Happy New Year! Well, it certainly is for Chelsea fans. After several months of waiting, Blues’ supporters will be ‘buzzing’ (to use football parlance) at the prospect of finally (/maybe/ probably…) seeing Aussie striking sensation, Sam Kerr enter the field of play as the FA Women’s Super League kicks back into gear following the festive break. And the Matilda’s markswoman could end up being the difference between a full-on Chelsea title tilt or another also-ran campaign behind Arsenal and Manchester City…
I confess when the news broke that Kerr was looking for a European club, I did throw AFC Wimbledon Ladies into the mix via Twitter, but to no avail – while Sam was certainly looking for a new challenge, the National League Division One South East was, sadly, not where it resided.
Kerr has signed a 2½ year deal with Chelsea and the wages being paid are reportedly in seven figures making her one of the highest paid female players in the world. This is a statement of intent by Blues manager Emma Hayes who has left the competition both in England and Europe under no illusion about her ambitions. This blog suggested prior to the season’s start that although defensively comparable to their rivals, Chelsea looked one top class striker short of a title push. So, bringing in a marquee signing up front who is capable of operating at the same level as, say, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema or Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg could propel the club to a third Super League title and, ultimately, to the summit of the continent’s best sides.
Kerr’s arrival could also prompt a raft of other international players to consider the Super League as a viable option in which to make a professional living wage in recompense for their talent and dedication. The US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), where Kerr previously plied her trade, will be watching closely at how this transfer pans out as big European investment in star names could impact on the attractiveness of their league to non-Americans, and US players that are not in the hunt for places on the more lucrative, centrally funded US Women’s National Team. With new sponsorships in place the NWSL has responded with more financial support and higher salary caps for 2020 and is looking to expand from nine to ten clubs (although not this year).
So, what are the Blues getting for their money? Well, they’ll be hoping for goals and this is a player with a proven pedigree in arguably the world’s best women’s league. Kerr is the all-time leading scorer in the NWSL. She scored 18 regular-season goals for the Chicago Red Stars last year, plus a play-off semi-final strike and won the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.
“Sam has proved time and time again in the NWSL that she is a prolific goal scorer. She’s won the golden boot many times and she’s a player that can make things happen, but she’s also a fantastic team player. The fact she chose Chelsea when she could have gone to any club in the world is a testament to the players and the staff here. She saw this as the best place for her to grow and take the next step in her career. That’s a wonderful compliment to us all.”Emma Hayes, Chelsea Manager, BBC Online 13/11/2019
She’s quick over the ground and her movement off the ball is not only clever, but relentless. Opposing back lines simply won’t get a quiet afternoon with Kerr leading the strike force. She plays off the shoulder of the last defender, times her runs well and is a sound bet in 1-on-1 situations; often choosing to get her shot away early before the keeper is set. So, playing a high line is a risky strategy with this player. And you’d better be sure you’ve at least one pacey defender or it’s going to be shadow-chasing time.
But, to assume that playing a deeper defensive line will shut Kerr out of the game is ill-advised. She has proven that she can score her goals in a variety of ways, anticipating opportunities in the six-yard box, firing in from distance and scoring a surprising number of headers from both corners and crosses.
She is athletic, determined and stealthy; a combination that regularly gets her that crucial half-yard ahead of her marker. She can spin a defender with her back to goal to generate a shooting opportunity and is more than capable of simply dribbling past opponents to create attacking overloads or break defensive lines.
Defenders won’t want to dilly-dally in possession either. She enjoys terrorising those players that need more time to get the ball out of their feet and is quick to seize on poor back-passes.
Such is the fear Kerr can create in opponents that some may gear up solely to take her out of the match, freeing up space for the pacey duo of Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert on the flanks; providing opportunities for Ji So-yun to ghost into the box untracked, or generating more room in front of the box for any of these players (plus Drew Spence and Ramona Bachmann) to tee up a strike from distance. Kerr will also give Emma Hayes tactical options as a lone striker, the centre piece of a forward three or the option to play an orthodox front two with Bethany England who offers physicality, ferocious work rate, intelligent running and no shortage of quality in front of goal.
It will be interesting to see if she can find a key player amongst the Chelsea group that gets on her wave length quickly to provide the perfect supply line. Kerr’s partnership with Yuki Nagasato at the Red Stars last season was vital to the side’s late season push into a 2nd place playoff spot, with the Japanese attacker winning the league’s top assists accolade.
