Preview: Top-of-Table Test Between Chelsea and Man City

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Both Nick Cushing and Emma Hayes have gone off on tangents in recent years to find new ways of winning. While Cushing has remained stubbornly tight to this belief in using a small squad in order to blood young academy players when the chances arise, Hayes has assembled an all-star squad which now appears capable of challenging in Europe as well as back home.

Though Hayes may have a couple of players missing through injury, it won’t be noticeable come the match because the depth Chelsea has on show is staggering. Meanwhile, Man City’s only key first team absentees will be Demi Stokes, Megan Campbell, and Keira Walsh, but the results are equally as staggering.

Just two injuries mean a reshuffle which will likely see the relatively untested Mie Jans play at left back, and teenager Esme Morgan start at right back with defender Abbie McManus possibly pushed into midfield or slotting in alongside Steph Houghton should Jennifer Beattie instead take up the spot vacated by Walsh.

Unfortunately for City, reinforcements won’t arrive until January in the shape of Nadia Nadim and Julia Spetsmark, but it’s alarming for a side aiming to fight for four trophies that a few injuries leave them in such a precarious position.

It also means Hayes may already know how Cushing will line up while the City boss will likely be scratching his head until the teams are announced on Sunday. 

4-3-3 vs. 3-4-3 and Wingers

Ever since Chelsea manager Emma Hayes moved toward a 3-4-3 formation with the use of wing backs, it has provided an intriguing tactical battle when the two sides meet. Manchester City has often gotten the better of their rivals, winning the last three league matches without so much as conceding a goal.

In the Spring Series match, the evidence of what City was aiming to do was clear. Lining up with just one player on each flank, City overran Beth England using Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze, and Hannah Blundell with Demi Stokes and Toni Duggan.

It will be something Hayes will try to stop, and the absence of both Duggan and Bronze will certainly help, but it will be a worry with Claire Emslie having started the season in sensational form.

What will work in Chelsea’s favor should be the battle in the midfield, with the hosts likely to play two attacking midfielders behind the lone striker. Even with Walsh in the lineup, this would be difficult to keep on top of so City’s loss could well be Chelsea’s gain if Hayes’ side manipulate the ball and start walking through City’s midfield. 

City’s Counter

Relating, loosely, to the previous point: Manchester City’s pace on the counter could be more prevalent than ever if Chelsea starts to dictate possession and Cushing’s side sits in and defends.

Cushing said after Wednesday’s cup win at Doncaster that he wouldn’t set up for a draw, but with key players missing it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see City doing the majority of the defending and allowing Chelsea to keep the ball.

Should they do it properly, then the prospect for Chelsea is how they don’t play into the hands of pacey wing duo Nikita Parris and Claire Emslie. Parris is well-known as one of the fastest players in the league and Emslie’s trickery has seen her cause endless issues for full backs in the league this season. 

Defensive Weaknesses

Chelsea appears to have mastered the art of attacking at will and not conceding at the other end, having conceded just two goals so far in the league this season (both against Reading).

City, on the other hand, have already surpassed the incredible tally of just the four goals they conceded in the whole of last season, only one of which came from open play.

Cushing’s message throughout preseason and early season interviews has been clear: Score more goals. To be fair, City is obliging.

With 19 goals in five games, City is only two behind their rivals in terms of goals scored, but it does appear to be coming at a cost. With a more expansive style of football, City has given up some of the incredible defensive stability they had last season with the pairing of Houghton and Beattie no longer looking as infallible as it did last season.

The departure of Lucy Bronze hasn’t aided the situation, nor will the absence of Demi Stokes on Sunday, but City need to remember how they’ve defended against Chelsea in previous seasons to come out on top against Kirby, Bachmann, Spence et al.

Which No.1 Comes Out on Top

Karen Bardsley and Hedvig Lindahl playing in goal have been rare sights at times in 2017 with the England No. 1 breaking her leg at Euro 2017 and Lindahl missing the entire Spring Series with a wrist injury.

Undoubtedly two of the best goalkeepers in Europe on their day, both can expect to be busier than ever on Sunday. Bardsley will be up against a free-flowing attack that has more than just a few potential options on Sunday while Lindahl will face a City team creating more chances than ever, as well as an in-form attacking midfielder in Izzy Christiansen.

Though Bardsley hasn’t had too many minutes lately, Lindahl in particular was in sensational form as Chelsea held off a Bayern Munich onslaught in the Champions League recently.

Manchester United’s win at Arsenal in the Premier League last weekend showed the value of having a world-class goalkeeper in between the posts, and whoever comes out on top in this top of-the table clash will likely be able to turn to their goalkeeper for however many saves they’ve pulled off come full-time.