Although Emma Hayes is now synonymous with winning, it didn’t come immediately for the English manager.
Appointed by Chelsea midway through 2012, the Blues won two games and lost three during her first stretch in charge. It was enough to keep her in the job, setting the course for one of the club’s greatest runs: six Women’s Super League titles (seven, counting the interim 2017 competition as they reconfigured the calendar to match England’s men’s leagues), five FA Cup triumphs, a pair of Leagues Cup wins, and second place in the 2020-21 UEFA Women’s Champions League.
“‘Determined winner,’” Hayes said when The Athletic asked what her obituary would say. “‘Good human.’ ‘Funny.’ I have a love for life, I’m always a positive person, and have a lot of good energy.”
This Is Me: Emma Hayes
While her shoe game and post-win celebrations give a glimpse into her personality, being a “determined winner” guides every decision Hayes makes about her tactics. A tactical chameleon, she doesn’t have the same staunch tenets of play as rivals like Jonas Eidevall of Arsenal or Nils Nielsen of Manchester City.
But will building up a great club translate into what U.S. Soccer is looking for as it replaces Vlatko Andonovski’s lackluster 2023 World Cup with Hayes’ fresh perspective?
“There was definitely a sense that we need to be better with the ball and have more solutions,” U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker said in September. The federation polled players during the coaching search and much of the focus from the tactical feedback involved building the attack, playing through the midfield and having “creative solutions in tight spaces, having the players and the tactics to beat the low block.”
If any team is accustomed to facing a low block, it’s Hayes’ Chelsea. She plans for the opponent rather than coaching from dogmatic principles, which may help the program rebound from its least successful cycle in history. Between sizing up her opponents’ weak points and assessing her own squad’s readiness, each game’s instructions are curated with one aim in mind: winning, above all else.
Hayes has found success with a variety of structures. Over the last few years, Chelsea has spent multiple matches lined up in a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 5-2-1-2, 3-4-3, and 3-4-1-2. If the referee blows their whistle and she doesn’t like the tactical matchup, she’s quick to pivot to Plan B, even if it means switching from a back-four to a back-three in the opening minutes.
Ex-players laud Hayes’ desire to take the personal touch to better manage individuals rather than leading from a one-approach-fits-all template. “We’ve got Ferraris in the team and we’ve got Skodas,” she once told former forward Eniola Aluko. “You can’t treat them the same.”
That flexibility and recognition of an opponent’s approach should be music to the ears of USWNT fans after Andonovski failed to get the most out of his players this summer at the World Cup. Players seemed to lack confidence in their roles, from Alex Morgan being forced to play a different type of center forward to several players being utilized away from their primary positions. Rather than changing the approach in the final third to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, each game saw the U.S. attempt to progress in the same manner, get stifled, then recirculate and try the same thing again.
By comparison, Hayes’ fluidity should be a needed salve as the program acclimates to the continually growing number of competitive peers in the international game — something Hayes knows well.
In 2019, the Blues were in the Champions League semifinal opposite French powerhouse Lyon. That Lyon side could have passed as a world best XI: Wendie Renard and Lucy Bronze along the backline; Amandine Henry and Dzsenifer Marozsán among the midfielders; and an unstoppable attack led by Ada Hegerberg and Eugénie Le Sommer. For all of her side’s quality, Chelsea was undeniably the underdog in this clash.
“We’re playing the Harlem Globetrotters on Sunday,” Hayes said during a small availability attended by The Athletic before the game. “You can either sit here and s— yourself, or you face it and go for it.”
Lyon narrowly overcame Chelsea, winning the first leg in France 2-1 before playing to a 1-1 draw at Kingsmeadow. Lyon returned to their Globetrottering best in the final, playing FC Barcelona off the field with four goals scored in the opening half-hour.
No matter her kaleidoscopic tactical ideology, there are some identifiable strategic trademarks of Hayes’ Chelsea side beyond their results.
Starting from the back, her goalkeepers work to efficiently distribute beyond the first line. Since the start of the 2022/23 season, no WSL goalkeeper has sent a greater share of their passes 35+ yards than Ann-Katrin Berger (56.8%). The German is the only WSL regular to send over half of her passes long, with understudies Hannah Hampton (45.1%) and Zecira Musovic (43.6%) ranking 7th and 10th of the 22-minute qualifiers at the position.
Don’t mistake Hayes as being a route one apologist, though. As a collective, Chelsea sends 11.5% of its passes long since the start of last season, which ranks 7th of the 12 teams that played the full 2022/23 season. Her team is comfortable with the majority of possession, third in the league with a 59.7% average rate. These aren’t the recirculating touches that U.S. fans came to dread under Andonovski, either. Chelsea ranks second behind Manchester City with a field tilt — a possession stat that only accounts for a team’s touches in the attacking third — of 65.8%.
Applying Hayes’ double-pivot midfield and press to the USWNT
In most setups, Hayes’ midfield consists of a double-pivot at the base with a playmaking number 10 pulling the strings by the attackers. That means there could be two dedicated roles for central midfielders behind an attacking quartet with the U.S. to improve build-up. It will likely be the home for Lindsey Horan, now one of the program’s most vital players and, with Lyon on a permanent basis, one of a few who regularly play in Europe.
