Emma Hayes praised the tactical masterclass delivered by her team after Chelsea ripped apart the league leaders, Arsenal to secure last season’s FA Cup with a 3-0 win in front of a buoyant Wembley crowd.
“We got it spot on,” the manager said. “We predicted what they were going to do and they did what we thought they were going to do.”
Fran Kirby was unplayable as the Blues secured their delayed domestic treble for the 2020-21 season – a quadruple if the Community Shield is included. The England forward gave Chelsea the early lead and Hayes whispered into her ear that it was “by far the best performance I’ve ever seen you play in a Chelsea shirt” after she was substituted in the second half, when Sam Kerr delivered the fatal blow, scoring twice.
“Champions don’t make excuses, or become victims or look for anybody else to manage them,” Hayes said of Kerr, who played twice for Australia in the international break, was unwell, flew back, landed on Thursday and scored twice here. “Sam takes responsibility and, every time I listen to her and every time I watch her perform every day, she’s in charge and in control of making sure that she sets the standards for herself. And that’s what I admire about her. There was no way she was going to be on the losing team today. She sets that tone in such a way that I’ve rarely seen.”
There was hope that this would be an occasion worthy of the 40,942 crowd and the 100th anniversary of the ban of women’s football from FA affiliated grounds. As a contest, however, the meeting between the league leaders and the WSL title holders ended almost as quickly as it had begun, with Chelsea rampant and forcing an Arsenal collapse in a week that could come to define their season with the visit of Barcelona to the Emirates Stadium to come on Thursday.
“We were like a machine, everything about us – we just purred from start to finish,” said Hayes with a laugh and a literal meow – a nod to the Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall’s admission that he avoids black cats out of superstition.
In fairness the third-minute opener was staggeringly unlucky. The life-long Arsenal fan Lotte Wubben-Moy flicked her interception up and it bounced off an on-hand Frida Maanum into the path of Kirby who raced through the middle and side-footed low past Manuela Zinsberger into the corner.
If the goal was a heavy dollop of misfortune, Arsenal – with their 14 wins the most FA Cup in history – rode their luck for the rest of the first half with the Austrian goalkeeper Zinsberger repeatedly responsible for keeping the margin narrow.
Hayes’s team lined up with the back three of Jess Carter, Magda Eriksson and Millie Bright that has increasingly settled into the new formation as the season has worn on. But whenever Arsenal were in possession the versatile Erin Cuthbert, playing on the right side the midfield, would fall in line alongside the centre-back trio, tasked with stifling the similarly terrier-like Katie McCabe. It was a hugely effective tactic, cutting off width that Arsenal had exploited in the WSL opener between the title rivals in September and giving them the extra body in the middle when piling forward.
“I want Erin to know this, I want her to read this,” Hayes said. “I don’t want Erin to run away from herself; what she is is what you saw. Whether she plays in the wing-back situation, at times right-back today, when she puts her hand to anything she achieves it at an unbelievable level, she goes beyond being a team player, her contributions are so underrated.”
The half-time whistle could not have come soon enough for the battered Gunners, with Eidevall’s side heavily flattered by the 1-0 scoreline, both sides having had strong penalty appeals waved away. Having spent much of the season dominating, fluid and pressing high when out of possession, the Arsenal players looked like they barely knew each other let alone played together.
After the break Kerr beat Wubben-Moy to a long ball from Kirby, cut inside and fired in at the near post to quell hopes of a fightback. And the atmosphere thereafter became as tepid as Arsenal’s attempted forays forward.
Throwing caution to the wind, Eidevall swapped the defensive midfielders Lia Walti and Jennifer Beattie for the forwards Nikita Parris and Caitlin Foord but it merely sowed confusion among the red shirts and Kerr clipped the ball delightfully over Zinsberger with 13 minutes remaining to deliver the final blow.
“After the final whistle you just feel powerless and it’s an opportunity that is gone,” Eidevall said. “But I’m not a person who is driven by hatred or motivated by being hurt or seeing others celebrate. I definitely would like for my players and my staff to be standing there themselves because they deserve that and I can’t wait to get another opportunity to get back here.”