Saturday, June 25, 2022

The tireless Cuthbert sums up Chelsea and Hayes’ winning machine

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Imagine playing against a team owned by Erin Cuthberts. You wouldn’t have a moment to realize what a scary situation you were in, let alone the time to try to dance around the snapping challenges and dodge the constant annoyance. Win the ball and Cuthbert will chase you; lose and if you don’t close the space she has the quality to make you pay for it like she did against Manchester City by thundering an unstoppable shot off the underside of the bar.

Chelsea have bigger stars but arguably no player was more important in their 3-2 win at Wembley to retain the Women’s FA Cup. While it might have been Sam Kerr who scored the winner in extra time as the Aussie added two more goals to her terrific cup final record for Chelsea, it was Cuthbert who was behind everywhere else. Chelsea were often outnumbered by City but the Scotland international made sure they were never overrun.

“I wish we had 20 of her,” said Emma Hayes, and you really get the feeling that if the Chelsea manager drew a lineup from a lab, the midfielder’s DNA would permeate the entire squad. “We had to grind. We had to work. We had to suffer,” Hayes admitted, but the smile said she absolutely loved it too. Cuthbert did, too, even when she collapsed from exhaustion at full-time. There was nothing left to give.

She was rightly named Player of the Match, her performance a symbol of Chelsea’s struggle and determination to prevail in a final that shadowed City for significant parts. A recovering tackle on Bunny Shaw as the City forward strode towards the box summed up Cuthbert’s effort and her goal came moments later. In no time at all she directed the attack to the other end and it was fitting for the game that everything had changed so suddenly once again.

It was largely thanks to the fact that Gareth Taylor’s side never led that made for such an exciting competition. City always followed the game and when their equalizers came from Lauren Hemp and then substitute Hayley Raso it took some of their momentum and let Chelsea get back into the game.

City played the better football, certainly leading in possession, shots and chances. Hayes said before the final that playing against City would be like a game of chess and the occasion was heightened by the tactical duel that followed. Both teams played bravely and accepted the individual fights. There City prevailed, particularly in midfield and on the wings, not that their opponents ever looked unsettled.

Shortly after Raso’s equalizer and in the scrum before extra time, Hayes told her players they were going to win and then her job was done. She left the rest to them. “It was completely quiet,” she said. “It was player leadership at a level that I have worked so hard to build and maintain. It’s not about me making the decisions, it’s about the team as a whole believing what it takes to win. That’s not always nice.”

There’s not much more that can be said about Chelsea’s certainty. They have now won seven of their last nine domestic trophies, with City’s win over them in March’s Continental Cup final being the only thing denying Chelsea consecutive treble winning campaigns. It’s a historic run. “The best group I’ve ever coached,” Hayes added afterwards, and yet questions about their own future and next steps for this dominant Chelsea side were asked at that post-match press conference.

The obvious limit to be reached is in Europe. Chelsea underperformed in the first season of the Champions League group stage after reaching the final the previous season and they are expected to go deeper into the competition next season. As soon as Hayes regroups her squad after this summer’s European Championship, the question will invariably be how she can capitalize on her national success. For all of Chelsea’s good results in Europe, they are yet to develop that same sense of competitive inevitability that has propelled their run this season.

Maybe you’ve already found the answer. Cuthbert’s versatility has shifted her many times, but since Melanie Leupolz’s pregnancy announcement in March, she’s had a consistent run in a slightly lower and more central position. It brought drive and a refusal to lose. In return, Chelsea agreed to become even more of his signature trait. They were more Emma Hayes and as Cuthbert spun and spun around City at Wembley, another person reminded him that this tireless winning machine is the work of her manager.

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