Chelsea and Manchester City face off hoping to atone for poor WSL starts

The new Women’s Super League season has only just begun but in many ways the stakes could not be higher going into the second weekend. Chelsea take on Manchester City at a sold-out Kingsmeadow on Sunday afternoon, with two of the game’s heavyweights desperate to avoid back-to-back defeats and kickstart their campaign.

Both sides will have expected to have points on the board but with the postponement of the opening weekend and surprise defeats last time out, the pressure is on.

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Emma Hayes would never say it publicly but her Chelsea side’s performance last week will have caused her slight consternation. A testing pre-season away in the US should have provided the defending champions with strong foundations. However, despite dominating the ball, they seemed disjointed in their opener against an impressive Liverpool in which they managed just four shots on target, ultimately losing to a penalty three minutes from time.

The lack of creativity can in some part be attributed to an enforced last-minute change. Pernille Harder withdrew during the warmup after sustaining a hamstring injury and it is still uncertain if she will recover in time for Sunday’s game. Her replacement, Sophie Ingle, is a different type of player with stronger defensive qualities, whose presence altered the balance of the side.

However, there were other tactical decisions from Hayes that raised a few eyebrows, including deploying Lauren James in an unfamiliar right wing-back role. It is not often, however, that this Chelsea side fails to respond to adversity. Hayes trusts in her experienced personnel to come up with answers.

“I always do [get a reaction],” she says. “I never worry about that with my group. I always think there are so many leaders in the dressing room. They’re so accountable and mature. One thing I have seen as an improvement in the team is their response to things collectively and not going inward.”

While Chelsea struggled to get their attack firing, Manchester City’s performance against Aston Villa displayed some fundamental issues in defence. The 4-3 defeat will have stung Gareth Taylor and his players who have once again endured a slow start to a campaign.

While they showed character to come back from two down, their frailties were clear to see when faced with tactically astute opponents. The exodus of players over the summer has left some conspicuous holes, and while Taylor has brought in quality, they are not like-for-like replacements.

Inevitably, it will take recruits like Laia Aleixandri, Deyna Castellanos and Mary Fowler time to adjust to the pace and physicality of English football. Villa exposed this with an intense high press that forced mistakes out of City’s back line. Without the protective shield of Keira Walsh, they were exposed to a barrage of pressure. Facing a Chelsea side well known for their energy in attack, it has been a focus in training this week.

“I think we’ll hopefully show a better version of ourselves without the ball,” Taylor says. “I think that’s been really key and it was a bit of a surprise last weekend that we weren’t quite as effective as what we have been seeing. We know if we do that, we’ll always score goals and have a better chance keeping the ball out at the other end.”

It is no secret that Taylor sets his side up to benefit from the service to his wide players. In Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, he has two of the world’s best youngsters in this regard. It is when the width gets cut off that they struggle, with a lack of experienced options through the middle. Laura Coombs was a bright spark against Villa, but she has not played regular first-team football with only six league starts last year. Yui Hasegawa will also play an important role in the future but is still recovering from an ankle injury.

Both managers will argue that you cannot tell much about their sides so early on in the season. While this is true, Sunday’s match will provide a benchmark with meetings between the two rarely dull. Both struggled at opposite ends of the field and will look for fast improvements to get their seasons up and running. For whoever loses, the climb to the top just gets that little bit steeper.