Chelsea shocked the football world when they announced the signing of Sam Kerr on 13th November from NWSL club Chicago Red Stars. The Australian forward sought another challenge and was coveted by almost every top club in the world. Kerr rejected the likes of Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain and chose Chelsea, elevating their and the WSL’s status to one of the most attractive leagues and teams in the world. The recruitment of the 26-year-old is a coup for Emma Hayes and Chelsea. Kerr has won five consecutive golden boots across the NWSL and W-League is the all-time top scorer in both leagues with 69 and 70 goals respectively. The forward also holds the records for the most goals in a single season of both leagues, the most goals in a single NWSL match and quickest W-League hat-trick. With such impressive statistics, Kerr’s arrival will garner much attention and she will be expected to hit the ground running.
After a stunning World Cup, Kerr returned to the NWSL for the Chicago Red Stars propelling them to the final where they ultimately lost to North Carolina Courage. However, it was her performances that convinced Hayes and Marina Granovskaia to go all-in for the Australian forward.
This analysis and scout report will look to elaborate and analyse Kerr’s qualities as a striker and how she can fit into Chelsea Women‘s tactics. Ultimately, we will look to explain why Kerr is one of the players to watch in 2020.
Sam Kerr at Chicago Red Stars
Kerr’s play style is predicated on her movement and positioning in the final third. Through tactical analysis, we can determine that Kerr can be classified as a ‘complete forward’ who recognises opportunities to push possession forward by dropping deep bringing teammates into play or running the channels. At the Red Stars, she operated mainly in a 4-2-3-1 utilising it 60% of the time. Playing as the furthest forward player, Kerr is the team’s focal point, winning long balls like a target man, break lines like a poacher, press defenders like an advanced forward, or link-up play like a trequartista.
She is an excellent reader of the game and has the quality to create space her teammates. While being a classic number nine, Kerr interchanges play with her midfield expertly. The connection she formed with Yuki Nagasato at the Red Stars showcased her skill in playing with a partner and how she can get the best out of them. The Japanese playmaker registered her best numbers yet and created an almost telepathic connection.
Kerr’s ability to create space in the final third is one of her better qualities. The Australian forward’s awareness to move into different positions to create space is immeasurable. Her positioning is one of the most important aspects in this regard. Being able to open space for inside-forwards and late runs from box-to-box midfielders gives her team an edge in trying to break down stubborn defences. More often than not, the Red Stars were up against teams that played with mid-to-low blocks trying to restrict the space Kerr had to operate in. While her movement in the final third is her most potent weapon in creating space, she is able to do with her passing. She averaged 4.62 forward passes and 2.14 passes into the final third per 90 showing she isn’t one dimensional on the ball but is intelligent enough to pass and move.
Even the smallest of movements can create large gaps for players to exploit. Her movement is extremely difficult for opposition defenders to track because of the unpredictable nature of it. She could look to run in one direction but can change direction in an instant completely throwing off defenders. This example illustrates how Kerr’s intelligent run into the channels created space in the central areas. As Julie Ertz picks up possession in central midfield, Kerr spots an opportunity to drive into the channels and take two Sky Blue defenders away from the central area. This creates a large gap for Vanessa DiBernardo to exploit.
Having pulled both defenders towards her, Kerr manages to squeeze a cross into the vacant space for DiBernardo to shoot. While there is poor defending from the near-sided full-back, the intelligence to move slightly wider and create space in the middle by attracting multiple defenders shows how much opponents fear her movement. At Chelsea, she will have J-So yun and Fran Kirby who will look to make numerous runs into the box. Both will relish the opportunity to take advantage of the space created by the Australian centre-forward.
Movement in the final third
Kerr’s abilities as a striker have been clearly defined; however, her movement has been an integral part of her repertoire that deserves a mention. This comes from her astute dribbling and anticipation. Her intelligent runs both on and off the ball put her in positions to score. During the build-up phase, Kerr’s movement and body positioning off the ball determine the outcome of the attacking move.
The right body position allows her to analyse the game and imagine the next few moves ahead of her. Both Roberto Firmino and Karim Benzema are two of the most effective centre-forwards when it comes to movement, benefiting both themselves and their teammates. Kerr is one of the very few strikers that infuses intelligent movement and clinical goal-scoring ability. These types of strikers are a rare breed with non-scoring strikers very much part of the managerial trend, however, if one possesses the kind of talent that Kerr has then you build a team around her.
