As Chelsea stand on the brink of a 14th major trophy of Emma Hayes's 11-year tenure, the club's knack for succession planning, their ability to continually evolve their side and never stand still has proven invaluable once again.
Rebuilding a winning team to stay on top is not something many sports clubs have been able to manage. Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year reign at Manchester United, where he rebuilt winning team after winning team, is the finest of the rare exceptions. But for most clubs, this task proves elusive. Stars wane, the core of winning teams age and an unrefreshed side can stagnate. At Chelsea, this has not happened.
Now needing a victory over bottom side Reading on the Women’s Super League’s final day on Saturday to win what would be their fourth consecutive title, this looks like the final season of Chelsea 3.0, the latest incarnation of Hayes' trophy-hogging setup. But Chelsea 4.0 is already taking shape.
Chelsea 1.0 under Hayes looked very different indeed. The side that lifted the club's first major honours in 2015, including their first WSL title, consisted of a central spine that included Hedvig Lindahl in goal, Gilly Flaherty at centre-back, Katie Chapman in holding midfield and Eni Aluko. Their South Korean technician Ji So-Yun was the PFA Player of the Year.
By the time Hayes’ team won their second WSL title in 2017-18, after their success in 2017's Spring Series, Chelsea 2.0 had already evolved. They had Ann-Katrin Berger in goal, England’s Millie Bright at centre-back, Wales’ Sophie Ingle in holding midfield and Fran Kirby frequently stealing the show up front, with Kirby that season's PFA Player of the Year.
Following the staggered, headline arrivals of Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder over the course of 2020, after the pandemic, the strike duo dubbed 'Kerrby' began to dominate, with Kirby and Kerr finding unrelenting goalscoring form, and a Chelsea 3.0 was well on its way. Germany's Melanie Leupolz made the holding midfield role her own, and ever-improving talents such as tenacious Scotland midfielder Erin Cuthbert started to become more of a prominent feature in the side.
Standing on the cusp of what would be a third consecutive domestic double, Chelsea 3.0 has arguably been the most successful of Hayes' sides, but after something of a transitional year this term, and with four summer signings already finalised, Chelsea 4.0 is coming to a WSL ground near you soon.
That's because, already confirmed as leaving the club this summer are Denmark forward Harder and club captain Magdalena Eriksson, aged 30 and 29 respectively. As usual, the club have done the majority of their summer business early to plan to replace those two key players. Neither is ‘over the hill’ yet, but most of the typical peak years of their careers in terms of age have been spent in west London.
Set to come in are big-name stars including United States star Catarina Macario, a 23-year-old attacking midfielder from Lyon who is understood to have agreed a pre-contract agreement to join Chelsea on a free transfer this summer.
Despite missing this term with an ACL injury she is a world-renowned, attack-minded player who is expected will fill the void left by Harder’s departure. Meanwhile, Chelsea are also set to add Canada’s 27-year-old defender Ashley Lawrence from Paris Saint-Germain this summer, essentially replacing Eriksson, plus they have already announced the signing of 22-year-old Germany midfielder Sjoeke Nüsken.
In midfield, while there’s no suggestion that Wales’ Sophie Ingle (31) or Melanie Leupolz (29) will be leaving Chelsea any time soon, and Nüsken could be embedded into the first team slowly over her first year at the club, she will no doubt be part of the next evolution of Chelsea’s midfield. Belgian goalkeeper Nicky Evrard has also been snapped up by Chelsea early on, and will be another new face this summer.
Many of the other key components of Chelsea 4.0 have already been gradually eased into the team. Take Lauren James, for example: signed as a relative youngster in 2021, she had to bide her time last season, but has been a regular first-team star this term. Canada centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan was signed last year and, after settling into England during this campaign, will step up in seniority within the starting XI next term.
How do they do it? Hayes and her trusty lieutenant Paul Green plan early, usually at least 18 months in advance of signing a player, working a couple of transfer windows ahead of many of their rivals. Signings are often brought in before the staff expect that player to make an impact. One example is England defender Jess Carter, who made only a handful of first-team starts in her first three seasons after signing for Chelsea in 2018 as a 20-year-old, but is now a highly influential part of the side. Similarly, scarcely any players have been permitted to wind down their careers at the club, leaving once their best football might be behind them.
Without a doubt funding helps — Chelsea have the best-resourced women's side in the land. That cannot be overlooked. Yet the forward planning, the gradual evolution of a starting team, and the ability to keep winning while evolving that team, is something that is the envy of the rest of the sport.