How will Chelsea's attack fit together?

There are a lot of new faces in Cobham this year, with Chelsea breaking the mens’ club transfer record for Kai Havertz and the global womens’ transfer record for Pernille Harder within the same week. This excellent article by Liam Twomey and Tom Worville (only available for athletic subscribers) outlines how messers Chilwell, Havertz, Werner and Ziyech could fit into Lampard’s already impressive attack. I am instead going to focus on how Emma Hayes can fit Pernille Harder, Melanie Leupolz, Jessie Fleming, and Niamh Charles into a team that already contains 2019/20 PFA Player of the Season Bethany England and 2019 NWSL Player of the Year Sam Kerr, as well as Guro Reiten, Erin Cuthbert, Sophie Ingel, Ji So-Yun and Fran Kirby.

Harder is widely regarded as one of the best players in world football. She has shone in a Wolfsburg side that has won the double in each of her three seasons at the club. During those three years she scored 105 goals in 114 appearances and was awarded the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2018. Harder is tactically flexible and can lead the line, drop in as a second striker or play as a 10.

When a club breaks the world transfer record it is easy to forget their other signings, but Leupolz, Fleming and Charles also have the potential to be fantastic signings. Melanie Leupolz is a combative midfielder who captained Harder’s domestic rivals Bayern Munich, and has amassed 66 caps for the German national side. Leupolz is comfortable playing as a pivot (either alone or with a partner) or as an 8. Fleming is more attack minded midfielder, and already has 77 caps for Canada at the age of 22. She is widely touted as Christine Sinclair’s successor, which is no small responsibility. Niamh Charles was a bright spark in an otherwise dismal campaign for an underfunded Liverpool side, and the 21 year old winger will offer pace and trickery on the left flank.

Emma Hayes has shown tactical flexibility in her 8 years at the club, with seven starting formations (each with a flat back four) used more than once in the last two seasons. A 4231 seems most popular, but with such prominent new arrivals Hayes could mix it up even more, with both a 433 and a 442 used so far this season.

Formation 2019/2020 2018/2019
433 2 2
442 5 0
4141 2 1
4231 5 7
4411 1 1
41212 0 2
41221 0 5

Emma Hayes plays a very fluid system, with midfielders joining the attack and forwards dropping into midfield. Due to a lack of data, Leupolz, Fleming and Harder won’t be included in these analyses. It is relatively clear to see where Leupolz will slot into the side, she is primarily a defensive midfielder, and although she can break into the box she will likely operate further back either instead of, or alongside, fellow defensive midfielder Sophie Ingle, as she did against Manchester United in the first game of the season (circled in red, the other part of the midfield three, Ji, is circled in orange).

Jessie Fleming will likely be utilised as a backup to Ji, who she replaced against Bristol City, or on the flanks drifting inside of a 442. She has played up front for Canada, but it seems unlikely she will get much chance there with England, Kerr and Harder as her competition. I will be discussing Harder’s role in more detail, but first I would invite you to read this article from TotalFootballAnalysis if you want some hard data analysis specific to Harder.

This visualisation displays all positions that a player has played, including any mid-game tactical shifts. In such a flexible system it is very important to view these alongside a heatmap of player activity, so you can see the zones a player operates as well as their starting position. For example it is well documented that Griezmann operates in similar spaces to Messi, a factor often used to explain his poor performances at Barca.

The first thing that I noticed is how much width Charles and Reiten offer. This indicates that they will likely compete with each other for the left flank, and rarely be used elsewhere. Erin Cuthbert started the recent game against Bristol City on the left, and as her heatmap from previous seasons indicates she rarely spent time on the touchline. Emma Hayes seemed keen to strech the pitch though, and Sam Kerr (despite starting as a striker) drifted wide while Cuthbert occupied the half space she left behind. In the image below you can see Cuthbert (circled) in the half space, and Kerr making a run down the line, and this tactic caused Bristol City serious problems.

This tactic allowed Cuthbert to constantly find pockets of space to recieve the ball. For example, she drifted inside and found herself almost unmarked on the edge of the box on 35 minutes, again with Kerr on the outside, after which she rifled a shot into the bottom left corner to make it 4-0.

It also created space for others, as shown in the leadup to the Chelsea penalty on 30 minutes, expertly converted by Maren Mjelde. Cuthbert had drifted over to the right flank, with Kerr hugging the left touchline to occupy the opposition full back. Emma Hayes then audibly shouts “stay in there Erin” from the touchline.

This turns out to be a masterstroke as Cuthbert again finds herself in the inside left space 30 seconds later. She makes a run toward Leopolz, dragging both Bristol City central midfielders toward her, leaving arces of space for Ji. Ji can receive the ball on the half turn, and burst through the defence to win the penalty.

