It is rare to see a complete team performance but Chelsea’s 4-1 demolition of Arsenal on Sunday was just that. Most of the focus before the game was on the battle of the superstar strikers, Sam Kerr and Vivianne Miedema, but in the end it was the collective that was decisive.
Miedema struggled to find room throughout, with Chelsea working relentlessly to cut off her supply, Ji So-yun, Guro Reiten, Erin Cuthbert and the indomitable Sophie Ingle harrying two of the league’s most creative players in Jordan Nobbs and Kim Little.
“They have great players in Ji and Ingle and they made it very hard for us,” said Little afterwards. “They were tight pressed and gave us very little time. I think I didn’t do well enough to get out of that at times. They did very well to keep us out.”
While Miedema was isolated, forced to come deeper and wider to seek the ball, Kerr scored her first goal for her new club – and showed just how easily she has become the latest cog to fit into the Chelsea machine.
“If you have great leaders they solve problems,” said Emma Hayes, the Chelsea manager. “Our players solve problems. When they come up with collective wisdom, spirit and know-how they are a dream to coach.”
Hayes insisted her job is merely to empower the players: “I recruit them, they know what I do within, but I believe in collective decision-making. I said to the group at half-time: ‘What do you want to do second half?’ They need to make decisions. They see and feel the game too. It’s a collaboration.”
At half-time the players talked about “the spaces we wanted to force Arsenal into and made some decisions about how we were going to deal with that”, Hayes revealed.
With the game already lost Arsenal changed tack, introducing width through Lisa Evans and Beth Mead, but Chelsea’s players showed their willingness to adapt their plan at a time when the manager is least able to get her thoughts across.
That is not to say she does not try: players flit to the touchline and exchange words with the manager throughout and she is as close to the pitch as she can get.
It is not just her relationship with the players that is significant, however. It is her relationships with her staff as well. Watch Hayes in her dugout and she stares into the eyes of each member of staff when they talk to her, listening intently.
Where Chelsea can struggle, though, is against teams that do not try to play them at their own game and instead absorb the pressure. Their draws with Liverpool and Brighton could prove costly and are the reason Chelsea are one point behind Arsenal and Manchester City, albeit with a game in hand.
It is possible the west London side could finish the season unbeaten but without having won the league. They are fast learning the lesson that overcoming the teams at the bottom matters as much as masterminding victory against those at the top.
“It is a bit frustrating but teams like Liverpool and Brighton obviously set up differently and it’s hard to break them down,” said Ingle. “It’s not as easy as people think on the outside. When they put 11 players behind the ball, it’s different from when you’re playing Arsenal and they’re coming out at you. We need to be better against those type of teams.”
After the Arsenal game Hayes made a point of praising Beth England. “She’s the best No 9 in the country,” the manager said. “Her running, her work-rate – wow.”
That wow factor is important – especially against the sides outside the top three – but the real beauty of Chelsea’s win on Sunday was the team’s collective effort at implementing their plan to rip open the reigning champions – and with it the title race.