How Hayes' tactical evolution kept Chelsea one step ahead

Witnessing a side line up in a 4-4-2 formation feels like a throwback to a bygone era. Yet for Emma Hayes, switching to such a system was all part of the plan as she led Chelsea to their fifth consecutive WSL title.

That Hayes, at times, even deployed a 4-4-2 without any available strikers speaks to the tactical flexibility that helped keep her and Chelsea ahead of their rivals.

As Hayes herself says: "I've won championships with three at the back and I've done it with four at the back."

For the manager and the team she leaves after 12 hugely successful years, it was never about a stubborn commitment to an idea or a system. It was about winning.

Under Hayes, Chelsea did a lot of that. Seven WSL titles - plus the 2017 Spring Series - as well as five FA Cups and two League Cups is quite the haul.

By diving into the data - and through exclusive interviews with Hayes, Millie Bright and Jess Carter - Sky Sports assesses the manager's tactical evolution.

Chelsea won their seventh WSL title under Hayes with a 6-0 win at Manchester United last week

Chelsea won their seventh WSL title under Hayes with a 6-0 win at Manchester United last week

'I'm always about 'the money''

Pragmatism is an undervalued trait among managers. Some will alter their approach on a game-by-game basis in a bid to counter their opponents.

Others, like the Spanish women's world champions or Ange Postecoglou's Tottenham, stick steadfastly to their preferred approach.

But whichever route a coach chooses to go down, they do so because they believe it's the best way to help their side win.

Hayes is no different. Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports earlier this year, she said: "I'm always about 'the money' - it's about both boxes.

"What does it take to score a goal and defend the goal? The pieces in between, they're all principled play."

Jess Carter, who was signed from Birmingham by Hayes in 2018, told Sky Sports: “It's definitely a win-at-all-costs mentality.

"We haven't always been known to play the nicest football at Chelsea and I know a lot of the girls I come across always get on our backs for that.

"But I can turn around and say ‘we’ve got a lot of trophies’ - in the least arrogant way possible - but it is about that. It’s about winning games and Emma wants players that are there to win football games.

"That’s the most important thing. It's definitely something that she drives into the team.”

Hayes signed Jess Carter from Birmingham in 2018

Hayes signed Jess Carter from Birmingham in 2018

Fast breaks and 4-4-2

Hayes may be pragmatic but her Chelsea were still a side that sought to dominate games, recording an average of nearly 60 per cent possession during the 2023/24 WSL season.

In some ways, Hayes' final Chelsea side was her most effective in possession, recording nearly 16 open-play sequences of more than 10 passes and almost 130 completed passes into the final third per match - both the highest figures of her time in charge.

The 23/24 vintage also demonstrated an improvement in their pressing, recording 9.3 possession wins in the final third - their largest number for four seasons.

But Chelsea didn't try to pass teams to death - they had various ways of exposing their opponents. Remarkably, they recorded 19 fast breaks - six more than any other WSL side and more than double than in any previous season under Hayes.

It was an effective tactic, too. Chelsea scored from eight of their 19 fast breaks. No other side scored more than three goals in that manner.

The Blues also attempted more crosses per 90 than in the two previous seasons - a smart move when you're effectively playing with two strikers a lot of the time.

Hayes often deployed her preferred 4-2-3-1 this season but the attacking midfielder played higher than in previous campaigns, often functioning as a second striker.

Against Manchester United in her final game - a 6-0 win that secured the title - Mayra Ramirez and Catarina Macario started as a pair in attack.

In the 1-0 away win against Barcelona in April - the Spanish side's first home defeat in more than five years - Lauren James took the place of Macario as Hayes switched to a 3-5-2. That tactical flexibility on show again.

The 3-0 win against Ajax the previous month was perhaps the perfect demonstration of the adaptability Hayes instilled in her team.

Shorn of Ramirez and Sam Kerr due to injury, Sjoeke Nusken - a midfielder who can play in defence - joined James up front. She scored twice.

Hayes provided an insight into the reasons for her tinkering, telling Sky Sports: "The hardest part of coaching is the attacking play.

"When you're regularly playing teams that are blocks and have 10 bodies behind the ball, it's much harder to coach a team to break it down than coach a team to stay in that shape.

"I've always had to coach a team to break something down. How you drag bodies out, how you isolate players to maybe expose just one weakness in that defence, takes a lot of work.

"I remember listening to Pep Guardiola talk about it and he said, 'I might just find the weakness is their centre-half defends their near post too narrow or too deep, and we'll target that zone'.

"You have to be as succinct as that when you're playing against teams that are willing to be without the ball.

"That's the hardest part of coaching, and not many get to do it because they might not always have that luxury."

Sam Kerr (left), Millie Bright (centre) and Niamh Charles (right) were key figures under Hayes

Sam Kerr (left), Millie Bright (centre) and Niamh Charles (right) were key figures under Hayes

Kerr and Bright provide turning points

Going further back into Hayes' reign, it's possible to identify some pivotal moments.

The first is the arrival of Sam Kerr, who made her debut at the start of 2020. Chelsea had never previously scored more than 2.6 goals per game on average in the WSL under Hayes but with Kerr, they've only averaged fewer than three goals per game in one season.

Before Kerr took Chelsea's attack up a notch, Hayes had added a crucial player as she looked to fix her defence.

In Hayes' first three seasons, her side consistently conceded an average of more than a goal per game. In 2013, that figure almost reached two goals per game.

But for the start of the 2015 campaign, Millie Bright arrived from Doncaster. In the following nine seasons, Chelsea have only once conceded more than an average of a goal per game.

As with many managers in the Premier League, there's an argument to say Pep Guardiola's arrival at Manchester City in the summer of 2016 appears to influenced Hayes' approach.

In the men's top flight, Guardiola sparked a move to a more possession-based approach among his contemporaries.

Chelsea's number of 10+ passing sequences also continued to rise after 2016, going from 343 that year to over 500 this season.

But Chelsea's number in that department had been rising long before Guardiola moved to England. In fact, they increased for seven straight seasons following Hayes' arrival.

Hayes has long understood the need for her team to be comfortable on the ball. A more significant turning point for the manager may instead have been their 4-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2021.

Hayes' side were torn apart, after which she admitted she realised the need for them to exert more control over games.

Speaking of her 23/24 side, she said: "I'm enjoying that it's less transitional - coaches always prefer that."

'She's made me into a winner'

Of course it's not just tactics that helped to make Hayes so successful. Identifying players with the right character and instilling a winning mentality within her squad were of equal importance.

It's no coincidence Hayes has made a point of signing players used to captaining their country.

Sophie Ingle and Sam Kerr captain Wales and Australia, respectively, while Bright is England's vice-captain and Maren Mjelde - who is leaving alongside Hayes - skippers Norway.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Bright said: "She taught me about professional life and how that's meant to look as a player.

"Technically, it’s gone through the roof and that's my biggest area that she's improved, and reading of the game.

"She's taught me how to be strong and the way in which you want to make change - it's all about the process in doing so and doing it the right way.

"She's made me into a winner."

Plenty of her team-mates will no doubt echo that sentiment.