FA Cup final victory sums up the essence of Emma Hayes’ Chelsea | Women’s FA Cup
VShelsea is not a sentimental team by nature. They’re also not a team that you think is too preoccupied with style and process issues. They can play star football and gutter football; often in the same game, sometimes even in the same move. They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, an ugly or unattractive side to look at. But they also don’t need your approval in the least.
What does this mean in practice? If you’re Jess Carter, that means when Lauren Hemp starts running towards you with 80 minutes left in the FA Cup final, leading a five-on-three Manchester City counterattack, you knock her down. immediately and instinctively. If you’re Sam Kerr, that means even though you barely touched the ball the whole game, you still leave the field with two goals and a medal around your neck.
If you’re Erin Cuthbert, that means even in the midst of a deadly, broken battle in midfield, you can locate the one moment of pure balletic grace that will turn the game upside down. And if you’re Emma Hayes, that means you feel free to substitute one of your substitutes to close the game, even when that player is Ji So-yun, an all-time great player who played her last game for your club.
Perhaps for the neutral or the purist there was some unsatisfying imperfection in the way Chelsea won this: a deflected goal past a clueless keeper in a game that really could have gone either way. In fact, it was hard to imagine a better expression of what Chelsea does, what it stands for, how it wins. The bizarre lob, the 25-yard howler, the lucky ricochet, Hayes celebrates them all the same way: like the owner of a provincial construction company who just received a frankly astonishing judgment from a county court in her favor. .
Manchester City had 61% of possession here. They had 23 shots against Chelsea’s nine, creating most of the run, most of the pressure, most of the chances, most of the excitement. They entered this game with a game-high 14 straight wins, with key players returning from injury, with all the momentum and momentum. None of this had the slightest relevance. You can call it bad luck or you can call it a lack of composure. In the end, when you wake up Monday morning with bruises and a broken heart, it doesn’t matter.
Certainly, City seemed keen to physically rival Chelsea, aggressively asserting their territory, tightly marking key attacking threats. It was a difficult, grappling opening, analogous to the start of a game of Scrabble where the two players seem intent on piecing together a thicket of boring and usually fictional two-letter words. Kerr’s opening goal was probably what the game needed. City came forward, shrugged off some inhibitions, equalized through the magnificent Hemp, who cut inside and kicked the ball in with her weaker right foot.
Cuthbert’s long-range strike on the hour seemed to have won the game. One minute from time, Hayley Raso produced a sensational run and finished to make it 2-2. Many weaker teams than Chelsea could have disappeared by then. And yet, through all the simmering emotions of the day, it still felt like Hayes was still in control, still orchestrating, still seeing the game play moments before everyone else. She calmly walked through her replacements. Five in the back became four. Chelsea rolled up their sleeves, cleared their lines, settled for the long haul and trusted their opponents to crack first.
They were right, of course. A big part of Chelsea’s devastating power in these games is that sense of certainty: the ability not only to envision their own triumph, but also to make their opponents envision it as well. There was an inevitability for Kerr as she charged for City’s goal in extra time, an inevitability of the deflection that sent the ball past Ellie Roebuck, an inevitability of how they viewed the game under the higher pressure, with double on the line and a crowd of 49,000 clamoring for more drama.
And for all the excellence on the pitch, Hayes is really the common denominator in it all, the architect, the dreamer. Superstars come and go. The teams are dismantled and rebuilt. But before Hayes arrived, Chelsea’s biggest win was the Surrey County Cup. She built this thing from the ground up, made it flesh for almost a decade, kept renewing and refreshing the dynasty. This is how you win the two biggest prizes in national football without ever really seeming to get out of third gear.
Hayes’ Chelsea have played better games, more emphatic games, bigger games. But there has perhaps never been a match that has more perfectly encapsulated their essence. You think you’ve got them on the ropes, you think they’re lucky, but really you’re just playing their game, and deep down you know that.
Then the exhausted Chelsea players and their exhausted coach took their encore and headed to the east end of Wembley where the blue flags were still flying. They didn’t look euphoric but defiant, not victorious but vindicated. “That’s what we are,” they seemed to say. “Have you ever doubted us?