The example above here demonstrates Kerr’s ability to determine space and her positioning. She chooses the right moment to move to take her into a better position to score. As she receives possession from Nagasato, the defender would expect Kerr to shoot first time, however, she decides to take an extra touch and move to the other side of the defender which gives her more time and a better position to shoot from and score.
We’ve reviewed Kerr’s strongest traits but seeing how she fits in a strong Chelsea setup will be critical in determining her success in 2020. As we mentioned earlier, Kerr has traditionally operated in a 4-2-3-1 system at Chicago Red Stars. The NWSL franchise hardly deviated from this formation meaning she perfected playing under this system. She was usually partnered with playmaker Nagasato and allowed her to flourish too but will be around a slightly different profile of players at Chelsea. So how does Kerr fit in at Chelsea?
At Chelsea, Hayes primarily used a 4-2-3-1 (37%) and 4-3-3 (19%) formation last season but has now shifted to a 4-4-2. While the team is flexible in their approach from game to game, the 4-4-2 is their primary system of choice. Games against Manchester United and Arsenal saw Chelsea alter between a 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 formation that both relied on patient pressing and quick counter-attacks. The biggest, most obvious change has been the switch to a two-striker system. This has seen both England and Kirby start alongside each other offering a different dynamic. Kerr’s introduction could well see her blossom with either striker next to her. She will also benefit from the numerous systems Chelsea employ based on the opposition and her skillset could bring out a different way of playing.
In England and Kirby, Chelsea have two different profile of strikers. England is a forward that relies on movement in and around the penalty area to find space and score goals. Kirby, however, prefers a more playmaking role by dropping deep and putting others in to play. Kerr would offer a different perspective that is a combination of both strikers. Her movement and ability to drop deep and link up with midfield is a perfect mixture of Chelsea’s two number nines. Playing with either striker can yield positive results and affect the players around her.
This illustration shows us how Kerr’s movement can affect the team in a positive way. Not only does she help her fellow strikers find space but the two wide players greatly benefit from this too. Let us see how Kerr can positively affect different partnerships and players at the club.
Sam Kerr & Bethany England
One potential pairing Hayes can deploy is that of Kerr and England. The two could strike up a lethal partnership with both players potent in front of goal. While they both usually take up a more advanced role, Kerr has the capacity to mould herself into more of a second striker. Based on the analysis we did earlier on her individual traits, the Australian should have no problem in playing a more supporting role whilst retaining her natural goal-scoring instincts. England benefited from Kirby’s repositioning next to her and was allowed room to manoeuvre and find space in the 18-yard box. Kirby’s movement moved defenders out of position to give her strike partner that inch more space to find goal scoring opportunities. Kerr has done this in flashes for Chicago Red Stars when she dropped deep to collect possession and drift into a wider area to pull defenders out of position.
Above you can see an example of Kerr’s intelligent movement taking the opposition defenders out wide. She initially drops into a deeper position to receive the initial pass. Here we can see the back four holding a decent shape and line but look to follow Kerr towards the ball. Her first touch around the defender allows her to utilise the space in behind.
Notice how the Washington Spirit’s defensive line has become disjointed and three of the back four are lining up to stop the cross. However, Kerr opts for a pullback and allows her teammate to use highlighted space in front of her. Someone of England’s quality will thrive on space such as these, keeping defences on high alert at all times.
Sam Kerr & Fran Kirby
If Hayes opts to field Kirby instead of England, then the dynamic would change with the arrival of the English playmaker. Kerr was most notably played as the focal point in the United States and developed a strong relationship with Japanese playmaker Nagasato. While the two complimented each other, the potential between Kirby and Kerr is mouth-watering. Kirby has been one of Chelsea’s potent attacking, creative weapons and has been developing a tight bond with England. While England thrives on space, Kirby will be the one to create it and her freedom since moving to a striking position has elevated her ability to create space around her strike partner. Kerr is a modern centre-forward that has a competent all-round game. Proficient in aerial duels passes to feet, and in behind.
Having a creative enforcer next to Kerr can help Kirby become much more dangerous because opposition defenders will be more concerned in keeping Kerr marked instead. Kerr received 19.53 passes in the box and had an xG of 0.71. Meaning NWSL teams knew they had to mark Kerr and most of the attacking threat from the Red Stars would be nullified. However, at Chelsea, there are a number of dangerous players who can influence proceedings and threaten to score goals even though Kerr might be marked.
As the example below illustrates, Kerr’s presence in the box has diverted the attention of the defenders towards her. They are afraid of giving her even an inch of space because of how dangerous her movement and aerial ability is. Earlier in this passage of play, only one player was committed to stopping Casey Short from her initial wider position, the rest were worried about Kerr in the box. This has not only allowed space for Short to move more freely but her teammate across from her too.
