An eagerly anticipated clash at the Leigh Sports Village ended with defending champions Chelsea romping to a 6-1 victory over Manchester United. The hosts came into the match with a 100% record from their two fixtures but that was under threat from the opening exchanges with the United defence making a series of errors near their goal, one of which allowed Fran Kirby to score in the 2nd minute. Pernille Harder provided a superb solo strike in the 24th minute, followed by a Sam Kerr brace either side of United’s reply from substitute Alessia Russo. Some late Chelsea subs added gloss to the result with Drew Spence and Jessie Fleming slotting goals number five and six. United could bemoan two missed offside decisions, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that Chelsea didn’t deserve to win this comfortably…
Marc Skinner made just one change to the United team that dispatched Leicester City in week 2, with centre back Maria Thorisdottir coming back in against her old club for Millie Turner. Ella Toone continued as the lone striker in their 4-2-3-1 system (or ‘false nine’ if that’s the way it looks to some eyes…)
Blues boss Emma Hayes brought central midfielder Melanie Leupolz in for Ji So-yun and swapped Niamh Charles in for Erin Cuthbert on the right. Cuthbert was recovering from a head injury sustained on international duty.
A frenetic opening began with Chelsea pressing United very high up the pitch.
They pounced on an early mix-up between keeper Mary Earps and Thorisdottir, but Kerr wasn’t able to guide her final effort on target.
The visitors didn’t have to wait long for the lead, though. Full back Hannah Blundell was in generous mood against her old club, gifting possession away under pressure from Leupolz. Kerr raced on the loose ball in the penalty area, flicked it off the outside of her boot to Kirby and the diminutive forward toe-poked it into the net for her fiftieth WSL strike.
Kirby nearly repaid the Australian with an assist of her own in the 9th minute, tackling Thorisdottir to give Kerr an opportunity just a few yards from goal – but she could only half-volley wide.
United grew into the game with left back Ona Batlle finding a lot of space down the left. But they were limited in terms of generating chances. Lucy Staniforth played a neat reverse ball into the centre of the penalty box for Kirsty Hanson but the Scot screwed her effort well wide of the left-hand post.
Just as the home side appeared to have a genuine foothold in the match, Chelsea doubled their lead.
There didn’t seem to be much on for Pernille Harder, but she seized on Jackie Groenen’s poor control near the halfway line and hared away down the left. Forty yards later Harder had shrugged off Groenen and Thorisdottir, arrived at the six-yard box and dinked the ball over Mary Earps.
The Danish international arguably had an easier chance in the 37th minute, after Leupolz recycled a half-cleared corner to Kerr on the right. The Matildas’ striker sent in a low cross to the middle of the penalty area but Harder couldn’t keep her half volley down. Moments later, she was in again but fired straight at Earps.
Chelsea’s fluid front three continued to cause problems for the United backline. Kirby robbed Aoife Mannion, looked to her right and threaded Kerr into the 18-yard box. Kerr hit it firmly, first time across the keeper, but the ball fizzed inches past the upright.
Just when it was looking like it might be ‘one of those days’ for Kerr, she scored.
Katie Zelem was the guilty party for United this time, giving the ball away with Guro Reiten applying pressure. Kirby picked up the loose ball, fed Kerr to her right and the WSL’s top markswoman from last season tucked it away left-footed.
United Head Coach Marc Skinner decided to throw an orthodox striker into the fray for the second half. Alessia Russo replaced midfielder Staniforth and made an instant impact, running on to Ella Toone’s threaded ball in behind the Chelsea defence, aiming across the keeper but getting a deflection off Millie Bright and the post to reduce the deficit to two.
That lasted just three minutes. Niamh Charles played Kirby down the right and she crossed for Kerr to convert at the second attempt. Television replays would show that the Australian was marginally offside when the ball came in, although there were no appeals from the United defenders.
Chelsea’s fourth, mired in that controversy, felt like a key moment; one that the home side wouldn’t be able to recover from.
United were restricted to distance efforts from that point, the best of which came off Russo’s right boot – rattling the cross bar – after she cleverly spun away from Bright and Eriksson on the edge of the penalty area.
Emma Hayes started to rest some of her key players midway through the second period, giving those on the fringe of the starting eleven a chance to impress. But it was Drew Spence’s arrival with just over five minutes remaining that reignited Chelsea’s attack and put some extra sheen on an already-glittering display.
Three subs combined in the 87th minute for the Blues’ fifth. Spence, Jessie Fleming and Beth England worked the ball into the penalty area, England teed it up, Spence took a touch and drove low into Earps’ bottom right-hand corner.
In the second minute of stoppage time the same trio terrorised the United backline into conceding a sixth. Spence got in behind the defence but was denied by Earps, Fleming followed up and put away the rebound. Again, replays showed that the Canadian may have strayed just offside on the initial shot, but by this point the result was done and dusted.
Chelsea have recovered well from their opening weekend defeat to Arsenal and have convincingly beaten two rivals in United and Everton that are both expecting to contest the Champions League spots.
Their front three of Kerr, Kirby and Harder are unplayable in this kind of form and the Blues seem to be perfecting their high press, which they operate at high intensity for a few minutes at a time.
The 3-4-3 shape that Emma Hayes has adopted for this season has enabled Reiten and Charles to stake their claim for a starting berth each week with three centre backs and two defensive midfielders sat centrally.
But a question remains over what happens when they play a team that can get behind those wide midfielders and draw out the centre backs.
There is some experimentation going on in this respect with Hayes setting up Jess Carter in the middle of a back three. Carter has ground speed to bale out her slower colleagues (particularly Eriksson) but time will tell whether her reading of the game suits this role long-term. Getting Maren Mjelde back fit looks ever more important for Chelsea if they are to retain the WSL title and go deep into the Champions League again.
For United, well 6-1 home defeats are humiliating, but they shouldn’t panic at this point. The players made a lot of their own problems, and one could make a case that sloppiness and poor decision making led to all three first half goals.
If playing out from the goalkeeper is generating problems, stop doing it for a while. Play over the press and compete further up the pitch.
It was also a shame that the coaching staff didn’t identify match ups earlier that could have given them more of an attacking edge.
Early in the game full-back Ona Batlle was getting a lot of space out on the left as Chelsea doubled up on Leah Galton. In the second period winger Kirsty Hanson’s pace against Magda Eriksson also showed some promise. But United didn’t look to explore either of these options very much.
While Russo’s introduction as a forward did give them more threat centrally (and get Toone more involved in her more familiar midfield role) United still weren’t able to move Chelsea’s back three around significantly.
The seismic shift in goal difference has dropped the Red Devils to sixth in the league standings. They travel to St. Andrew’s on Sunday 3rd October to take on winless Birmingham City.
Chelsea, by then, will have hosted Brighton & Hove Albion – a team that beat the Blues at Kingsmeadow last season and have never made life straightforward for Emma Hayes’ side…