Emergency surgery to Chelsea glory: Emma Hayes’ extraordinary season

“Maybe that’s why it’s my favourite year. My own personal health issues, that was frigging hard,” said Emma Hayes after Chelsea’s 2-0 victory against Arsenal ensured they moved to within one win of a fourth successive title.

What an understatement. That Chelsea are within touching distance of a third league and FA Cup double in a row, with Hayes’s emergency hysterectomy an almost forgotten footnote, is remarkable. It has been a long a season but Chelsea’s ability to cope with the loss of Hayes towards the start of the campaign, the influential centre-back Millie Bright towards the end of it and Pernille Harder and Fran Kirby for huge chunks of the season speaks to a level of squad management and personnel development that is second to none.

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It has not been as straightforward a march as in recent years but it has been patient and consistent. Critically, Chelsea have stepped up a gear in May, winning all five league games, scoring 21 goals and conceding one. For context, that is one-third of their 63 goals this season. Hayes prepares her squad for this month: the focus is on making sure they are ready for anything at the business end.

Hayes alluded to one aspect of what makes them so successful in this phase after the defeat of Arsenal when she spoke about how important it is to try to give her players some semblance of a work/life balance and mental as well as physical rest.

“I believe we always give the most amount of time off – the girls tell me this, anyway,” she said. “We start the latest; when it comes to the winter break, I usually give the most time off; when we’ve done well, I usually reward that with the right days off. Apparently I’m quite generous.

“I think recovery is important here [points to her head], not just in the legs. We need to breathe and be human beings and not just football managers and football players all the time.”

Hayes will risk losing at other points, playing the long game to ensure they are the best prepared at the end of term. When Chelsea lost the opening game of the 2021- 22 season to Arsenal, Hayes said: “I like the challenge. It’s the first game of the season and no one wins the league today.” Arsenal had been thrust straight into Champions League qualification after the Tokyo Olympic Games but Hayes was in no rush to get her team back together, prioritising time off. “We’re rusty,” she said. “Millie and Magda [Eriksson] have been at an Olympics and that’s their first 90 minutes [of the season]. I think it showed.”

Nine months later Chelsea were champions, having grown into the campaign as injuries and exhaustion hit Arsenal, who faded.

Hayes has done the same this season and has also rotated to get minutes in the legs of as many Chelsea players as possible regardless of the impact on the rhythm performance-wise.

Against Arsenal last weekend Hayes made six changes to the team that had put four, unanswered, past West Ham on Wednesday night. Yet both XIs were formidable because every squad member has played minutes and built relationships in competitive matches.

Before Chelsea’s FA Cup final defeat of their title rivals Manchester United this month, Hayes said it was crucial not to train with a starting group. “All the time in training, we don’t play starting groups, we believe in different combinations, different relationships and everyone that knows me knows I don’t put together a team of 11 players – it’s about a squad,” she said.

When asked whether her squad management was the difference between her side and their title rivals, Hayes said: “Maybe, if we win it.” She added: “People will say we’ve got more players – we haven’t. Everyone had 23 players at the beginning of the year but I bet you our players have played more minutes than everybody else. That’s our method. I believe in a squad and I’ve believed in it all my career.”

Also critical to this season’s success has been Hayes’s belief in the empowerment of her players. She recruits and cultivates leaders who can analyse and assess for themselves so that when she is on the touchline unable to intervene, they can problem solve. That was vital when she was forced to sit out five weeks of the season after that emergency hysterectomy.

“I have trust in the competency, the expertise around us, to be able to deliver … I trust these people with my life and vice versa,” she said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the whole team … Everybody can deliver a high level because the culture has been set over a long period of time. I’m so grateful to my staff; I’d be dead in the water without them.”

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Not everything Hayes has touched has turned to gold. There have been tactical question marks at times, notably in Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat by Arsenal in the Continental League Cup final. There, as Arsenal had come from conceding early to being 2-1 up, shortly before half-time she swapped out Jelena Cankovic for Kadeisha Buchanan and switched to a back three. Chelsea conceded a third just before the interval and Melanie Leupolz came on at half-time in place of Niamh Charles as they reverted back to a back four. It was a strange experiment which lasted less than 10 minutes.

There were similar seemingly desperate changes in a 2-0 league defeat by Manchester City, with Chelsea’s biggest threat, Lauren James, one of two players whipped off in the 36th minute with Chelsea two goals down. There were signs in those fixtures that if Chelsea are put under early pressure or fall more than a goal behind then they can struggle to find their way back; signs that it is possible to stretch the usually unflappable and meticulous Hayes tactically.

Those signs are rare, though, the smallest cracks in a suit of armour meticulously oiled and cared for by Hayes, whose biggest asset is perhaps not her strong tactical awareness but her player care and squad management.