The wide players
Chelsea possesses other incredibly talented wide players who will look to support the two strikers. Ramona Bachmann, Erin Cuthbert, and Guro Reiten are three quick, intelligent wingers with their own skillset. One player that will benefit greatly from Kerr’s arrival is Reiten, who excels in forward positions. The winger essentially drives inside and is adept at finding space. Kerr’s positioning could open up more room for the Norwegian winger to make late runs from the wide areas allowing Chelsea more players into the box. As we detailed in the earlier section on her partnership with England, Kerr could have a similar effect on the likes of Bachmann, Ji, and Reiten. Bachmann showed great intensity and running against Manchester United last month, whilst Cuthbert is a hardworking winger cum attacking midfielder who is willing to do the dirty work in order to benefit her other forward-thinking attacking teammates.
One of Chelsea’s biggest issues has come from the wide players not contributing enough goals or assists with the majority of the goal-scoring burden put on England. England already has nine goals this season in all competitions with Ji closing in on three. Reiten started her Chelsea career scoring a brace against Bristol City in a 4-0 win but hasn’t scored since. Cuthbert and Bachmann haven’t registered yet this season. While some of it comes from concentrating play through the central areas, the wide players have been tasked to prevent opposition wingers from flying past them. Their counter-attacking and pressing tactics against the big sides could improve but the arrival of Kerr can help involve the wide players more often. Kerr can force defenders to focus on her allowing the wingers an opportunity to come inside and take up more central positions to collect knockdowns or second balls.
In this example, we can see Ji send in a long ball towards England who heads down for Cuthbert in space in front of the penalty area. The Scottish international volleyed home an excellent finish against the European champions and if Chelsea are to win the league this season, they will need help from their other attackers. Kerr’s presence could help link play between the attacking quartet much better than before. While England is an excellent centre-forward she is a much better finisher than link woman. Kirby has shown her skill in bursts with her persistent knee issues needing to be managed; she hasn’t been able to have a consistent run in the side. Therefore, having someone like Kerr come in to bring others into play becomes an added bonus for Hayes and her team.
The return of the 4-2-3-1?
The reason for ditching the 4-2-3-1 in favour or a 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 formation this season was prompted by Hayes’ want to field Kirby and England together to unleash their potentially devastating partnership. However, the 4-2-3-1 poses its own advantages, allowing teams to play with a natural number 10 and inside-forwards. In Ji and Kirby, Chelsea have two of the worlds best playmakers while Reiten, Bachmann, and Drew Spence all prefer drifting into central areas. The arrival of Kerr can help alleviate some of the previous issues and give Chelsea another tactical option in certain games.
Chelsea lacked pace earlier going forward. Teams would allow Chelsea to play out wide because it would give them time to create a compact shape. Both England and Reiten bring pace in abundance and will help to relieve this issue. Many teams would utilise a five-man backline and employ a man-marking system that would force Chelsea back and give them time to assemble their shape once again. This would force Chelsea to have to re-think their strategy going forward. Kirby often led the line in seasons past but was limited by having to drop deep to collect possession and found no willing runners going beyond the opposition backline. This is where Kerr’s skillset can add to Chelsea and help them utilise the aforementioned system.
The example above shows how Kerr is able to combine with the players around her to score as the team’s focal point. Notice how she drops deep and asks for possession to her feet. While she has the advantage on the defenders, she still needs to turn and run at the centre-back giving the three defenders time to catch up.
Kerr’s ability to drive into a defence is unparalleled. Her dribbling ability is second to none and is able to manoeuvre the ball is mesmerising making her an excellent solo striker. Her all-around capabilities make her an ideal candidate for Hayes in a 4-2-3-1 system. She can take in crosses, proficient aerially, make runs in behind, and to feet. Being able to handle any type of service gives Chelsea plenty of tactical adjustments in-game when teams start to block one way of playing.
Building something special
“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
2020 is looking to become an important year for the FAWSL teams. With Arsenal, the only English team in the Champions League, both Manchester City and Chelsea will be looking to dethrone their dominance in the league and regain a foothold in their domestic competition. Chelsea have gone all guns blazing with a massive coup in signing Kerr. The Australian forward is raring to go after talking about her desire to win silverware with the Blues. After an excellent World Cup and a personal season for Chicago Red Stars, Kerr will certainly be one of the players to watch in 2020.