Sam Kerr isn't a luxury item for Chelsea, she's the missing piece they desperately need
Thor is only supposed to need one hammer. Voltron never needed a second blazing sword. And Chelsea Women FC’s attack wasn’t supposed to need Sam Kerr. When Kerr was announced as a Chelsea player on November 13, the blue Londoners sat at the top of the league with zero losses, just one draw, and had also already defeated last year’s champions, Arsenal. The signing of one of the world’s best strikers at the time read more as villainy than necessity, as Chelsea was thought to have the firepower they needed to recover from a disappointing 2018–19 season. But after a brilliant first half of the season, it appears they might actually need Sam Kerr to secure a better finish.
In the first half of the season, Chelsea topped the league table for months, took all three points from both of their title rivals (Arsenal and Manchester City), didn’t lose a match, and even messed around and scored the goal of the season. But heading into the winter break, thanks to first a 1-1 draw against Brighton and then, later, and identical result versus Liverpool (who sat at the bottom of the table at the time), Chelsea ended 2019 in third place. The Blues have a match with Everton to make up, but even assuming they secure those three points, Chelsea would still only reach second.
Now, that draw against Liverpool wasn't exactly an accurate representation of the underlying play, but they don't give you points for playing well and not scoring. So the fact that Chelsea doubled up Liverpool on shots, 18–9 and piled on the expected goals, 3.12–0.48 doesn't award them any points.
Chelsea are the only team without a loss — Arsenal’s only loss is to Chelsea while Manchester City’s two losses are to Arsenal and Chelsea — yet two draws against lesser competition ensure they will likely have to beat both rivals again in 2020. The good news is that their performances show no signs of dipping. Their xG difference is just as strong as it's ever been.
Despite Chelsea’s first-half dominance, their margin for error is already gone, and for an attack that's mostly been humming on right at expectation, the Liverpool match sure was an inopportune time to forget how to put the ball in the back of the net.
Then there's the question of whether or not being equal to their xG is good enough. At the break, Chelsea (19.6), Manchester City (19.4) and Arsenal (21.3) had the highest expected goals numbers in the league. Of the three, Chelsea had the lowest goal output at 21, while Manchester City had scored 24 and Arsenal 29. It sounds silly to state that a team should expect to significantly outperform its xG, but that’s where Chelsea are being let down. Arsenal’s 29 goals were not only eight more than Chelsea, the tally was 7.7 above the Gunners’ expected output. City are 4.6 above theirs, but Chelsea were nearly level with their xG, with only a 1.4 difference, a small difference which evaporated in their first game back after the break.
The broad default assumption about xG is that all teams should, eventually, return to their expected levels. But, in a league with wide gulfs in talent, it's perfectly reasonable to suspect that the dominant teams have some wiggle room, and that being at expectation isn't good enough. By xG Chelsea have had the most potent attack, and in situations with more evenly distributed talent it would be right to assume that eventually Arsenal and City would have to come back down to earth. In this league, though, Chelsea might just have to run them down.
Chelsea's biggest problem is they lack consistent goalscoring — in some cases, any goalscoring at all — from the side's star players. In the first half of the season, forward Bethany England led the team with six goals and three assists, but no other attackers came close. Midfielders Ji So-yun and Drew Spence had three, while winger Guro Reiten also had three (but two came in one match and she hadn’t scored since September). Erin Cuthbert, whose eight goals and six assists saw her named Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2018–19, ended the first half of the season with no goals and just one assist. Ramona Bachmann — who filled in at the #10 role for the injured Fran Kirby — also has no goals and just one assist. To put it in even sharper perspective, Kirby, who has started just two matches and made two substitute appearances, was tied with Bethany England for the most assists on the team. However, at least part of that is down to bad luck on Reiten's part, as she leads the team in xG assisted per 90 minutes.
Adding to the frustration is that the Blues frequently dominated possession, won shot battles, led all teams in shots (20.22; Arsenal was second with 16.5) and shots on target (7.67; Manchester City second with 6.0) per 90, and kept opponents away from their net, conceding both the fewest shots, 8, and the lowest xG per match, 0.53, in the league. Looking at the top line numbers, Chelsea also only conceded five goals in the first half of the season; only City conceded fewer.
Chelsea still needed someone — anyone — to start sticking the ball into the back of the net. But they didn’t just get anyone; they got Sam Kerr.
Kerr was the NWSL’s leading scorer for the past three consecutive seasons and topped her best-ever output in her final season, with 18 goals in 21 games — and that’s with missing 3 games due to the World Cup (the Chicago Red Stars lost all 3). Yet, the lasting image of Kerr for her now-former team came in the championship match against the North Carolina Courage. Starved for service, the Australian forward shouted at teammate Savannah McCaskill after failing — certainly not for the first time — to feed the ball to Kerr after she’d made a run.
With Chelsea, this is unlikely to be a problem.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes will have to rework the lineup to keep Beth England on the pitch along with Sam Kerr, which likely means sacrificing one of the wingers, Reiten or Cuthbert. England has been far too good to drop, and her team-leading three assists show her eye for setting up chances and her willingness to be unselfish if a teammate is in a better scoring position. England can also shoot from range, and is clever at shuttling the ball around in the final third until space to exploit opens up. The partnership between the two could be the thing Chelsea need to continue their dominance, and this time make it count.
Kerr would be a monumental addition to any of Europe’s best teams, but Chelsea had misfired themselves into the precarious position of actually needing a player of her caliber. Kerr’s 76-minute debut underscores it all: drawing a red card in the first twenty minutes (not many things help your team more than the other team losing a player), assisting Beth England with a backheel, being directly involved in Reiten scoring her first league goal since September and indirectly involved in Erin Cuthbert netting her first.
In the first half of the season, Chelsea did everything but find the extra goals that dominant teams find, goals that their competitors were finding. For a team that has yet to lose and has already defeated the clubs above them, the difference between further disappointment and getting what they feel they deserve might just be the signing of a player they shouldn’t need. Though you have to admit, Thor would look even more badass with two hammers.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association