The 26-year old native of Freemantle WA, was proclaimed “best women’s player on the planet” in the Guardian newspaper’s 2019 list. This was put together in conjunction with The Offside Rule podcast and surveyed a panel of 93 experts, spanning 44 countries who effectively voted for their outstanding women players over the last twelve months. Kerr’s stellar league campaigns in the W-League and the NWSL across the year put her well ahead of any other player domestically; winning the golden boot in both leagues and securing NWSL ‘MVP’ with her 19 goals (18 regular season plus a playoff strike); two player of the month awards and six player of the week accolades.
Kerr had a mixed World Cup with Australia finishing fourth in the Golden Boot running. But four of her five tournament goals were secured in a flat-track-bully win over Jamaica. The other came from a penalty rebound in the 2-1 defeat to tournament surprise Italy. Her most influential performance came in an unlikely back-from-the-dead victory over Brazil where her pace and movement played their part in panicking the Brazilian backline and inspiring her team mates to rally – turning a 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 score line.Kerr couldn’t make a sufficient impact in the last sixteen match-up with Norway, though, missing her spot kick in the crucial shootout after a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes.
And so – in the futile quest for some sort of balance – we arrive at the first potential concern with Kerr’s arrival. Will she be able to significantly affect the BIG games in the WSL and, potentially, future matches in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in line with the expectations and wages?
With the Chicago Red Stars her regular season individual record was very strong – three consecutive NWSL highest scorer accolades, but no playoff championships. A string of losing semi-finals ensued with Chicago until this year when she scored in a 1-0 semi final win over Portland but could then make no impact on the final which North Carolina Courage won 4-0.
Kerr did win the inaugural NWSL Shield (best regular season record) back in 2013 as a teen with the Western New York Flash, but couldn’t then help to seal the playoff championships.
In Australia it’s been a similar story. Kerr scored ten times in leading Perth Glory to the 2016–17 W-League Grand Final where they lost 2-0 to Melbourne City. Two years later the Glory made the final on the back of a Kerr hat-trick in the semi-final against Melbourne Victory, but were this time denied in the showpiece by Sydney FC 4-2 (Kerr with a penalty).
So, she’ll be desperate to get that league title with Chelsea as part of the best team in the league rather than routinely being regarded as the best player in a team that falls at the final hurdle every time.
“The WSL is the best league in Europe. I want team success and I don’t want it to come easy. I feel Chelsea have been building something special over the years and I want to be a part of that – I want to lift some trophies.”Sam Kerr, BBC Online 13/11/2019
Next – and I realise this may seem a bizarre thing to point out – Sam Kerr has never played winter football. Her seasons have consisted of travelling between summer campaigns in the USA and Australia. Yes, she’s played in really hot weather but not in really cold weather. And it could, perhaps, be a bit of shock to the system. The lungs burning under the duress of air cooled to two-degrees-C on a miserable Sunday afternoon in Reading; getting kicked up in the air and landing on the sludge at Prenton Park ( well, ok, at least the Blues have got that one out of the way already). But some of the pitches aren’t great in winter. It rains a lot, the turf cuts up, hands and feet become numb with cold. The ball doesn’t, you know, roll or bounce or fly up off the ground quite the same… and when it hits you on the thigh it hurts. Alright I won’t labour the point anymore, I’m just interested to see how that plays out.
Then there’s the inevitable impact on other players in the group. With a contract reportedly paying out in the millions, many commentators in the popular media believe Sam Kerr will walk into the team as a starter. But for who? Beth England has arguably been Chelsea’s best attacker this season, so pushing her back to the bench after a very decent spell and half a dozen Super League goals would seem harsh.
Assuming England’s spot is retained it then becomes either a change of shape to accommodate both Kerr and England up front (4-1-3-2 or a diamond midfield could work), or Emma Hayes will be looking to play one of her strikers as an attacking central midfielder or a winger in their current system.
Whatever happens it should be fun watching Sam Kerr’s influence on her new team and the league in general– not least because if she can grab a few goals fans will be more likely to enjoy her (occasionally) acrobatic celebrations. My kids are genuinely really looking forward to seeing her; there’s been plenty of Kerr’s ‘You Tube’ footage on the laptop recently.
Personally, I can see it working out well longer term. Sam Kerr is just too good a footballer not to stamp her mark on the English League. But look, if it doesn’t work out at Kingsmeadow there’s always my open offer down at AFC Wimbledon, just to keep her in the shop window before the inevitable next big deal. I know the boss. I’ll have a word.
So, best I stay in touch via Twitter…