Horan is also capable of playing further advanced, though the pool has some elite playmaking midfielders including Rose Lavelle and recent Chelsea signing Catarina Macario, while Savannah DeMelo and Ashley Sanchez continue to show up in a similar role for their clubs.
It’ll likely be the home for rising players like Jaelin Howell, Taylor Kornieck and Olivia Moultrie. It’s also easy to envision World Cup members Andi Sullivan and Emily Sonnett as defense-first 6s ahead of the backline. The preference for a double-pivot could also finally bring Crystal Dunn (who Hayes coached in 2017-18) to her preferred role after years miscast at left-back.
At Chelsea, many chances come from wide, particularly through the half-spaces between the central and wide channels. Hayes’ wingers also vary based on the personnel, at times playing with two inverted wingers while other matchups necessitate a more traditional winger who can cross from her strong-side foot.
Mallory Swanson, Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and recent Chelsea signing Mia Fishel will be entering their primes over the next four years, while young attackers like Alyssa Thompson and Jaedyn Shaw could grow into more prominent roles within the team’s attacking pool too. Of these, only Rodman seems locked into playing out wide, giving Hayes plenty of versatility as she looks to, in Crocker’s words, “have more solutions” to turn possession into goals.
The combination of playing with a central attacking playmaker and building up through wide channels creates a feast of service for her strikers. And none has flourished more than Sam Kerr, who was signed by Chelsea away from the Chicago Red Stars nine years after the club fired Hayes.
The emphasis on width also extends to Hayes’ team’s defending, with the press forcing opponents to keep the ball wide. This is achieved by having the forwards and central midfielder press players on the ball toward the sideline while keeping the double-pivot from dropping into the backline to congest the center of the park. And yet, the fullbacks’ positioning and closing down of crosses have kept opponents from turning the wide possession into a flurry of crosses; Chelsea’s average of conceding 8.44 open-play crosses per game is well below the league average of 10.62.
In the U.S. defense, M.A. Vignola and Emily Fox could be the answers at the left, with Tierna Davidson at center back to contend with Naomi Girma, Alana Cook and Sonnett. Dunn, in addition to returning to midfield, could be a great fit at right back, along with Sofia Huerta. If that feels too reliant on veterans — a pitfall from Andonovski’s tenure — it’s worth noting that no American right back under the age of 25 logged even 500 minutes in the 2023 NWSL season.
Learning from World Cup mistakes
This summer, there was an over reliance on the oldest members of the pool who had led their World Cup-winning sides in 2015 and 2019, slowing the involvement of the rising generation of players. It makes the inevitable roster churn under Hayes seem more daunting as a result. Since the tournament ended, Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe have retired. Sauerbrunn returned for the fall friendlies against South Africa and Colombia, but at 38 is almost certain to not factor in 2027. Alyssa Naeher, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, and Kristie Mewis will all be 35 or older when the next World Cup comes around, too.
Nine of Andonovski’s 20 field players stayed on for over 87% of all possible minutes.
At the World Cup, the U.S. didn’t play at a talent disadvantage compared to opponents like the Netherlands and Sweden, rather a multitude of factors saw the team crash out of the round of 16, its first finish outside of the top three places in the tournament history.
Analyzing USWNT coaching decisions during early World Cup exit
Players have been open about some issues that they failed to overcome in Australia and New Zealand. Half of the field players that started against Sweden were playing in a different position than their club role, with some players only learning how they’d be relied upon after flying to the tournament.
“We had a scrimmage with the Philippines, and I think that was the last session where I was not with the starting team,” DeMelo said on Snacks, a podcast hosted by Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis. “Then we had a day off and then the next training session after that, he had come up to me, he’s like, ‘We’re gonna put you at the starting group.’ And I was like, ‘for what reason?’”
DeMelo started the opening match as the team’s number 10. Despite her lack of prior integration into the team, she fared well by creating chances and working to progress the ball. And yet, she would not feature again in the group stage, only returning for one 45-minute shift as the team fell to Sweden.
“I did not see it coming, that’s for sure,” DeMelo said.
Hayes will be entrusted with the turnover from a roster that won two World Cups to a new generation of players. However, that sea change won’t come soon enough for some fans’ liking, as she won’t take over until after the 2023/24 WSL season. Hayes will fully switch her focus over to the United States in May — a mere two months before the start of the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
So begins half a year of waiting in a self-induced purgatory. Fishel and Macario will get a head-start on their international teammates by working with Hayes at Chelsea, which could help the U.S. attack get over the early growing pains when she enters her first window as an international manager.
It doesn’t offer much time for her to make her mark on her new side in time for a tournament. We may see that tournament come and go without a clear sense of the key principles Hayes will build her USWNT around for the remainder of the cycle. However, that appears to be a potential unintended consequence that U.S. Soccer was willing to accept.
(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images)