four matches – draws with their three title rivals Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United (on the opening weekend), plus an entirely anomalous 2-1 defeat by Brighton at Kingsmeadow.

That loss didn’t come until Week 15. Closest rivals Manchester City had already dropped more points and if Chelsea could match City’s record until the end of the season they’d end up Champions. They did exactly that, securing the title on the final day, although a midweek 2-2 draw at City’s Academy Stadium in Week 20 was a key moment in ensuring success.

They went on to contest the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final with FC Barcelona but the evening went sideways in the opening ten minutes with a bizarre own goal and a controversial penalty award giving the Catalan side a 2-goal start. Chelsea looked shell shocked, Barcelona went on the rampage and the match finished 4-0 to the Spanish Champions.

Manager

Chelsea boss Emma Hayes: Heading towards ten years at the helm.

“I’ve loved pre-season and the preparation and team spirit has been brilliant. All players have come together really well. We all had a great welcome party for the women who played at the Olympics. I’ve enjoyed this pre-season the most because I know the fans are coming back. Don’t get too high with the highs, and don’t get too low with the lows. It’s important to keep perspective no matter the score line.”

Emma Hayes MBE, Manager, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com 27/8/2021

It’s probably fair to say that Emma Hayes MBE is a bit ‘marmite’ with fans of women’s football – (for those who don’t eat said yeast product on their toast, that’s to say intensely like vs intensely dislike). It might be down to the fact that she wins a lot, is quite outspoken and won’t be apologising for either anytime soon.

In addition, though, she’s steadily been developing wider recognition as an insightful analyst at international tournaments (both women’s and men’s). And we all know how polarising a pundit can be.

A nominee for this year’s UEFA Women’s Coach of the Year, Hayes has been at Chelsea’s helm since 2012, making excellent use of the club’s financial muscle to build a team that has finished in the top 3 every season since 2015.

Her player management abilities have been widely acknowledged. Keeping a squad of 25 elite international players happy is a juggling act, and yet Hayes has been able to ensure that each of her players, even those that don’t get regular starts are absolutely prepared and ready to come in and be effective.

Summer Recruitment

New signing Aniek Nouwen (left) with Chelsea captain Magda Eriksson.

“There were other clubs who were interested, but I made my decision to join Chelsea pretty fast! To play in the English league has always been a dream for me as it is the best competition and it provides the best opportunity for me to develop even more. I’m very honoured and proud to become a Blue and I can’t wait to be a part of this winning team. I want to win prizes and play in the big games.”

Aniek Nouwen, Defender, Chelsea, via chelseafc.com 12/5/2021

Just two players have joined the ranks at the time of writing and both give the impression that Hayes is ‘future-proofing’ her squad.

Dutch international Aniek Nouwen has come in to bolster the back line. Just 22-years old, she has made 69 league appearances for PSV Eindhoven scoring an eyebrow-raising 15 goals. She featured for the Dutch squad at this summer’s Olympic Games.

Able to play as a centre half or as a right back, Nouwen is an upgrade on what they had and gives Chelsea some extra defensive resilience. An injury to Maren Mjelde last season was covered off fairly successfully, but there were times that the Blues could have done with an out-and-out stopper at full back.

The only other addition at the time of writing is attacker Lauren James who has arrived from Manchester United, and ‘joins’ brother Reece who plays in the men’s team.

James turns 20 in September. Already there are aren’t too many of her age that are as bold and exciting to watch. She looks physical, and she is physical, but combines this with really quick feet that can engineer a half-yard of space in tight situations, like a crowded penalty area.

Observers may wonder where her opportunities are going to come from with Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder and Bethany England all vying for forward spots. James can play a range of roles, though – across the front line, the most attacking of a midfield trio, or as a free-roving number ten. Plus it’s likely Hayes has a longer-term plan for her. For now she adds quality, even as a squad player.