However this all changes when Niamh Charles comes on and takes up Cuthbert’s position (Cuthbert moves inside to take the place of Leupolz, who was substituted). Charles’ heatmap indicates that she is primarily comfortable on the left flank, and Sam Kerr immediately moves inside and begins to take up the half space (as shown below, Kerr is in orange).

Charles benefits from this positioning with a back post tap in following some good work from Harder, but then returns the favour with a superb run and cross for Harder’s beautiful first Chelsea goal. The ball is with Cuthbert in central midfield, and Charles begins the run in behind the Bristol defence before she has even played the ball back to Millie Bright.

Bright then plays a perfect ball over the top, and Charles drives down the line before playing a cross slightly behind the most expensive woman in football, who lives up to the price tag and guides the ball past Baggley with a backheel flick.

This was a very dominant performance against inferior opposition, but it does give an indication that Emma Hayes operates more in terms of zones than starting positions, and players will have to be flexible and fill different roles depending on the personnel on the pitch.

Against United and City Hayes has opted for a more conservative 4231 counter attacking approach, with Ingel and Leupolz playing behind Ji, and this tactic will likely be used in key matches against the top 4.

The left side was very interesting in the Bristol City match, and was well worth analysing, and it seems that either Reiten, Charles or one of the front two will likely operate there and provide plenty of width. Against United, however, most of Chelsea’s chances came from the right hand side. Cuthbert has proven to be the favored choice on the right over previous seasons, with Kirby most often contributing through the middle, but Kirby has started on the right in both games this campaign to deadly affect. She was lively in the first 30 minutes against Bristol City, drifting inside to score the opener after a mistake from Sophie Baggley, before operating in the half spaces similarly to Cuthbert on the left. This is nicely demonstrated by this moment, where both “wingers” are within the central third.

Against United she operated much more on the touchline, often being found by long balls into the space behind the full back, see below.

Chelsea’s only goal of the game came from Kirby occupying a very similar position mere minutes later, when she fizzed a ball across goal for Kerr to turn in. The lack of an out and out winger (as shown by the heatmaps) on this side may lead to most of Chelsea’s width this season coming from the left, or from an onrushing right back, but the creativity of Kirby (or Cuthbert) will definitely still be present, and it will be interesting to see how Kirby’s role may develop on that flank.

With Kerr, England and Harder (as well as Fleming, Cuthbert and Kirby, who are all capable of playing up top) Hayes is spoilt for strikers. Although England’s heatmap indicates that she is more of a poacher than Kerr, she was the forward more likely to drop deep against Bristol City with Kerr playing more on the shoulder. Harder replaced England, and took on the role of a second striker, dropping deep to collect the ball and drive, and this allowed her to set up her strike partner for Sam Kerr’s second goal in two games.

Against United Hayes opted for a lone striker, initially Kerr, then England. Harder also featured in this game, but she came on for Ji in the number 10 role, showcasing her flexibility.

Both Kerr and England played selfless roles in the Bristol City win, while still picking up a goal each, they mostly occupied defenders (England centrally, Kerr on the left) while Cuthbert, Ji and Kirby created and converted the chances. In the more counter attacking 4231, however, Kerr was very much the focal point of the team, as was England when she came on. The reliance on balls over the top to wingers meant that Kerr had excellent service, with a disallowed goal coming just after her opener following a lovely ball from Reiten.

She also held the ball up extremely well, allowing the three behind her to push on into the space left by the advancing centre backs. In this example Chelsea lose the ball, but Kerr dropping deep to win the ball (circled in red) while Ji and Reiten are breaking beyond her was a frequent occurence.

Overall it appears that this wealth of attacking talent is an excellent problem to have for Hayes, and her tactical flexibility will be key in fitting all these pieces together. Harder, Cuthbert and Kirby can all occupy multiple roles, which will also be key, and in both games Cuthbert particularly has moved across the pitch throughout the games as substitutes are made. Reiten and Charles will mostly occupy the left hand side when playing, while Kerr and England will spearhead the attack as complete forwards, able to drop deep, hold the ball up and lead the line. A key cog in this machine who I have overlooked is Ji, who will float in behind, either as a 10 or an 8 and continously break the lines. The challenge will likely be keeping all of these world class players happy and motivated, and in this the five sub rule will play directly into Emma Hayes’ hands. This is definitely a team to watch this season, in one of the most interesting leagues in world football.

A huge thank you to StatsBomb for their open data, and to the FA for putting up the FA Player, which has full 90 minute videos available to watch from all WSL games.

Robbie Still
Robbie Still
Data Scientist

I am a data scientist, I work in ecology and enjoy looking at football statistics in my spare time, mainly in R. I also love reading and watching anything fanasty, and I currently live in Brighton with my girlfriend, Coral.

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