In June 2019, the inevitable news of Maurizio Sarri’s departure for Juventus was announced. This left the London club searching for a new manager, and one name, in particular, was the hot favourite amongst the fans, bookmakers and media.
This name, however, was not a manager with over a decade of experience as a head coach, including time coaching abroad. Nor were they a two-time domestic double winner who had also coached their team to the semi-finals of a major European competition.
Rather, the odds-on-favourite for the job was a manager with one year of experience at a second-tier club, during which they finished in a respectable sixth, reaching, but ultimately losing, the play-off final.
As predicted, the favourite – Frank Lampard – got the job. This move was met with a mostly positive reaction from those associated with Chelsea, and with the club sitting in fourth place before the COVID-19 lockdown, Lampard is currently on course for a generally successful first season in charge.
Yet, a candidate meeting the former description existed right under Chelsea’s nose. Her name is Emma Hayes, and this piece will explore how things could have looked at Chelsea if she had been given the top job at Stamford Bridge in June 2019.
Who is Emma Hayes?
Hayes began her coaching career in the United States, taking charge of college and W-League women’s sides. She returned to her native North London in 2006 to be part of the Arsenal Ladies’ quadruple winning team as assistant manager. A final stint in the US with Chicago Red Stars then preceded her appointment as Chelsea Women’s manager in July 2012.
Hayes reshaped the squad and implemented her brand of attacking football, culminating in 2015 with the first of her and Chelsea Women’s two double wins.
Hayes, however, still sought improvement, and so like any great manager set about a squad rebuild. With stalwarts like Eni Aluko and Clare Rafferty being moved on, Hayes rebuilt her squad with the signings of Beth England and Millie Bright, but crucially, she was also unafraid to look abroad when rebuilding.
Since her appointment in 2012, high profile names such as Magdalena Eriksson, Ji So-Yun and, most recently, Sam Kerr have all been brought into the club. This is a marker of Hayes’ ambition, as the club’s scouting network has greatly expanded in her eight-year tenure.
The culture Hayes has built at Chelsea Women is one of high professionalism and expectations, but also one that places an importance on relationships and communication. This off-pitch approach likely helped the new signings adapt to Hayes’ attacking and positive approach on the pitch, leading to another double in 2018, during which they went unbeaten in the Women’s Super League (WSL).
Overarching culture. Squad building. Big-name signings. Attacking football. When creating a list of prerequisites for their new manager, these attributes would likely have been included on Chelsea’s list. So, given that Hayes was qualified for the job, what exactly could we have expected from her in the role of Chelsea’s manager?
On-pitch impact: do the current Chelsea squad fit Hayes’ approach?
If carrying over her approach from Chelsea Women, the squad Hayes would have inherited would likely have had to adapt to her culture of hard work on the training ground, and an attacking style of play on the pitch.
Hayes’ positive approach to football is shown in her team’s statistics for this season: Chelsea Women have attempted the third-most passes in the WSL, completing 78.8% and controlling possession in most games. This possession is put to good use, as Chelsea Women top the WSL for chances created with an average of 27.8 per game.
Their attacking domination has not resulted in weakness at the back, as the team has conceded the second-least goals in the division, with a record of six clean-sheets in 15 games. This equals Chelsea men’s record of six clean-sheets this season, however, the men have played 14 games more than their female counterparts.
So could the current Chelsea squad play in Hayes’ image? Sophie Ingle plays a vital role in front of the defence for Chelsea Women’s midfield, and the combined athleticism and tackling of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic could replicate that. Meanwhile, in attack Hayes would have Tammy Abraham, an instinctive striker with pace, much like this year’s joint-top WSL scorer, Beth England.
A common theme in Chelsea Women’s build-up play this season has seen passes played diagonally up to the attackers from the centre-backs, most often Millie Bright. The current Chelsea squad do not possess a central defender on quite the same level as Bright, both from a defensive and build-up perspective. From defence, she has averaged 66 passes per game this season, the highest of all of her teammates, and second-highest across the league. Cesar Azpilicueta’s 64.4 passes per game put him closest to Bright. His short-lived link-up with Alvaro Morata in 2017/18 also suggest that he would be capable of delivering longer range passes to the forward line when necessary.
Time is necessary
While the level of performances Hayes’ Chelsea Women have reached is impressive, it is worth remembering that it took three years for her first trophy to arrive. Likewise, Jurgen Klopp only won his first trophy with Liverpool four years after joining. Both coaches were given the time to build their squads in their image, and it paid dividends for both sides
The statistics suggest, however, that time is not something Hayes would have been given the benefit of had she made the move into the men’s game. Over the last three seasons, the 12 teams in the current WSL season have had an average of 1.5 managers. Of the current 20 Premier League clubs, that number is significantly higher over the same period, with an average of 2.2 managers per club.
