Courage, confidence, conviction: how Chelsea won a third straight WSL title | Suzanne Wrack

After Chelsea endured a 3-2 defeat against their title rivals Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on the opening weekend of the Women’s Super League season in September, Emma Hayes was frustrated at the goals conceded but remained in relaxed mood. “The league isn’t won or lost in one game,” she said. “It’s important we quickly focus on the next one.”

Hayes was stating the obvious. However, in a league which has struggled to find competitiveness from top to bottom, instances of the traditional top three of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal dropping points against any other club have been a rarity.

Instead, in a league of 12 teams and only 22 fixtures, the games between that triumvirate have often been critical to the destination of the trophy. Not so much this season. The pattern of this campaign has been different and Chelsea’s path to a third consecutive title has been far more chequered.

OK, “far more” may be an exaggeration. Last season Chelsea lost once and drew three times on the way to 57 points. In the Covid‑stunted 2019-20 season they lost none and drew three on the way to a title awarded on a points-per-game basis. This season has not been hugely different, with Hayes’s side losing twice and drawing twice to finish on 56 points.

In the 12 seasons of the WSL (including the mini Spring Series that slotted in as the Football Association shifted the league from summer to winter), championship‑winning teams have endured defeats against teams outside the traditional top three just five times. Chelsea’s record against the club’s main rivals in the five seasons they have won the league has also been remarkably consistent, with Hayes’s side losing just twice, against City in the Spring Series and at Arsenal this season.

Emma Hayes celebrates with Sam Kerr at full time after beating Aston Villa 1-0 at Kingsmeadow on 13 March
Emma Hayes (third right) celebrates with Sam Kerr at full time after beating Aston Villa 1-0 at Kingsmeadow on 13 March. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

What felt different this season was the lack of swagger to the title. For the first time in a long time, no team has looked infallible. Even when title-winning teams have slipped up in recent years, there has seemed to be an inevitability to their eventual title party. Last season Chelsea’s sole defeat, against Brighton, was a shock but proved merely a blip in an otherwise blistering and swashbuckling run. This season the reigning champions dropped four points to a title rival, Arsenal, drew with Brighton and were defeated at Reading.

Instead of leading from the front, Chelsea have spent much of the season chasing Arsenal. A goal difference of 59 last season has been trimmed to 51 during this campaign. And the Blues have had to work harder to grind out results.

Pernille Harder’s controversial penalty was all that separated them from Birmingham last Sunday. In the recent double-header against Tottenham, they had to come from behind after having a player sent off to win three gritty points at the Hive, before a narrow 2-1 win at Kingsmeadow thanks to a Sam Kerr header. Against Aston Villa in March, Kerr’s 90th-minute goal kept their title chances alive and felt like a critical moment.

Pernille Harder scores the only goal of the game against Birmingham on 1 May
Pernille Harder scores the only goal of the game against Birmingham on 1 May, with a controversial penalty. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

“In crisis I think my team do really well,” Hayes said after the 3-1 win against Spurs. “There’s rarely times in the last few years [where] in crisis we go under. I thought that was an amazing display of courage, confidence, conviction, togetherness, camaraderie.

“It was the calmest dressing room in the world at half-time. Ever since Villa it’s been extremely calm, in terms of, as it’s getting hectic, keep making the right decision, keep adjusting; and we do a lot of work off the pitch. Today was a victory for all the work we do behind the scenes.”

This is the key piece of the puzzle. Hayes’s team have faced more adversity than in recent years – the absence of Fran Kirby with fatigue, Kerr and Ji So-yun’s Asia Cup exploits in January, injuries to key players such as the captain, Magda Eriksson, and Harder – but the players have been equipped with a belief that means they do not lie down, and they are also able to problem-solve during games.

Moving the Goalposts graphic
Illustration: Guardian Design

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It is no accident that Hayes’s squad is littered with international captains. Her recruitment focuses on picking the right characters for the way she wants her team to operate, and that means picking players who can read and understand the game as well as communicate – characteristics of all good leaders.

While Arsenal have wilted under pressure, Hayes’s side have thrived. Her team have evolved. Players such as Kerr and Harder, recruited to lift Chelsea to another level, now have a couple of seasons under their belts. With Manchester City having overcome their early difficulties and Arsenal still developing under Jonas Eidevall, next season’s title defence will be even tougher.