The clock had just struck 12:53 last Sunday afternoon in Kingston upon Thames. The fans were expectant, the atmosphere happy but calm. Enter Chelsea striker Sam Kerr.
Two devastatingly perfect touches of the ball, almost out of nowhere, and the stadium erupts with excitement. Chelsea had taken the lead against their title rivals Manchester United, with Kerr, unsurprisingly, at the center of the action.
All the leading teams in Europe have their talisman. O thalis-woman.
They often make the most difficult feat in football, scoring goals, seem like the simplest task imaginable.
Kerr is a case in point. He hardly has any trademark celebration, such is his distaste for the spotlight, but the regularity with which he finds the back of the net inevitably draws attention.
Kerr’s arrival at Chelsea has coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history: she does not know a season in England that does not end with a Women’s Super League winner’s medal. That’s not a coincidence. Kerr’s presence and the Blues’ domestic supremacy are mutually exclusive. The first feeds the second.
It’s what fans who arrive in Kingsmeadow on a weekend expect to see: they eagerly await the moment. The moment the ball lands at Kerr’s feet in the final third, the anticipation builds. The air intake is audible. Jubilation often follows.
Kerr has been involved in nine goals in her six WSL appearances against United (seven goals, two assists); she also scored and assisted in the reverse match in early November. Marc Skinner’s side must be sick of seeing her, a view, presumably, shared by most of the WSL.
What, then, is Kerr’s secret? How is it so effective in and around areas of opposition? And is it possible to stop its almost inevitable impact on games?
“Listen, I should have had a hat-trick,” manager Emma Hayes commented after Chelsea’s crucial 1-0 win at the weekend, a result that sent them back to the top of the league. “To be fair, I’m saying that because that’s how good she is,” Hayes commented at the same time.
Kerr’s brilliance rests on his unrivaled ability to create something out of nothing. Her movement is so clever that she baffles defenders. She plays with her shoulder, feigning disinterest, before exploding as the ball travels her way. Sunday’s game-winning goal was a demonstration of that intelligence, as well as Kerr’s unerring precision, pace and power.
Her teammate Lauren James barely looked up to watch the race, she didn’t need to. The trigger had already started. James took one touch to spin into space and the second to execute a perfect pass into the path of Kerr, who, having fired two previous warning shots, was right on his third chance to get the better of the No.1. from England, Mary Earps. .
Every action of the movement was deliberate. Kerr ran purposefully between Hannah Blundell and Maya Le Tissier, neither defender with any chips on her, before using her chest to drive the ball into the shooting range. Earps felt compelled to participate, but Kerr is smart and skilled. He waited for the precise moment when Earps was stranded in no man’s land before lifting the ball over his head into the far corner of the net.
“We feel calm once we get the goal,” Kerr said after the game. In truth, she never looked more than calm and collected, patient too. During the first half against United, Kerr touched the ball six times, leading to three shots on goal. Two were saved, the other hit the back of the net.
Chelsea are not prolific in wide areas, as Manchester City say. City’s style draws heavily on deliveries from Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly, among others, to Bunny Shaw, who more often than not applies the revealing touch. The service is plentiful and reliable. On average, City send 7.5 accurate crosses from wide areas per game to Chelsea’s 4.8.
The Blues tend to pierce through the hearts of their victims, using Kerr as a focal point. There is no right or wrong route to the goal, but perhaps the striker’s role is different in each case. Effortlessly versatile, Kerr is capable of scoring all kinds of goals because he has the skill and audacity to attempt the outrageous, but also gets the simple things right.
She is the master of space and time. Consider her draw against Arsenal in mid-January. Chelsea played outside the park that day, consumed by the Gunners’ commitment to all-out attack. Jonas Eidevall’s team managed seven shots on goal to Chelsea’s two, but the score ended 1-1. Because? Kerr’s nerve.
They offered him an opportunity to make the difference after a cross from Jelena Cankovic -in the 89th minute- and he took advantage of it. Great players affect great games. Kerr floated between Leah Williamson and Laura Wienroither before launching a headbutt past the clutches of Manuela Zinsberger.
Many of the best forwards are in and out of games and Kerr is no different. Chelsea conceded 63 per cent of possession in their last win over United, and just created one big chance, which Kerr seized. The same story played out against Arsenal not long ago: a great chance created, a goal scored by Kerr. His contributions are timely.
In a 3-0 Champions League win over Paris St Germain in December, Kerr fired a shot on target, the opening goal, before creating a great chance, which James converted. Sure, she also has defensive duties, but that’s not where she excels. Kerr is the second highest non-penalty scorer in the WSL this season despite Chelsea’s xG, 1.75 per 90 minutes played, trailing Man City (2.42), Arsenal (2.24) and Man United (1.82). She has the killer instinct that few possess, let alone master.
Demanding the ball is also not something the Australian international is afraid of. The Blues midfield trio are trained to find Kerr’s run, he’s almost telepathic. As a team, Chelsea play an average of 38.4 long balls per game, more than any other team in the league, with the majority going to their centre-forward. The connection and relationship that Kerr has with the likes of Fran Kirby and, more recently, James, play a huge role in his and Chelsea’s success.
Hayes last month hailed Kerr as the “best in the business” when she scored her 81st goal in her 100th game for the club. She shows no signs of slowing down. With just a year left on her current contract, the 29-year-old revealed her intentions to stay in west London earlier this week: “If you’re listening to Emma, sign me up,” she commented after being named a player for WSL of the season at the London Football Awards.
Chelsea, of course, have plans for even more trophies and so does Kerr: they are now favorites for a fifth straight WSL crown. As Kerr is on his books and shooting, that same outcome seems increasingly likely.