After Chelsea had navigated their way past Bayern Munich in 2021 to earn a place in their first Champions League final, Emma Hayes labelled her gutsy side “mentality monsters”. They went on to lose the final to Barcelona by a humbling 4-0 scoreline. However, the “mentality monsters” moniker stuck and has been reaffirmed in three back-to-back FA Cup wins and two consecutive WSL titles, with a third in sight. After the Blues beat Manchester United 1-0 to win the FA Cup at Wembley on Sunday, Hayes had a new label for her side. “What the team has become is the most flexible team,” she said. “Our team has become ‘hybrid monsters’. We can float between things in ways that takes years to master. They are so adaptable.”
Winning in transition
There are always incomings and outgoings, but football teams exist in cycles, with the core peaking and then being pulled apart as the side are reshaped for the next phase. Chelsea are in transition. The team have had to cope for much of the season without the forwards Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder and the summer signings Kadeisha Buchanan forced the captain Magda Eriksson out of the side in the early stages of the season. But it is ongoing, with Harder and Eriksson out of contract at the end of the season and courting offers and Kirby’s injury and illness record meaning Chelsea always need a plan B. Despite the turmoil, they are still winning and that is what makes these victories more impressive. After Sunday’s triumph Hayes spoke of her aim during periods of change. “Our team has been in transition,” she said. “We had six different players in the starting lineup to last year’s final. That, for me, is a sign of real progress. My big thing is: ‘How can we keep winning while transitioning?’ To win knowing we’re in that stage, this is far and away my most memorable FA Cup final.”
Depth and bench
“Manchester United had the first half but we had the second half,” said Hayes. United could rue missed chances and not capitalising on their dominance in the first half but it was in the second that the game turned. The change was easy to pinpoint. In the 57th minute, Harder and the midfielder Sophie Ingle replaced Jessie Fleming and Melanie Leupolz and the momentum shifted decisively in Chelsea’s favour. When United’s brightest threat, Nikita Parris, exited a few minutes later, with the forward Rachel Williams coming on, the Reds faded. And the later introductions of the forwards Lucia García and Martha Thomas underwhelmed. That is the difference between the sides. Chelsea don’t just have incredible high-quality depth in their squad, they have players on the bench with many minutes under their belts.
“All the time in training, we don’t play starting groups, we believe in different combinations, different relationships and everyone that knows me knows I don’t put together a team of 11 players – it’s about a squad,” Hayes had said before the final. That is the level United need to reach. The starting XI is strong, but Marc Skinner’s lack of rotation this term has frustrated a layer of the fanbase. It is costly not only because those players don’t get a rest but also because the transition of players in and out of the XI is not smooth. Convincing Alessia Russo and Ona Batlle, whose contracts are up this summer, to stay will be vital for United alongside strengthening the squad. But will players be enticed to the club if playing time is limited? Not even Champions League football will be enough to lure players if they won’t play.
Is this the Sam Kerr World Cup?
There is no doubting Sam Kerr’s phenomenal talent and drive. Her 10th goal in seven domestic cup finals is testament to her potency. Kerr has been the figurehead of Chelsea’s more bruising charge towards the double this season, a role she has shared in recent years with Harder and Kirby. The return of Harder, who has two goals and an assist in two league games since her comeback from injury and set up Kerr for the winning goal in the final, speaks to how much has been put on Kerr’s shoulders. She has looked knackered but Harder’s availability is allowing her much-needed rest. The World Cup starts in July and Kerr is the tournament’s poster woman. Australia have had their share of injuries this year, with Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord and Steph Catley, San Diego Wave’s Emily van Egmond, Melbourne Victory’s Elise Kellond-Knight, Tottenham’s Kyah Simon and Aston Villa’s Emily Gielnik among those who missed their most recent training camp. Some will return, some won’t, but what has been clear this season is that if Kerr is there anything can happen no matter who is around her or what the odds are.