Emma Hayes says Chelsea Women are enjoying chasing down Arsenal ahead of their title showdown on Friday with her side in “another stage of evolution”.
The Blues aren’t where they’d like to be – top of the Women’s Super League which they have won for the last two seasons – but that could all change when the Sky Sports cameras head to Kingsmeadow this Friday for a title showdown with leaders Arsenal, who sit two points and one place above them in the table.
Ask Hayes if there is any hunger for revenge in her squad and she’ll give you short shrift. But there must be some remnant of a surprise opening-day defeat to the Gunners still lingering within her players’ psyche. Or some sense of poetry were they to finally top the table, for the first time this season, by beating the very side who have forced them to play catch-up since that September loss.
Really, no one knows what it takes to win in the English game better than the 45-year-old. She freely admits that to label Friday’s game must-win or must-not-lose would only add pressure to her dressing room that they could do without. But is less reserved about how it has served them to bounce back from that early disappointment and remain on Arsenal’s coat tails into the second half of the season.
“My job is to put this team in a position to perform on Friday, that’s something they’re already doing really well,” she tells Sky Sports. “Everybody has played their part and contributed to where we’re at.
“If we’re to come through this period, we have to keep finding goals from across the squad. That’s been a big focus of ours from the turn of Christmas and with back-to-back clean sheets, I think we’re in a good place.
“I never think being at the top of our game is a permanent place, it’s cyclical, I think it’s game-to-game. But what I have realised is that we’ve been able to play with our some of our top top players in this recent period, who’ve produced performances for Chelsea over the years.
“And we’ve not only ground out results, but I think we’re finding another level to our play. So it’s a real testament to the strength in depth and shows what what a fantastic squad we really do have.
“We’re playing well, we’re defending well, we’re scoring goals from different positions on the pitch. I think we found something else to us that reminds me that we’re in another stage of our evolution, our team’s going to another place.”
Chelsea certainly are playing well, in spite of a small blip of dropped points against Reading and Brighton around Christmas as well as crashing out of the Champions League to Wolfsburg. Seven clean sheets in their last eight WSL games have kept things tight at the back, with that focus on sharing the attacking burden paying dividends.
Five players scored three or more goals for the Blues in last season’s WSL, and with 10 games still to go, Chelsea have already reached that tally this time around. Seven different scorers have found the back of the net across the club’s last six WSL games alone.
That said, Chelsea have also found ways to win ugly. Last weekend’s 1-0 win over Man City, who had held Arsenal in their previous game, owed as much to guts as it did style. That mentality is something Hayes admires in Jonas Eidevall’s Gunners, too, and may dominate what Hayes expects to be an “emotional” London derby.
She says: “I’ve always said I think London derbies play out much differently than other games. I don’t know what to expect on Friday, but I do know you’ve got two fantastic teams on show.
“It’s the same in any game where there’s rivalry, it plays on the emotion than other games. Coaches would prefer less emotion in the game, but I know Arsenal are a team who’ve led from the front for the entire season and I know they’ll do everything they can to hang onto that.
“I won’t change as a manager, though. I don’t do anything different from week to week regardless of the opponent. I think that’s crucial – We can’t have all, ‘let’s get up for this one, and tone it down for the next one.’ It’s all about consistent behaviours.”
With that in mind Hayes maintains, publicly at least, that there is no extra spice coming into Friday’s game on the back of the opening-day defeat. Chelsea arguably don’t need it, this is familiar territory. Last season, they overtook Manchester City with 11 games left and went on to keep top spot all season. If they win on Friday, they will leapfrog Arsenal for the first time – and have nine left to hold on this time around.
“We’re coming from a chasing position that we’re really enjoying,” says Hayes. “Ask anybody who’s being chased what it feels like, and it’s a totally different feeling being the leader or being in a second position.
“When you’re chasing someone, you have to find something different. Psychologically, you’re not in control, in terms of the team that’s always leading is in their hands. So you know, if Arsenal win every game this season, they’ll be league champions. So we know that and for us, we just have to focus on applying as much pressure as we can on them.
“The team has got great experience of being in this position. I think it showed on Sunday, that experience, the ability to deliver the result, deliver the performance, no matter the circumstances. I think that’s what Chelsea have done really, really well over the years. But I still feel there’ll be more turns in the season yet.”
By the time the WSL trophy is delivered in May, most likely to either Kingsmeadow or Meadow Park, Hayes will have already been awarded one personal title in the form of an OBE she was awarded in the New Year’s honours.
At the time of the announcement the Chelsea boss wondered if there had been some mistake. Now it has sunk in, the award should sit nicely among her four WSL, three FA Cup and two League Cup medals on what must be approaching one of Surrey’s largest mantle pieces.
“I’ve had some amazing experiences in my life already and I don’t know how many more I’m going to have,” she says. “What I’ve achieved in my time at Chelsea, it’ll be really difficult to surpass that in the rest of my life.”
Saving the all-important question until the end – has she practiced what she will say to the Queen? Hayes smiles. “No, I just hope I can curtsey without tripping over. I did it once before when I got my MBE, but I did buckle when I got to the backwards steps.”
Watch Chelsea Women vs Arsenal Women in the WSL from 7pm on Friday on Sky Sports Premier League and Sky Sports Football; kick-off 7.45pm.
Don’t have Sky? Stream the game with a NOW pass or follow it live with our dedicated live blog across all Sky Sports digital platforms.