Emma Hayes may be in the final months of her time at Chelsea but the focus that has seen her win six WSL titles remains as sharp as ever.
The Blues hold a three-point lead as the campaign enters its final 10 matches, with Manchester City and Arsenal hot on their heels. Do Chelsea’s rivals have what it takes to rip the title from their grasp?
“I don’t spend any time thinking about them,” is Hayes’ emphatic response. “I just think about our edges, our margins and how we can keep where we are. I spend no time worrying about them.”
What about the prospect of either City or Arsenal moving above Chelsea before Hayes’ side host Everton on Sunday evening, live on Sky Sports?
“Don’t care. Not bothered.”
As she chases a fifth successive league title, Hayes knows “it’s where you are at the end” of a season that really counts.
Hayes’ bullishness is not just for show or an attempt to unnerve the chasing pack. The 47-year-old believes that, as she approaches 12 years in charge, Chelsea have constructed the “best squad we’ve ever had”.
That squad could have been knocked off course by November’s shock announcement that Hayes will leave Chelsea to become the USA women’s manager in the summer.
Instead, Hayes says her side are “in the best place we’ve been in this year, in this current moment”, adding: “Form, confidence and clarity are all at their best levels.”
Chelsea’s dominance of the domestic scene under Hayes has been well-documented – as has their annual quest to win a maiden Champions League. The 4-0 humbling at the hands of Barcelona in the final three years ago was the closest they have come.
In a bid to finally get over the hump, Hayes has successfully tweaked her side’s tactics to ensure they control matches more effectively. Going into the weekend’s fixtures, Chelsea are the WSL’s top scorers and dominate the ball more than any side in the top flight.
“I’m enjoying the way the team’s playing,” Hayes says. “I’m enjoying that it’s less transitional – coaches always prefer that.
“But we’ve got even more ways we can hurt an opponent. It feels like there’s an inevitability in the final third.
“Sometimes you may be relying on one or two players but now we’ve got a lot of players who can score goals.”
Few teams understand Chelsea’s inevitability more than Everton. The west Londoners are unbeaten in their last 13 WSL matches against the Toffees – winning their last eight – and handed out a 7-0 thrashing in this fixture last season.
Unsurprisingly, Everton are an opponent that Hayes is fond of. “It’s always a really good football match,” she says.
“I love the way Brian [Sorensen] has developed that team and some of their attacking patterns are the best in the league. But that also plays to quite an open game as they’re not afraid to commit numbers.”
As for the secret to Chelsea’s success against Everton, it could be rather simple.
“I don’t think there’s a particular reason we have dominated them other than the fact we’ve got an amazing frontline,” Hayes explains. “When it comes down to both boxes, that’s where we’ve dominated.
“The area in between, actually there’s an ebb and flow between both teams.”
The visit of Everton is followed by games against Crystal Palace and Sunderland in the FA Cup and League Cup respectively, before a showdown with City. It’s a run the manager admits could be the most important of their season so far.
Fortunately for Chelsea, all four matches take place at Kingsmeadow. Hayes says it’s her side’s “favourite place to play”, and no wonder – they are currently on a record-breaking run of 21 consecutive home wins in the WSL.
But Chelsea don’t just rely on home comforts, having won seven and drawn one of their last eight games in all competitions.
That run is even more impressive given it was preceded by a 4-1 thrashing at Arsenal in December. Coming just a month after Hayes’ exit was confirmed, the potential for Chelsea’s players to lose their nerve as the season reached its halfway mark was real.
Instead, Hayes used that defeat – combined with a mid-season trip to Morocco – to galvanise her side.
“That was a one-off, I hope, but it also confirmed some things about us that, if we don’t improve, we won’t end up with trophies come the end of the season,” Hayes said of Arsenal’s win.
“We cleared that up in Morocco. We had some difficult conversations but the team have come through the other side of it.”
Perhaps the most difficult conversation that took place in Agadir was the one that confirmed Sam Kerr had become the latest star of the women’s game to suffer an ACL injury.
“No one wants to be without Sam Kerr,” concedes Hayes. “She’s the best.” Losing Kerr, whose goals have underpinned Chelsea’s success since her debut in 2020, was another potential moment for the squad to lose their way.
But with adversity comes opportunity. As soon as her star striker was struck down, Hayes set about formulating a new plan of attack.
“I like the challenge of how we can keep winning and find different ways to do that,” Hayes explains. “I think like that all the time anyway.
“It’s just adapting to the personnel and remaining true to the team’s principles of play. They are fundamental.”
Hayes may enjoy the challenges of her job but she is honest about the toll they take. Her move to America is not just about taking on arguably the biggest job in women’s football but also addresses her work-life balance, which she admits has been “challenging” for her young son.
It was notable that Jurgen Klopp, who announced he will leave Liverpool at the end of the season and take a break from coaching, cited fatigue as the primary factor in his decision.
“With the calendar the way it is, it drains the life out of you – and not just the players,” admits Hayes. “I’ll say it as politely as I can – the players come in from 10am-2pm. The staff come in from 8am-6pm. We have to do it every day, for a lot longer.
The mental health of everybody involved will definitely need better support.
That Hayes has spent nearly 12 years at the top of such a gruelling profession is testament to her abilities. But with the end in sight – and four trophies still there to be won – Hayes insists the focus of everybody during the final months of her reign must be on the task at hand.
“Everyone knows my commitment to the club and the team,” she says. “So they just need to focus on getting their own jobs done and delivering more trophies.
“That’s what we’re here for.”
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