Emma Hayes column: ‘English clubs are really behind in Europe – but the gap has closed’

 Emma Hayes column: ‘English clubs are really behind in Europe – but the gap has closed’

Emma Hayes MBE has been in charge of Chelsea since 2012, following a stint at American club Chicago Red Stars. She was previously assistant manager at Arsenal. With Chelsea, Hayes has won three Women’s Super League titles – including the club’s first in 2015 – as well as two FA Cups and a Spring Series. She is widely regarded as one of the country’s best managers.


Are we ready to go to the next stage in the Champions League? That’s a big question.

Coming away from our 2-1 quarter-final first-leg victory over Wolfsburg last week, I thought “phew, we still have a lot of work to do in Europe!”

We have closed the gap, definitely, but there is another level I think needed to win the Champions League which we have to show. Of course it’s my ambition to win it, but it’s not that easy.

We really are behind as English clubs. Five, six or even seven transfer windows doesn’t necessarily solve that.

We face two-time champions Wolfsburg in the second leg on Wednesday and their experience of being in this competition at this stage year in, year out, is an advantage.

While the English clubs are investing more now, the reality is so are all these other clubs around Europe. It’s not like they are standing still.

Closing the gap for me is something that is so easy to underestimate because people see names on the team sheet and think “they have those players so they’re the favourites to win”.

They don’t really acknowledge that building teams to compete in Europe takes considerable time and setbacks.

English clubs haven’t really been respected by our European counter-parts because we haven’t necessarily made the latter stages on a regular basis and that’s fair enough.

The reality is the gap is closing though and our performance the other night showed that.

Why European teams are relentlessly professional

Pernille Harder
Chelsea forward Pernille Harder signed from Wolfsburg in the summer after guiding them to the Champions League final in 2020

You need luck in Europe, there is no doubt. I think back to when we won it at Arsenal in 2007, the only time an English club has become champions.

We beat Swedish team Umea 1-0 over two legs in the final, but the number of times they hit the post and the bar in that second leg showed the luck you need.

You also need enough matchwinners which we had last week. They make the difference at the top, top level.

I do think there are some players that show up for the Champions League in a different way. They like the big stage.

But I also think it’s a stage for those who thrive and love pressure. Watching Niamh Charles the other night confirmed to me something I already knew – that she will be a huge player for England.

There is no doubt that our recent new signings Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, Melanie Leupolz and Jessie Flemming are players with pedigree.

That pedigree is their will to win daily, their behaviours daily, how they train, eat, interact, contribute – all of those things.

They have a thirst for learning and the ability to take feedback to keep improving. They also have the ability to keep their egos in check when it’s necessary but raise the bar.

What is underestimated about top European teams is how relentless they are and how professional they are through the entire squad.

The squad is accustomed to some people not playing a lot of minutes but they absolutely have to stay on top of everything – the way they train, the way they eat, the way they behave.

I remember hearing a comment about Lyon’s dressing room and that they are just there to win and that’s that. It’s not always nice.

Of course, you have to have spirit in the dressing room to get you there, but you have to make sure everybody within your environment really gets what it takes to get to the very top.

I still think we are learning that. We have not been professional for the same length of time. That’s what it comes down to.

‘We have to be prepared to suffer’

If you zoom out and reflect on this, Chelsea had never beaten Wolfsburg or even been close to it before last week.

There is a reason for that. A few signings don’t just close that gap. It helps when you have a squad that have been together and your preparation is built over time.

I’m aware of my own expectations but not so much everybody else’s. I’m realistic and we have to roll our sleeves up.

Wolfsburg are ruthless. You are set up and prepared to deal with your threats domestically but when you go into a European game – whether your opponent is Barcelona or Wolfsburg – they are entirely different.

You have to accept certain things can’t be achieved. Your style of play has to be able to adapt; it has to evolve and have different mechanisms for different situations.

That’s what I believe coaching is. Every team would like to have possession of the football, for example, but what’s your purpose with it? What are the opponent doing to make that more difficult?

When you play in Europe you aren’t going to dominate the ball against Barcelona. It’s just not going to happen.

We can’t carry one person if we’re going to achieve the ultimate. Last week was a good wake-up call to our own players that if we want to progress to the semi-finals, we have to be prepared to suffer.

Emma Hayes was speaking to BBC Sport’s Emma SandersYou can read her column on the BBC Sport website and app every month.

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