It is not a well-kept secret that Premier League clubs have a high turnover of managers. However, for someone like Hayes, this may make all the difference, given the importance she places on building a long-term culture and the benefits this has given to her Chelsea Women team.
So a bad start or poor final league position could have ended with Hayes being sacked. However, the Chelsea hierarchy seems to have backed the long-term vision of Frank Lampard, and so hopefully such a move would have been replicated for Hayes.
Cultural impact: the media and Twitter
We will never truly know how Chelsea would have performed, if Hayes’ tactics would have worked, or if they would have ended the season with a trophy. One element of this what-if scenario that is easier to predict, however, is the cultural impact such an appointment would have had on the game.
At the boardroom level in the Premier League, figures such as Denise Barrett-Baxendale of Everton, Susan Whelan at Leicester City and Chelsea’s Marina Granovskaia show that there is a growing representation of women in positions of power at the top level.
This trend, however, has not been replicated on the touchline. As of 2020, there are still no female coaches at any Premier League club. Hayes has previously described this fact as “ludicrous”.
Women are not being denied access to the touchline of the men’s game because they are underqualified. Hayes holds a UEFA Pro License, something Lampard is still to finish, with his graduation from the 18-month course interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The denial of access is instead down to a cultural impasse. Women have not coached in the men’s game before, and so a number of stakeholders within the game do not want to be the first to take such a perceived risk in appointing a female coach, let alone manager. The appointment of Hayes, however, could change the culture of women in football forever.
Upon making such an appointment, the media spectacle of it would inevitably take control. For example, it is easy to imagine the ‘First Female Premier League Manager’ headline banded across Sky Sports News up until Hayes would take charge of her first game.
Press conferences, similarly, would likely be filled with questions based mainly on Hayes’ gender, as opposed to her tactics: ‘How does it feel to be the first female Premier League manager?’, ‘How did your players react to your appointment?’, ‘Will you appoint more female coaches to your backroom staff?’, ‘Do you enter the changing rooms when the players are getting ready for a match?’
And this only covers the reaction from the media. As Ryan Loftus’ recent piece for The Football Pink pointed out, we now live in a world where the hate and tribalism of football ‘fans’ are instantly publishable through the medium of a Twitter account.
The reaction to the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) having their case for discrimination by the US Soccer Federation thrown out last month perfectly highlighted the bile that can, in particular, be directed at female footballers.
The replies to a BBC Sport Tweet about the dropped case saw users compare the quality of the two-time World Cup winners to Sunday League teams, blast the players for having the ‘audacity’ to demand equal facilities to that of the men’s team and generally take glee in the fact that the USWNT would not be afforded the chance to fight for equal pay and treatment.
A strong character would be needed to weather such an inevitable onslaught. Luckily, Hayes comes across as having exactly that.
Her ambitious personality goes well beyond her rise to the forefront of the women’s game. She has been a constant champion for progression in women’s football, calling for use of larger stadiums, improved facilities, and a professional set-up between the FA and the WSL more akin to the men’s game. She summed up her ambition for the game when speaking to the Guardian this season: “We should be aiming for the f*****g top of the sky.”
Off of the pitch, she has also weathered personal battles which likely make any comments from the internet and media pale in comparison. Hayes tragically lost one of her twins during the third trimester of her pregnancy in 2018. Her response to that? Leading Chelsea Women to a second league and cup double, and giving birth to a son, Harry, two days later.
After experiencing such an event, and coming through it victorious, I cannot imagine that Hayes would pay much attention to the opinions thrown at her by detractors, and would cope confidently with any continued media harassment.
With any luck, such an appointment may even highlight the outdated views held by some in the men’s game, and begin a new and progressive discourse that offers a more straightforward route for more female coaches into the Premier League.
Would Hayes want the job?
Yet while writing this piece, one question continues to run through my head: would Hayes even want to accept this job? I do not think that the difficulty of managing at the top of the men’s game, or the reaction she may receive would perturb her. Rather, the fact that she is currently managing a more successful team in Chelsea Women could dissuade her.
Before lockdown, her team were undefeated and sitting one point behind Manchester City in first place, with a game in hand. She has a team filled with domestic and international talent that play in her image, guided by her club-wide culture. At times, she is single-handedly pushing the WSL and FA forward in her demands for greater professionalism, more investment and a re-think as to how the game is structured.
When asked about the possibility of entering the men’s game for Ben Littleton’s 2017 book, Edge, Hayes responded by saying: “Of course I’m open to it because, for me, coaching is coaching.”
It is as simple as that: coaching is coaching. If Emma Hayes was appointed as Chelsea manager last Summer, this sort of attitude further hammers home the fact that her on-pitch success would likely not change much. However, the cultural impact such a move would have brought off the pitch could have been era-defining.