Emergency surgery to Chelsea glory: Emma Hayes’ extraordinary season

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.

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.”

Emma Hayes speaks to her players and staff following Chelsea’s 2-0 win against Arsenal
Emma Hayes speaks to her players and staff following Chelsea’s 2-0 win against Arsenal. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

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.”

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