Last season’s Women’s Super League champions Chelsea have their eyes set on clinching a second successive league title under Emma Hayes’ tutelage.
The Blues are currently top of the table, level on points with Manchester United, though they do have a game in hand over the Red Devils. They moved to the top of the league after a 4-0 win over Aston Villa in midweek, which also saw them break the WSL record for longest unbeaten run, which now stands at 32 games. But their next match is a tough one, a London derby against Tottenham Hotspur that was initially scheduled to take place before the winter break but had to be postponed.
It was then rescheduled for January 20, but had to be moved again so Chelsea could fulfil their Continental Cup fixture against Manchester City (which was also postponed from the start of the month). So now it is finally happening, on a weekend initially meant for the FA Women’s Cup fourth round. The Blues have already beaten Man Utd, Man City and Everton, while drawing against Man Utd and Arsenal, but Tottenham will prove to be an entirely different affair.
So, looking ahead to the game, we’ve picked out five things you need to watch out for in this London Derby.
1. Rehanne Skinner’s first true test
After a decent debut campaign in the WSL, it looked as though 2020/21 was going to be a tough season for Tottenham, as they failed to win any of their opening seven games in the league.
However, in November Tottenham made the bold decision to relieve joint-head coaches Karen Hills and Juan Amoros, bringing an end to 11 and nine-year spells respectively. They were replaced by Rehanne Skinner and, even at this early stage, it’s a decision from which they are already benefitting.
So far, Skinner has taken charge of three Tottenham games, against Brighton & Hove Albion, Aston Villa and West Ham. Tottenham won the first two 3-1 and then edged West Ham in a narrow 1-0 victory, moving themselves clear of the relegation zone to a comfortable eighth. A seventh that had previously looked in danger of relegation can now almost certainly start preparing for their third WSL season, given the current state Bristol City and Aston Villa are in.
However, Chelsea will be the first of the WSL’s so-called big sides to go up against Skinner’s Tottenham, providing a true test.
2. Kerr-by on a roll
You wouldn’t have known based on their understanding and link-up, but Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr had never played with each other prior to the start of the 2020/21 campaign – at least, not outside the training ground.
A lot has been said about Kerr’s form in front of goal, and the amount of scoring chances she passes up, but the Australian still has eight goals in 11 WSL games this season, not to mention three assists. Sure, three of those came in the form of a backflip-worthy hat-trick against West Ham, but the Aussie’s slippery ways make her a firm favourite to net, if she has her shooting boots on.
And even if she doesn’t, she always seems to know where Kirby is, with the Englishwoman in excellent form.
You wouldn’t have known based on her performances that, prior to this season, the Englishwoman had been out of action for a long period of time. And yet, Kirby returned from her setback as if she’d been sizzling on the sidelines, picking up where she’d left off with a fiery trail of assists for Kerr and co.
The 27-year-old has a whole host of goals and assists to her name already this year and surpassed Eniola Aluko as Chelsea’s all-time record goalscorer in December. Kirby’s tally now stands at 75, including four against Reading at the start of January and, perhaps most importantly, she was rested in midweek.
Put the two back together again on Sunday and you have a deadly duo worthy of any title-chasing side, and they could make another big mark at Kingsmeadow against a Spurs defence that have conceded 18 times this season. Gulp.
3. Beating the press
The other new addition to this Chelsea team that could do a real number to the Spurs defence is Hayes’ brand-new gegenpressing midfield.
Working off a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Blues boss added former Frauen-Bundesliga winner Melanie Leupolz into the mix over the summer at the base of the midfield, adding an element of stability, control and sharpness that the side has often lacked in the past.
The other three are already existing members of the midfield pressing club, in the form of Ji So-yun, Erin Cuthbert and Guro Reiten.
Ji acts as the dynamic, attacking live-wire, lurking in that shadow-striker role, making her an absolute nightmare to mark or keep away from the action. Across the field there’s Cuthbert, the driving, fearless dribbler who forces defenders into making mistakes. Reiten, when she has been given a chance this season, has a rocket-of-a left-foot and is a mastermind in all things crosses.
The way Hayes’ side press, all the way from the number 10 role, through to the flanks and the deeper midfielders, they give opposing teams absolutely no space to attack or pass in.
Given that Spurs like to attack through flank play via Ashleigh Neville and Rosella Ayanne, a press like anything the Blues have produced this season is going to make it incredibly tough for Skinner’s team to come away with a win.
4. Bright at the back
Should Spurs surpass all expectations and somehow manage to mount an attack on an extremely durable back four, they’ll have Millie Bright to contend with.
As a centre-back who reads the game exceptionally well, there is very little that takes Bright by surprise, making her an ideal match for the likes of Ayane.
More importantly, the Englishwoman is often the instigator of many a Chelsea attack, always looking to play the ball forward with one of her trademark cross-field passes, setting off the likes of Ji and Kirby on their way to the opposition goal, or dribbling out herself.
Without her, the Blues are a mess (see a close-fought 3-2 win over West Ham), and have looked unstable. Which is why her pre-break injury was such a concern for all involved at the club.
But Bright recovered from the injury over the break and once again looks an unstoppable force alongside Magdalena Eriksson, treating fans to a cheeky back-heeled nutmeg against Villa in midweek. That partnership, part of the best defence in the league, will be pivotal in securing unbeaten game number 33.
5. An Alex Morgan-shaped hole
If this game was played in December as it was supposed to, on the final weekend of the WSL, Tottenham would have had two-time World Cup winner Alex Morgan among their ranks.
Despite clinching international glory for the second time with the US women’s national team at the 2019 World Cup, the birth of daughter Charlie (followed closely by the return of a recurring knee injury) saw Morgan on the sidelines for over a year.
The move to Spurs last year gave Morgan the perfect opportunity to sharpen her form ahead of the 2021 Olympics and, after a delayed start, the forward wasted little time in getting back to a quality level. Morgan scored twice for Tottenham before the break, earning and netting a penalty against Aston Villa and repeating the feat last week against a Brighton team that had, earlier in the season, shut out Man City.
Morgan’s positioning and pace, even at the age of 31, made her a nightmare to defend and she was becoming key to Tottenham’s improving side. But, her time with Tottenham came to an end in December, having only signed a short-term deal.
Now, Tottenham and Skinner must show that they can play without Morgan and find a way to replace the qualities the American brought to the side with a collective effort. It worked against West Ham last weekend but, again, Chelsea are a different level of opposition – though Tottenham may hope Cho So-hyun can help cause problems from a deeper role.