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Chelsea: Why WSL powerhouses are favourites for fifth straight league title in Emma Hayes' farewell season

Chelsea blew Arsenal away at Stamford Bridge with a 'champions performance'; Emma Hayes' tactical tweaks were genius as the Blues scored three times in 32 first-half minutes; they are favourites to retain WSL title; watch West Ham vs Chelsea live on Sky Sports on Sunday

Credit - PA/Getty

Emma Hayes hit the nail on the head last Friday: "my players love playing adversity".

The pressure points were evident before Chelsea dismantled Arsenal in front of a record Stamford Bridge crowd.

Nearly an entire XI sidelined with injury, off-pitch distractions after Hayes' clumsy comments on player-player relationships created unwanted noise, and a delay to kick-off because, of all things, Arsenal's kitman failed to pack the correct coloured socks.

Nothing phases Chelsea. This is all business.

"It's been a tough period, a tough day for us. But we know how to do this. We're good at this. Trust me, that team is 1,000 per cent together," Hayes told a packed press room in west London.

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The unity was clear for all to see as Chelsea staff and players gathered in the centre circle to rejoice in a title-defining victory, one that eliminated Arsenal from the race.

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"We're good at this" sounds ambiguous on the surface, but everyone within earshot understood its significance. A slightly nuanced way of saying 'we're champions for a reason'.

Hayes was indeed highlighting how efficient her side are at navigating the sharp end. They don't bow to pressure; they thrive off its jeopardy. It is March, after all, training season is over.

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Emma Hayes shares her thoughts on Chelsea's impressive 3-1 win over Arsenal, insisting the showing was the kind of performance her team are capable of

The Chelsea boss also spent a portion of her press conference explaining how she's tried not to be a "clickbait manager" after stumbling over her words when discussing dressing room relationships 48 hours prior. For all the possible interference off the pitch, the front remained bold and beaming on it.

The nerve to play Sjoeke Nusken at centre-back (against Everton) and then as a No 10 (against Arsenal) within the same five-day period typifies the approach. Unexpected genius. It's born out of a tactical intellect few top coaches possess, let alone master, and an in-depth understanding of what the team needs in any given moment.

Sjoeke Nusken's goal put Chelsea in complete control midway through the first half
Image: Sjoeke Nusken scored twice operating as a No 10, despite her traditional role being a No 6

Hayes credits much of Chelsea's success with an unrivalled ability to adapt - Friday's Arsenal rout as evidence. Nusken moved from defence to attack, Lauren James, who nearly missed the game through illness, operated as a No 9 in the absence of any fit striker, while Kadeisha Buchanan played a full 90 minutes having only flown back from Gold Cup duty with Canada less than a week prior.

No Sam Kerr, no Mia Fishel, no Mayra Ramirez, no Millie Bright, no Natalie Bjorn, ultimately no problem. "You can never rule out a Chelsea side - ever," Hayes underlined. Many teams have learned that the hard way, Arsenal are just the latest.

Lauren James opened the scoring for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Image: Lauren James played as Chelsea's most advanced player in the absence of any fit regular No 9

From minute one, Chelsea pressed aggressively. Guro Reiten and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd were the Blues' sacrificial runners, allowing both Nusken and James free roam of central areas, playing on the half-turn in half-spaces, and forcing Arsenal to retreat.

Mistakes were punishable by goals.

The first came after a simple turnover in midfield, won by Reiten, which paved way for a cutting cross-field pass from Nusken to James in acres of space. "The distances Arsenal allowed between units weren't right," reflected former midfielder Izzy Christensen on Sky Sports' live coverage. "Chelsea set traps and Arsenal fell for them."

Lauren James is afforded too much space as Chelsea's energetic press unsettle's Arsenal early on
Image: Lauren James is afforded too much space as Chelsea's energetic press unsettle's Arsenal early on

The visitors then stood idle as James motored towards goal and lashed the ball beyond Manuela Zinsberger. "The confidence of Arsenal dipped from that single moment," agreed Sky Sports pundit Karen Carney.

James gave Lia Walti the slip for Chelsea's second, before Reiten looped the ball to Rytting Kaneryd and she teed up Erin Cuthbert to strike from distance. Nusken got an instinctive toe to the shot and suddenly the hosts were two to the good.

Lauren James turns Lia Walti before bringing Guro Reiten into play wide left
Image: Lauren James turned Lia Walti easily before bringing Guro Reiten into play wide left
Erun Cuthbert is in acres of space on the edge of Arsenal's box, leading to Chelsea's second goal
Image: Erun Cuthbert was in acres of space on the edge of Arsenal's box, leading to Chelsea's second goal

A game-ending third arrived 11 minutes later when Lotte Wubben-Moy was drawn out to Rytting Kaneryd's surge, vacating space in behind for Nusken to occupy. Arsenal panicked as yet another overload caused confusion enough for Rytting Kaneryd's strike to find the net via Nusken's backside.

Most players will attest to luck being of their own making. The movement was deliberate, at least.

Chelsea created untold overloads in transition
Image: Chelsea created untold overloads in transition as they exposed Arsenal's poor game management

"We played into Chelsea's hands," Jonas Eidevall conceded at the full-time whistle. In a way, he was right, but that fact alone feels reductive.

Chelsea's attacking ruthlessness was so adept it looked as if four strikers were on the pitch. They enjoyed less possession, played less accurate passes, and fewer opposition-half passes, but generated nearly double Arsenal's touches in the opposition box (26-14). They simply hit where it hurt most.

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Jonas Eidevall admits his Arsenal side weren't good enough during their 3-1 defeat to Chelsea as the Gunners lost more ground in the WSL title-race

Another line stood out from Hayes' 25-minute post-match debrief, which was as captivating as it was compelling: "We haven't won these titles without suffering or struggling. We know how to do it really well."

Hayes firmly believes adversity is the making of champions. Let us not forget this was a Chelsea XI deprived of its captain (Bright), its club-record striker (Kerr), and both understudies (Fishel and Ramirez), against full-strength Arsenal, albeit without Viv Miedema.

Such resolve is bred from culture, environment, and trust.

Friday was Chelsea's night, and now, it's hard to see beyond this being Chelsea's season - an extraordinary fifth straight WSL title is within sight. A historic quadruple is on too, with one foot already in the Champions League semis.

Manchester City will attempt to have their say between now and late-May and hold a fighting chance, but as trophies and titles come into sharp focus, it's so often Chelsea who come into their supreme own.

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