The annual Chelsea Continental Cup final meltdown
Jonas Eidevall did his homework. Emma Hayes didn’t
After about 10 minutes of the Continental Cup final, it was clear that Chelsea did not look right. Yes, they had gone 1-0 up in the 2nd minute but Arsenal were all over them. When Stina Blackstenius equalised after 16 minutes, it did not feel like a surprise. But Chelsea’s meltdown over it was. Just over half an hour later, Chelsea fans were stewing gloomily over their pints (okay yes, me, I mean me) at finding themselves 3-1 down to Arsenal at half-time.
The nature of the third goal conceded - an own goal headed in by Niamh Charles after goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger failed to claim the ball from a corner - meant that the match felt over at that point. And it was. Chelsea huffed and puffed with a lot of substitutions but failed to create any meaningful opportunities in the second half.
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Arsenal collected the trophy that they needed to win this year. Emma Hayes made a series of digs about it. Everyone went home.
Cup finals are tricky to take a huge amount away from because the result is (obviously) so definitive in a way that individual league matches are not but here are a couple of things that I think can be true simultaneously:
Arsenal had a better mentality around the match
This isn’t the same as simply wanting it more because 1. I think those explanations are often lazy (yes, even if Emma Hayes says them - maybe particularly if Emma Hayes says them) and 2. I don’t believe that a team of winners like Chelsea get complacent around the idea of losing to rivals Arsenal. If anything, the way Chelsea reacted to going conceding in the game almost showed how much they wanted it.
However, Arsenal undeniably dealt much better mentally during the match. Despite going 1-0 down within 90 seconds, they did not panic. When Chelsea were a goal down at 2-1, they reacted as if they had already lost, despite having over an hour still to play and having already shown how easily they could exploit Arsenal. Watching the teams’ reactions without prior knowledge of their recent history, you would have assumed that it was Arsenal who had the unassailable record over Chelsea, not the other way round.
Chelsea have had a number of recent experiences capitulating during important matches: the 4-0 UWCL final loss to Barcelona, the 4-0 UWCL group stage loss to Wolfsburg, and last year’s 3-1 Continental Cup final loss to Manchester City. As much as Hayes’ team are praised as ‘mentality monsters’ for their impressive winning record, perhaps the memory of those defeats is also lingering a bit too much.
Jonas Eidevall outcoached Emma Hayes
Arsenal and Chelsea have now played three times in the past seven weeks. Both teams know each other's game plan intimately (and we have seen all three possible outcomes). But whilst Jonas Eidevall responded to the issues Chelsea had caused Arsenal, Emma Hayes did little to try and rectify them.
There were two key issues for Chelsea defensively following on from the two matches played in 2023: Arsenal attackers exploiting space in behind, and Chelsea’s fullbacks struggling in 1v1s. Magda Eriksson had been caught out struggling with the pace and physicality of Stina Blackstenius and it felt like bringing in a player like Kadeisha Buchanan who would be able to cover more ground would be a logical solution. Equally, playing a more defensive minded fullback such as Jess Carter or Maren Mjelde, both of whom are adept at playing as part of back threes, seemed to make sense. Instead, Chelsea kept the same starting XI as in the FA Cup match, and faced markedly similar issues.
Arsenal meanwhile had struggled in particular to deal with Lauren James in their two previous matches. Eidevall adapted to this by putting her under the close attention of Lia Walti. Chelsea could probably have exploited the space this left in the centre of midfield but James’ naivety showed through, with her attempts to carry on dribbling normally taking her down a cul-de-sac. It helped that Kim Little played incredibly well to neutralise this threat.
Arsenal had also played very centrally against Chelsea, making it easy for Erin Cuthbert and Sophie Ingle to stamp out any attacks. This time however, they moved the ball out wide quickly, doubling up on Chelsea’s fullbacks (who did not help themselves by ball-watching) and exploiting an age-old Chelsea issue: they simply are not very good at defending the flanks.
Chelsea were not as clinical as they are normally
For all that Arsenal deserved to win this match, Chelsea probably still created enough to win it themselves. Wyscout give the non-penalty expected goals from the game as 1.85 for Chelsea vs 0.65 for Arsenal. I think some of the Wyscout values for Chelsea are a bit generous but Sam Kerr did have three decent headers in the first half. On a different day you would back her to score more than one. Arsenal really struggled to deal in the first half with Guro Reiten’s crosses with the Norwegian getting in behind Noelle Maritz with ease on multiple occasions (including for the opener).
Chelsea had the same number of shots on target in this match as they had in their previous two against Arsenal combined. As Arsenal know, sometimes things simply won’t go your way in front of goal.
Emma Hayes made the wrong choices when it came to substitutions
If something is not working, it makes sense for a manager to try and change it. The decision during the first half to bring Kadeisha Buchanan on was not necessarily a bad one, but taking off Jelena Cankovic probably was. With Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder out, Chelsea do not have another player like her and whilst she had been pretty anonymous, that was not really her fault. It was a strange choice of sacrificial lamb.
The formation change also put an end to what was about the only thing going for Chelsea in an attacking sense: getting Guro Reiten in-behind. With Reiten shunted back to left wing-back, Chelsea were relying solely on long balls up to Sam Kerr or Lauren James dribbling somewhere. Moving James more centrally did help her get on the ball more, and Melanie Leupolz added something different to midfield, but just as Chelsea were settling into that, Johanna Rytting Kaneryd was brought on, and once again the pack was reshuffled.
Hayes made four substitutions with each new XI getting 11 minutes, 18 minutes, 14 minutes and 18 minutes respectively. Each substitution required a formation change of some kind, and none really solved Chelsea’s key problem: gaining control of the midfield battle. If the Chelsea players panicked, so did Emma Hayes.
We might not know how important these factors are until we see how the rest of the season plays out. Chelsea bounced back from losing last year’s Continental Cup final by winning every remaining game they played that season. Manchester City did the same after winning, until they came across Chelsea at Wembley in the FA Cup final, but the run did secure them Champions League football.
Perhaps now Eidevall has won his first trophy the pressure will lift slightly? Perhaps Chelsea’s capitulation will give other sides a blueprint for how to get at them? But it feels equally plausible that Chelsea will go back to winning and Arsenal might still struggle against better teams in open play. Only time will tell.
P.S. There was WSL football tucked in around the Continental Cup final this weekend but I wanted to do a deep dive into the match. We’ll catch up on all the league action with a little midweek Flying Geese after Chelsea have played Brighton and Arsenal have played Liverpool.