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Women's Super League: How Chelsea overcame injuries, Covid & pressure to win title

Coming from behind on the final day of the season to clinch the title by a point was typical of a Chelsea side who just cannot stop winning trophies.

It was their fifth Women’s Super League crown in six seasons and Chelsea are now the first club in WSL history to win three in a row.

It came at the expense of second-placed Arsenal, who despite beating West Ham 2-0 in Dagenham, could do nothing to prevent Emma Hayes’ side from sitting top at the end of another impressive campaign.

From last-minute winners, to comebacks and defensive masterclasses – these are the ingredients which have made Chelsea’s title-winning season.

  • Match report – Chelsea 4-2 Manchester United
  • Why Hayes’ trophy promise paid off for Kerr
  • How do Chelsea’s six WSL title wins compare?

Overcoming injuries and Kerr’s absence

Erin Cuthbert celebrates after the win over Spurs
Scotland international Erin Cuthbert (left) took on greater responsibility in midfield this season for Chelsea

Covid had a big impact on Chelsea’s season.

In December, following a shock WSL defeat by Reading and a Champions League group-stage exit, Hayes said her side were sick with “worry and anxiety” over a potential Covid outbreak at Christmas.

Things did not get any easier after an injury-hit and Covid-affected December as Chelsea were then without top scorer Sam Kerr and creative midfielder Ji So-yun as they competed in the Asian Cup throughout January.

A disappointing draw with Brighton followed but Chelsea regrouped quickly, managing several domestic cup competitions while making strides in the league.

They also had to manage a heavy fixtures schedule in March when re-arranged games eventually caught up with them.

Chelsea’s squad depth was crucial – the more inexperienced pair of Jess Carter and Aniek Nouwen performed impressively in defence when captain Magdalena Eriksson struggled with injury, while midfield duo Jessie Fleming and Guro Reiten stepped up their quality.

Chelsea dug in and got the results they needed. They won 11 of the next 12 WSL fixtures after the draw with Brighton – a 0-0 stalemate with title rivals Arsenal the only blemish.

“I’m starting to see parity, and more importantly, consistency across the whole group,” Hayes said after April’s victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals, when second-half substitutes made a big impact.

Midfielder Erin Cuthbert said training was so competitive “because everyone is fighting for a shirt”.

When Hayes reflected on a third straight title, she said it was during that tough Christmas period that Chelsea’s crown was truly won.

“We’re title winners because we won enough games to be in this place but we did it from a difficult place. We were down to 13 players for eight games.”

Bright’s leadership key in defensive solidity

Jess Carter, Zecira Musovic and Millie Bright
England internationals Jess Carter (left) and Millie Bright (right) have impressed in defence for Chelsea

It is often goalscorers that steal the headlines.

But Chelsea’s defence has been crucial to their success this season, especially given they were without the injured Eriksson for large parts.

Carter became a key part of a back three, earning her a recall to the England squad, while Millie Bright has arguably been one of the standout performers in the WSL – her leadership, experience and consistency was critical for Chelsea.

Dutch international Nouwen also settled quickly after joining in the summer, while both goalkeepers have rotated successfully throughout the campaign.

Only Arsenal conceded less than Chelsea in the WSL this season and after letting in three goals on the opening day defeat by the Gunners, Hayes’ side have shipped just eight goals in 21 matches.

They have also kept 14 clean sheets and only fell behind in four of their 21 WSL matches this season.

‘It’s not easy to keep winning’

Chelsea players celebrate
Chelsea went on a 13-game unbeaten run in the WSL after Christmas on their way to winning the title

Chelsea have been here before. They have won WSL titles and often delivered when the pressure has been on.

A lot of that comes down to experience and that is something manager Hayes is not short of.

The Blues boss has now won six WSL titles with the club – including their first in 2015 – and it is not the first time her side have let it go down to the wire.

“It’s not easy to keep winning, it really isn’t. You have to earn that,” Hayes said earlier this season.

That was before Chelsea defeated Tottenham 3-1 with 10 players, after a 92nd-minute winner from Sam Kerr helped them beat Aston Villa in March.

“There have been a lot of great performances by my team but [the Spurs win] is right up there because it was with 10 players for that length of time,” said Hayes.

“The whole spirit, the effort, the determination – the whole thing from everyone involved showed the adaptability of the group.”

Cuthbert said a few weeks ago she felt there had “never been as much pressure” on Chelsea as there was this season due to competition from other sides in the WSL.

“It’s the most exciting year it’s ever been since I’ve been at Chelsea. Teams are pushing us all the way. Arsenal have done a great job this season but we’ve really fought back.

“Whenever we get kicked down we just get back up and that’s what I love about this team.”

That mentality and the ability to deal with pressure is something Hayes and her side have built over time – even key injuries to Eriksson and forward Fran Kirby did not dampen their spirits.

“Hayes draws on all of her experiences – her 10 years that she’s had at Chelsea,” said former England midfielder Fara Williams.

“She’ll tell you that she started slowly and didn’t understand players as well as she does now. She has really helped drag these players through that.

“It’s been a difficult couple of years [due to Covid] and she’s played a key part in helping these Chelsea players get through those moments.”

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