Thor is just supposed to need one hammer. Voltron never had a second blazing sword. And Chelsea Women FC’s assault was not supposed to need Sam Kerr. When Kerr was declared as a Chelsea player on November 13, the grim Londoners sat on the peak of the league with zero losses, only 1 draw, and had already conquered last year’s champions, Arsenal. The signing of one of the world’s greatest strikers in the time read more than villainy than demand, as Chelsea was believed to possess the firepower they had to recover from a disappointing 2018–19 season. But after a brilliant first half of this season, it seems they might really need Sam Kerr to procure a better finish.
In the first half of this season, Chelsea topped the league table for months, took all 3 points from both of the title rivals (Arsenal and Manchester City), did not lose a game, and even messed around and scored the goal of the year. The Blues have a game with Everton to make up, but even supposing they secure those 3 factors, Chelsea would still only reach second.
Now, that draw against Liverpool was not just a true representation of the underlying drama, but they do not give you points for playing well rather than scoring. Therefore the fact that Chelsea awakened Liverpool on shots, 18–9 and piled on the anticipated goals, 3.12–0.48 does not 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 – two draws against lesser competition ensure they’ll probably have to beat both competitions in 2020. Their xG difference is at least as strong as it has ever been.
Despite Chelsea’s first-half dominance, their margin for error is already gone, and for an assault that has mostly been humming on directly at anticipation, the Liverpool match certain was an inopportune time to forget how to put the ball at the back of the net.
Then there is the question of whether or not being equivalent to their xG is great enough. It seems silly to say that a team should expect to significantly outperform its xG, but that is where Chelsea are being disappointed. Arsenal’s 29 goals weren’t just eight more than Chelsea, the tally was 7.7 over the Gunners’ expected output. City are 4.6 above, but Chelsea were almost level with their xG, with just a 1.4 gap, a little gap which disappeared in their first game back after the break.
The extensive default assumption about xG is that all teams need to, finally, return to their expected levels. However, in a league with wide gulfs in talent, it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that the dominant teams have some wiggle room, which being at anticipation is not good enough. From xG Chelsea has had the strongest attack, and in scenarios with more evenly distributed talent, it’d be right to presume that finally Arsenal and City would have to return to earth. In this league, however, Chelsea might just need to run them down.
In the first half of this year, forward Bethany England led the team with six goals and three assists, but no additional attackers came close. Midfielders Ji So-yun and Drew Spence had three, while winger Guro Reiten had three (but two arrived in 1 match and she had not scored since September). Erin Cuthbert, whose eight goals and six assists saw her called Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2018–19, finished the first half of this year with no goals and one assist. Ramona Bachmann – who filled in at the 10 role for the wounded Fran Kirby — also has no goals and one assist. But at least part of this is down to bad luck on Reiten’s part, as she leads the group at xG assisted per 90 minutes.
Adding to the frustration is that the Blues frequently dominated ownership, won shot conflicts, led all teams in shots (20.22; Arsenal was second with 16.5) and shots on goal (7.67; Manchester City second with 6.0) each 90, and kept opponents from their web, conceding the fewest shots 8, along with the smallest xG per game, 0.53, in the league. Taking a look at the top-line numbers, Chelsea also just surrendered five goals in the first half of this season; just City surrendered fewer.
However, they did not just get anybody; they got Sam Kerr.
Kerr was the NWSL’s top scorer for the last three consecutive seasons and topped with her best-ever output in her final season, with 18 goals in 21 games — and that’s with lost 3 games because of the World Cup (the Chicago Red Stars lost all 3). Still, the lasting image of Kerr for her now-former team arrived in the championship game against the North Carolina Courage. Starved for support, the Australian ahead cried at teammate Savannah McCaskill after failing — not for the first time to feed the ball to Kerr after she had made a run.
With Chelsea, this is not likely to be an issue. England has been far too great to drop, and her team-leading three assists show her attention for setting up opportunities and her willingness to be unselfish if a teammate is in a much better scoring position. England can also shoot from range and is smart at shuttling the ball round in the last third until distance to exploit opens up. The partnership between the two could be what Chelsea should keep their dominance and this time make it count.
Kerr is a monumental addition to some of Europe’s greatest teams, but Chelsea had misfired themselves to the precarious position of really needing a player of her caliber.
In the first half of this season, Chelsea did everything but find the additional goals that dominant teams find, goals that their opponents were discovering. For a group that has yet to lose and has already conquered the clubs above them, the gap between additional disappointment and getting what they believe they deserve may only be the signing of a player they should not require. Though you must admit, Thor would seem more badass with two hammers.