Arsenal take on Chelsea in the Women’s FA Cup Semifinal on Sunday looking for revenge for the Blues besting them in last year’s FA Cup Final played back in the Fall. We checked in with Andre (@not_carlisle) from We Ain’t Got No History to get the inside scoop from across London.
TSF: The major headline with Chelsea is Fran Kirby stepping away for her health. Obviously, we join everyone in the football world in wishing her the best and a speedy recovery. How does her absence affect Chelsea on the pitch?
WAGNH: Super sad for Fran. If anyone knows anything about her story you know this latest setback is one of those things that’ll make an atheist at least believe in the Devil. As for the football, unfortunately the team has experience playing without her so I don’t expect too much dropoff. This season we haven’t seen as much of the #Kerrby connection as we did last season, and if there’s one area where Chelsea actually have depth, it’s the attacking line.
TSF: Has anything else changed with Chelsea since the two sides drew 0-0 in the WSL in February - tactically, in formation, form-wise?
WAGNH: Emma Hayes is no stranger to tweaking formations and relationships on the pitch but this season she’s taken that to the extreme. In addition to the 343 at the start of the season, we’ve seen 4231s, 442s (including the diamond variation), classic 433s, and lately a 352. It wasn’t just tinkering for tinkering’s sake though, injuries, defensive shakiness and midfield stagnation all played a part.
However, the latest formation, the 352, has seemed the best fit for available personnel. Without midfielder Melanie Leupolz, who announced her pregnancy last month, a viable double pivot doesn’t quite exist. I’d like to see Jess Fleming and Erin Cuthbert try it, but neither have had the run of games in midfield necessary to suddenly rely on that pairing at this stage of the season. As a personal preference I’m not a fan of double pivots, and I think the recent success of the 352 (particularly how it’s being deployed) is more evidence.
TSF: When we spoke way back at the start of the season, we talked about Chelsea’s new additions in Aniek Nouwen and Lauren James. Nouwen seems to have found her spot at the club, James less so. How have they fared this season?
WAGNH: Due to the deployment of a back three plus Magda Eriksson’s injury issues a month ago, Hayes was forced to rely on Nouwen a bit sooner than expected. However, Nouwen has grabbed the opportunity and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Filling a Magda Eriksson-sized hole is not something many CBs are capable of. There were still some things the team missed, primarily Magda’s dribbling progressions and passing, but Nouwen was defensively solid and a capable passer herself. This spell saw Carter return to fullback or wingback instead of the CB position she was playing earlier this season, it seems to be Nouwen’s spot now.
As for James, what’s hurt her progression the most is being literally hurt when she arrived. She’s too young to risk saddling with a career of nagging and/or recurring injuries, and as mentioned above, the one area Chelsea have abundant depth is in attack. That said, she has found a comfortable role coming in off the bench to give fatigued defenses a new set of things to worry about. She’s looked dangerous when on the pitch and recently scored her first Chelsea goal.
TSF: We also talked about Chelsea’s potential lineup gap at both fullback spots. Has Emma Hayes sorted that or is it still one of the weaker spots in the lineup?
WAGNH: Much to my eternal rage and fury, no WSL-ready fullback signing was made in in the Summer or January windows. Russian left back/midfielder/winger Also Abdullina, who just turned 21, was brought into the team at the start of the year, but was never meant to be a fix to this season’s fullback problems (and if I’m honest I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true next season as well).
Guro Reiten has stepped into a left wingback role and looked brilliant when attacking, but isn’t a natural defender and doesn’t have the pace or strength to bother top attackers. Jess Carter is a defensive stalwart and has put in some terrific 1v1 performances to slow down some of Europe’s best, but she’s not the most secure on the ball and doesn’t venture forward as frequently as is required of modern fullbacks. Jonna Andersson is decent going forward but not as sharp in her delivery or combination play as Reiten, and is nowhere near as defensively solid as Carter.
Niamh Charles has stepped in capably at times and probably has the player profile closest to that of a modern fullback. The main hurdle with the young Merseysider is that she’s 22 and has spent the majority of her career playing as a winger or attacking midfielder.
TSF: Will Erin Cuthbert and Katie McCabe come to blows on the pitch this time around? Will it be another Chelsea player who squares up with Katie? Y’all really don’t like her, do you?
WAGNH: Lol whatever do you mean!?!
I love Erin Cuthbert but, yeah, if it’s gonna pop off, whether she’s directly involved with the initial incident or not, she’ll be there – and I love her for it.
TSF: What do you think is Chelsea’s best route to get at Arsenal on Sunday?
WAGNH: Thankfully, Pernille Harder is back with the squad so my extremely deep #analysis is to let her cook and run every attacking transition through her. The Bethany England-Sam Kerr front two was fun in the leadup to the international break, and I think Harder drifting anywhere around or beneath those two would cause any backline problems.
TSF: And the reverse of that, how do you think Arsenal should attack Chelsea?
WAGNH: Truthfully, Vivstenius scares me. The link cooled off a bit before the international break but Viv as a 10 gives Chelsea substantially more problems than Viv as a 9. Magda is intelligent enough to know where she’s going to be or where she wants to go when she’s the primary striker, but having her drop deeper and with more freedom, along with a solid and mobile 9 like Blackstenius, and it’s all a bit of a nightmare.
However, I think Arsenal’s best approach (particularly to avoid a wide open game of transitions) is to frustrate the hell out of the wide defenders. If Guro is playing left wingback, pin her back with Beth Mead and dare Jess Carter to be the one to go forward then make runs in behind her if she takes the bait. If she doesn’t, well, you’ll have Chelsea pinned deep the majority of the match.
TSF: Finally, a score prediction?
WAGNH: Ugh, I hate predictions. I didn’t have our league match in February ending 0-0 and obviously penalties would loom if that were the case here, and no one wants that. Pernille’s return to training makes me a lot more confident. She loves a big stage, loves a derby, and by kickoff it will have been a month since her last appearance – she’s gonna be turned up to a thousand million. I’m going Chelsea, 3-1.