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  • June 24, 2019

    An ode to Sam Kerr

    By Mark Thompson
    Image Courtesy of Press Association
    Australia striker and captain Sam Kerr
  • It’s one of the pains of tournament football that Sam Kerr won’t be playing another match at the World Cup.

    The Australian is one of the, if not the, best strikers in the world and yet must go home in the round of 16. Until this year, the more casual fans of the women’s game could be forgiven for being unaware of Kerr’s quality. She hadn’t scored a single World Cup goal before this edition, where she scored five, and in the 2016 Olympics only scored one in three appearances.

    But this is the NWSL all-time leading goalscorer we’re talking about. The woman who, since 2017 (as far back as records on fbref.com go for her) has scored 52 goals in 58 league appearances. She only took up football (association, rather than her first love Aussie rules) at 12 and had to contend with an ACL injury at 18, but she’s still managed to become a truly great forward.

    If you still need convincing, but don’t want to have to search for old games, the effects of her elite movement and sense for goal are clear in the stats.

    Few players this World Cup have got clear shots on goal, free of defenders, like Kerr. With StatsBomb’s freezeframes, which take a snapshot of where the players are at the point a shot is taken, we can see how many players a striker has in the ‘cone’ between them and the goal.

    Kerr managed eight of her ten footed shots with no outfield defenders in the cone between her and goal, an extraordinary 80% rate. Apart from Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, who managed to make ten of her 12 shots completely unobstructed by defenders, no-one really comes close. Only four forwards in the entire tournament have managed more than five of these clear shots.

    It’s this skill in slipping in the gaps between defenders and making a run at the right time that led to her having one of the best figures for the average quality of her shots. Taking out her penalty rebound which will naturally skew the figures, these shots of Kerr’s have had an average expected goals value of 0.19; none of the other six players to have taken ten or more of this type of shot this tournament can beat that.

    (A less meaningful and, possibly, slightly more fortuitous symptom of this elite striker’s movement is also the fact that only a single one of Kerr’s 18 shots were blocked throughout the tournament. Kerr finds space).

    But, like so many stars on teams where the gap between star and next-best shows, the striker had to try and turn creator against Norway, with her team chasing the game after conceding in the 31st minute.

    She set up three shots in the game, after having only set up two in the tournament prior to that (one each against Brazil and Jamaica), and completed more passes inside the box than she had throughout the tournament up to that point as well.

    Shot assists in blue.

    No teammate of Kerr’s set up more shots during those 120 minutes, and none even reached half of her eight completed open-play passes inside the box. On the defensive side as well, only central midfielders Chloe Logarzo and Tameka Butt pressured the opposition more often.

    Unfortunately – for her, for the nation, for her fans – it wasn’t enough. Penalties seem to haunt Kerr. Her attempt saved against Italy, then her skied effort in the shoot-out and her fellow teammates struggles. Even on club level, fbref.com has her at only two from four attempts.

    But those spot-kicks have been her only negative moments. The World Cup is a time to bring together the best players that the sport has to offer, for compatriots to hitch their hopes to their wagon, and for neutrals to bask in the collected magic.

    Having Kerr in France, even though she’ll go no further, has delivered on that. The same goes for Marta, one of the greatest players of all time and eliminated with Brazil while this piece was being written. At 33, she might not be seen at a World Cup again.

    And, as well as their on-field quality, the pair have delivered two of the lines of the tournament. Kerr, telling critics of the Australian team to “go suck on that one” after their comeback win against Marta’s Brazil in the group stage; Marta herself, telling her nation to value women’s football more, for girls to take up football, and to “cry now so you can smile at the end.”

    Thank you Sam Kerr, and to Marta. The 2019 World Cup’ll miss you.

    Article by Mark Thompson