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Niamh Charles’ Chelsea evolution: How defender has become key to Blues' success in WSL and beyond

Niamh Charles has started in every WSL and Champions League game for Chelsea this season; the England international is evolving into a world-class player under Emma Hayes; watch Brighton vs Chelsea on Saturday live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm

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Watch some of the best goals and assists made by Chelsea's Niamh Charles in the Women's Super League

Midway through her fourth campaign with Chelsea, Niamh Charles is in the midst of her best-ever season. It marks the next step in her evolution into a world-class, versatile full-back.

The 2023/24 campaign has seen her play with consistency and regularity in a more advance role for Chelsea, combining her early years as a forward at Liverpool with the more defensive left-back position that she occupied since joining the Blues in the 2020/21 season.

But her development has not come without its challenges. Football rarely does. Charles has had to bide her time for both club and country, but is now flourishing across the board.

It has come with numerous moving parts, some in her own control and some not. They say good things come to those who wait - Charles is the embodiment of that.

In her three and a half seasons at Chelsea, she has seen her WSL appearances increase incrementally year-on-year. In the 2023/24 campaign, she has started in every WSL and Champions League game so far.

Niamh Charles' WSL appearances

2020/21 13 games, seven starts
2021/22 20 games, 12 starts
2022/23 21 games, 15 starts
2023/24 11 games, 11 starts

Her WSL heatmaps over the last three seasons also shows the difference in where Charles has played and her move higher up this term, demonstrating her versatility.

In the 2021/22 season, her role was predominantly on the right, and further forward. In this season, Chelsea largely played with a back five, with the wing-backs playing higher up the pitch.

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However, her numbers and performances in that campaign did not quite hit the same heights as she is managing to achieve now. Charles, then just 22, needed more time to hone her game.

The following campaign, Charles switched to the left, again increasing her WSL game time. Looking at her heatmap, she played in far more defensive position. She was the fifth-highest in the league for tackles (54) in the 2022/23 season too.

And this season, there is a clear difference in her play from the previous two seasons. She is very much sticking to that flank, with a far thinner spread. Her push higher up the field has sometimes been key in Chelsea's attacking play.

Her own stats demonstrate that for themselves. She already has as many assists in the WSL as she registered in the 2022/23 season (3) - ranked fourth overall in the league this season - and has doubled her number of big chances created (4).

One of her standout attacking performances came in the Champions League against Real Madrid. She was Chelsea's best player, scoring one and creating the other in a 2-2 draw. Charles should have had a late winner too, but it was ruled out by a controversial VAR decision.

But the defensive elements of her game have not been lost in compensation. Charles has already completed more clearances this season than the entirety of the last campaign and has matched her numbers for interceptions and headed clearances with half the matches played.

Niamh Charles

In fact, many of her metrics are close to surpassing her efforts from last season. While Charles has previously used both attacking and defensive elements of her game and played in similar areas, it feels like all of these are finally coming to fruition.

She has also honed this for England, maybe more so than with Chelsea. She had largely been a squad player up until this year, but has started in the last four Lionesses games, in the same role she plays for Chelsea in a similar formation.

While some of this has been due to Alex Greenwood and Millie Bright injury absences, it will not be an easy choice for Sarina Wiegman as to who her starting defence will be, given Charles' form.

While the likes of Jess Carter, Greenwood and Charles have versatility across the backline - Bright and Lucy Bronze are unlikely to ousted from their respective roles any time soon - it will be a fine balancing act to give each player the time they want and deserve. This is before we even mention Lotte Wubben-Moy and Maya Le Tissier, who are vital too for their respective clubs.

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And Charles has had her disappointments internationally too. She was named as a reserve for Team GB at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and was cut from the Euro 2022 squad after being named in the initial 28-player squad. Again, she is now reaping the rewards for her patience.

But Charles' evolution has been a move conceived and harnessed at Chelsea and like most things in Emma Hayes' team, it did not happen on a whim or by necessity. This has been something in the works for the better part of a year.

Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports in October, Hayes revealed: "This has been rehearsed behind the scenes. She's been playing in that position for the last 12 months in a training perspective. There certainly was an opportunity with England for her to go and play there.

"But I think she's had to gain the experiences, both positive and negative, and I think she's ready. I really do.

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Highlights from the Women's Super League match between Chelsea and Manchester United

"I absolutely think Niamh Charles is ready for the next step. Her performances at the start of the season, as far as I'm concerned, she has been the best player on our team.

"It is a real credit to her for the work she has done, particularly the last 24 months when some of it isn't always going the way you want - you're not always consistent, you're not always playing regularly.

"I always like to use examples of Niamh with other players of mine to be able to say 'this is what happens with her heart if you put the hard yards in'. I am looking forward to the next steps."

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Anton Toloui and Charlotte Marsh discuss Chelsea's 3-1 victory over Manchester United as Lauren James scored a sensational hat-trick for the league leaders

Tweaks and absences in Chelsea's squad this season have also helped Charles, although as ever, this would have been woven into Hayes' thinking and preparations.

Carter has often been the first-choice left-back or the left-side of a back three. Magdalena Eriksson and Bright the same at centre-back last season.

But with Eriksson's departure in the summer for Bayern Munich, along with winger Pernille Harder, there needed to be a rejig in Chelsea's set-up.

And much like the Lionesses, this season, Carter has moved into Eriksson's vacant centre-back spot - although Nathalie Bjorn's January arrival offers her competition. Bright's injury absence too has shaken the apple cart. Nevertheless, the changes to personnel in Chelsea's defence has seen Charles come in at left-back and nail down a permanent spot.

Down the same side, Harder often occupied the left-wing role, although had versatility on both sides. Another of Chelsea's regular wingers, Guro Reiten, has missed games through injury this season.

While the Blues are not short of talent on the wings, the absence of both Harder and Reiten at times has allowed Charles to occupy that space further forward and keep Chelsea pushing for that top spot.

Charles' development too bears all the hallmarks of Hayes' nurturing of young players. The outgoing Chelsea boss has previously discussed how she plans for transfers a few years in advance, and building a system that will continue to produce world-class footballers long after she has departed.

Hayes often brings in talented youngsters and allows them the luxury of time to develop their game around the first team, but not necessarily with the pressure of a starter. Charles is one example, Lauren James another.

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Anton Toloui gives greater insight into why Chelsea are set to break their transfer record for 24-year-old Mayra Ramirez as they try and win the quadruple this season

The depth of quality in Chelsea's squad not only helps them across multiple competitions, but also the development of their players across the board. It is one of the bedrocks of their success, masterminded by Hayes and her staff.

The latest milestone of Charles' next steps as a senior member of Chelsea's squad came against Manchester United on Sunday where she wore the captain's armband for the first time. It only further earmarks the full-back as a leader of the future for both club and country.

And there is no doubt that Charles will only continue to progress. It is an exciting prospect for Chelsea and England that the full-back can go on to have a decorated career that puts her among the WSL's elite.

Watch Brighton vs Chelsea in the WSL on Saturday live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm.

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