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Emma’s back 4 experiment

She insisted it was just an experiment, and was merely one of a string of different formations that she was going to try out in the coming weeks, but Emma Hayes has given Chelsea Women a taste of four at the back, instead of the three which carried the club to double success last season.

She insisted it was just an experiment, and was merely one of a string of different formations that she was going to try out in the coming weeks, but Emma Hayes has given Chelsea Women a taste of four at the back, instead of the three which carried the club to double success last season.

With four defenders to counter the attacks from a visiting Juventus Women side on Wednesday night at Kingsmeadow – a friendly which saw returning striker Eni Aluko get a hug and squeeze from every Chelsea player during the initial formal handshake – it ended up as a better executed (and more effective) formation change than another that’s happening a little distance up the A3.

Because there’s no escaping the fact that Emma is mirroring the new gaffer at Stamford Bridge, Morrie Sarri, in at least experimenting with a different way of defending.

Sarri – a manager Emma greatly admires – is a four-at-the-back man. It didn’t work particularly well against Man City in the Community Shield where, certainly for the first of Sergio Aguero’s brace, hesitancy and confusion between the central pairing led to a goal for the opponents.

And it didn’t work especially well against Lyon in the Champions Cup competition on Tuesday night, when it needed penalties to separate the two sides… in Chelsea’s favour.

Asked, after Wednesday night’s 3-0 victory over Juve (two of the goals coming in the final five minutes to make the scoreline perhaps more flattering than it might have been), if the defensive shuffle had been an illustration of ‘Plan B’, Emma spoke her mind.

“It’s a plan, it’s a plan!” she declared forcefully. “We have to have a few of them if we are going to adapt and find different ways. I think everyone of us has to find freshness to what we are doing and keep developing new approaches to beat the opposition, and that is just part of it.”

It was the renamed Chelsea Women’s third game in pre-season… but by no means the last as Emma mischievously – and with a slightly conspiratorial smile – said that the early rounds of the Continental Cup would also, in her mind, count as merely pre-season fixtures before the real action cranks up in September when Man City visit for the league opener.

“We had a tough trip away to Montpelier and Barcelona, hot conditions, difficult games, came home and we haven’t trained since then because the team went to Carly’s mum’s funeral yesterday, so I know it was a sluggish performance by the team,” she said, alluding to the family bereavement suffered recently by Blues goalie Carly Telford… a moment marked by an impeccably observed minute’s silence from a surprisingly big 1,500-strong crowd at Kingsmeadow before kick-off.

The Blues broke the first-half deadlock two minutes before the interval, when the Swiss No23 Ramona Bachmann, fed by an exquisite diagonal ball, fired home to open the scoring.

The best was saved to the end, however. Maren Mjelde – captain for the night, and The Good Life’s tip for the eventual choice of club captain for the season – volleyed a magnificent cracker of a shot from 25 yards, looping over the head of disorientated netminder Laura Giuliani in the Juve goal.

Fran Kirby, the mighty atom who inspired Chelsea’s famous cup and league double of 2017-18, put the cherry on top in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, despite the fact that she had been substituted, then re-introduced – something you see so rarely that even the loudspeaker announcer at Kingsmeadow was momentarily lost for words.

She lofted a well-judged ball over keeper Giuliani, and ref Dean Hulme decided to blow his whistle on humanitarian grounds as Juventus Femminile, to give them their proper name, had started to run out of puff.

Although this was a friendly, organised as a result of Aluko’s sale to the relatively young Italian women’s side in the summer, it’s still perfectly possible that these teams could later meet in the Champions League, so Emma and her players will be studying the video footage of the game with interest.

New signings Lizzie Durack, Jess Carter and Adelina Engman all came on as subs as Emma switched things around in the second half to give all the players a fair crack of the whip.

That meant that Karen Carney was one of the players withdrawn at half-time, but she made the most of the opportunity to sit alongside England Women manager Phil Neville and chat animatedly with him in the main stand through the second half.

Sadly Neville left just before Kirby’s last-gasp strike, but no doubt someone will describe it to him.

The new recruit who stayed the course and played right through the game was midfielder Sophie Ingle, who showed her passing skills.

If anything, this game illustrated how far Emma Hayes has taken the players in pre-season and summer training, with special emphasis placed on the value of penetrating crossfield – and especially diagonal – balls to tee up marauding strikers such as Kirby and Bachmann.

It’ll be all back to Kingsmeadow on August 19 at 2pm for a Continental Tyres group match against Brighton and Hove Albion.

Whether Emma Hayes reverts to three at the back, or sticks with tonight’s Scandinavian-flavoured quartet of Mjelde, Magda Eriksson, Jonna Andersson and Maria Thorisdottir, remains to be seen.

For matches where a shake-up is required and more attacking thrust desired, reverting to three defenders must remain an option, even with the temptation to shadow Sarri’s four-square system, just as previous boss Tony Conte’s defensive trio system was mirrored by Chelsea Ladies, as they then were, and by Chelsea’s youth teams.

“Juventus were a difficult pre-season team, but as I said to them at the end, champions find ways and even if I didn’t think that we were at our best, I thought we persevered in the game and scored wonderful goals, concluded Emma.

“At times I think the team wants to be too intricate in and around the box; we got into good situations which we didn’t execute, but I think that will come with more and more practice together. I think it is about getting their feet used to it again; the grass felt a little bit long, some of the balls got caught under their feet – according to the players – and I think that will come as they get sharper, and I think if you are a little bit sluggish, you question and hesitate, with your decision-making.

“But it is all what I expected in pre-season.”

Of new signing Sophie Ingle, Emma described her first outing as “immense”.

“Coming to the club has been a seamless transition for her,” she added. “She’s got many positions in her and I thought she ran the game in midfield.”

And Sophie herself? “Juventus are a tough team,” she said. “To get a win after a [pre-season] loss and a draw was great. The girls are great here, and I like where I’m living. Training has been really good.”

If you want to see Chelsea Women in action, the next chance is looming. Visit https://www.chelseafc.com/en/tickets—membership/buy-tickets?team=women

Tickets for the less fashionable cup games at Kingsmeadow are almost insultingly cheap, and are particularly attractive to families on a budget as the summer holidays start to draw to a close.

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