“It’s a great feeling to come back home, to a great club, the club I started at the age of six. To be able to play for the first team now and come back here to Emma and the rest of the group is a great feeling. I started here [at Chelsea] at the age of six and I went on to join other teams. The club have great ambitions, they always want to win trophies; it’s part of the DNA here. I want to develop, become a better player and better person, on and off the field. I want to win trophies and hopefully contribute to the team and the club.”

Lauren James, Forward, Chelsea via chelseafc.com 23/7/2021

Who’s moved on?

On the face of it, no one that’s going to adversely impact Chelsea’s ability to win a third consecutive league title.

That said, it must have been pretty emotional within the club saying goodbye to versatile full-back Hannah Blundell. “She’s one of our own,” the crowd would sing at Kingsmeadow to a player who racked up 142 appearances for the Blues in all competitions.

But the 27-year old only made eight league appearances last year and didn’t get in a Champions League Final line-up that contained no recognised (i.e.: specialist) full back. There comes a point, then, when a player just wants to play. Blundell has gone to Manchester United where she will join ex-Chelsea teammate Maria Thorisdottir – who left midway through last season.

Aggie Beever-Jones, Emily Orman and Charlotte Wardlaw have all taken loans with Championship clubs as they continue their development.

Key Players

Every WSL defender’s nightmare: Sam Kerr (left) and Fran Kirby (Photo by Catherine Ivill / Getty Images)

Given their partnership last season this is a no-brainer. Let’s start with the strike pairing of Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr.

Australian international Kerr scored 21 league goals, winning the Golden Boot in her first full WSL season – the third league that she has achieved this honour (W-League and NWSL were the others.)

Kirby, last season, came back from an awful bout of pericarditis which robbed her of 10-months of football and left a heavy mark in terms of mental health. She returned to action in the Community Shield versus Manchester City and didn’t look like she had skipped a beat.

From that match to the brace she scored in a final-day victory over Reading, Kirby was phenomenal, week-in-week-out.

She contributed 16 goals and 10 assists in the league and ran the show in at the Continental Cup Final, scoring two and setting up the other four Chelsea goals. Kerr got a hat-trick in that match and threw in a backflip celebration, so for Fran to stand out more was some feat.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch Chelsea have Ann-Katrin Berger. If you tried to hinge Chelsea’s entire league campaign on one moment last season, Berger’s incredible second half reaction stop at Manchester City from a Lauren Hemp header would be on the shortlist for sure. At the time the game was finely balanced at 2-2, and would stay that way meaning Chelsea had the title in their own hands for the last two weeks.

Of course Berger has a great defence in front of her, but she’s continually made unbelievable saves in massive moments throughout her time at the club, something that enabled her achieve a 71% clean sheet record, as well as outperform her PSxG (expected goals) forecast for two seasons running.

Opening Day

The fixtures computer has given us a doozy. Chelsea visit Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday 5th September.

Pre-season

Chelsea sent a mix of first teamers and youngsters to the Emirates for a friendly with Arsenal. They lost that match 2-1.

Then they travelled to Scotland and beat Rangers 4-1 before heading back to Kingsmeadow to edge out Aston Villa by a goal to nil.

Prospects for 2021/22

No point beating around the bush, they are league title contenders again.

Chelsea have been the most resilient team in the league over the last few years (mentally and physically) but are about to embark on potentially their most difficult campaign yet. City and Arsenal both had good momentum coming out of 2020/21; nearly everyone else has got stronger which could mean more dropped points.

The Blues will also be desperate to go one better in the Champions League after the disappointment in Gothenburg last May. It’s hard to stay on track in both domestic and European competitions. Keeping key players fresh (and off the injury list) will be vital. Quite a few of these individuals are now in their late 20s and early 30s, which is great from an experience perspective but niggles can start to creep in…

Transfer Summary

 Ins

  • Aniek Nouwen (Defender)
  • Lauren James (Midfielder)

 Outs

  • Jamie-Lee Napier (Forward)
  • Emily Murphy (Forward)
  • Hannah Blundell (Defender)
  • Aggie Beever-Jones – Loan (Forward)
  • Emily Orman – Loan (Goalkeeper)
  • Charlotte Wardlaw – Loan (Midfielder)

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