In the past calendar year, Chelsea added two of the game’s most prolific goalscorers in Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder. The two superstars joined an attacking force that already included England’s best striker, Bethany England, Scotland star Erin Cuthbert, Norway left-winger Guro Reiten and South Korea attacking midfielder Ji So-yun. Those four had combined to score 27 of Chelsea’s 47 league goals in the shortened 15-game 2019-20 WSL season. Furthermore, a now healthy Fran Kirby has returned as well, and has looked as dangerous as ever.
Given all of these changes, it would be expected that the players and the team would need to get familiar with each other before they started flying as more than the sum of their parts. While that still may be true with regard to their final form eventually, Chelsea already boast the highest expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) per 90 in the league, at 4.79. Arsenal are second, at 4.76. Both clubs are creating chances at an absurdly high rate. The difference is that the Gunners have scored twelve more goals than Chelsea. [stats via FBref]
Through the first six games, Chelsea have scored 18 goals on 17.7 xG, which is unspectacular, especially when we consider that nine of those goals came against Bristol City. If we remove those, Chelsea have 9 goals on 12.2xG; which is not in any way good. In fact, that variance of -3.2 would be the worst in the WSL. As it stands, the +0.3 variance as-is including the Bristol match is agonizingly average.
There are a couple obvious reasons why this is happening, and a couple less so. But there are a few possible solutions.
The most obvious culprit. She’s having no problem tearing through WSL defenses to get scoring opportunities, but she’s having an unprecedented (especially for her) poor finishing streak. Kerr leads the team with 4.5 non-penalty xG (npxG) but has only tucked away 3 goals.
The Fix: Top to bottom, NWSL goalkeepers are widely considered better than WSL goalkeepers, though the biggest difference may be the most important one: WSL goalkeepers are less aggressive. They tend to stay closer to the goal and are more patient, which narrows angles and forces potential scorers to be more precise when targeting openings. Working on aiming for corners and sharpening her placement on the training ground could be an easy fix. But the real solution might be someone else taking over the bulk of the goalscoring burden while Kerr shakes off this funk. Her one year anniversary as a Blue is approaching and we still haven’t seen her trademark backflip outside of Cobham.
The largest variance in form between this season and last belongs to Chelsea’s clever goalscoring attacking midfielder, Ji So-yun. Last season Ji knocked in 6 goals from a npxG of just 2.1(!). Some were free kicks, some were long shots from outside the box or just a few steps inside. Though significant portions of Ji’s job are to keep the ball moving in midfield and pick clever passes through defensive lines, the thing that gave defenses fits were her goals. Her ability to drift into spaces and line up unsuspected shots at goal forced central defenders to step out, creating mismatches and easier chances for the striker, or anyone slipped in behind. Without goals, taking up those positions in those same areas just crowds the box and makes it tougher on the team to find direct paths to goal.
The Fix: This is difficult because Ji has been so important to the team, but the addition of Pernille Harder makes it difficult for Ji to have the same time and space in central areas that she enjoyed last season. If that continues, then it may be worth seeing if Harder can do enough ball movement work in midfield to take over the position full-time.
Fran Kirby and Niamh Charles
Fran Kirby is tied with Bethany England for highest goal output this season: with three goals and two assists. Niamh Charles has only played 72 minutes in the league but has looked dangerous every time she’s stepped onto the pitch, and her xG and xA numbers per 90 bear that out. The sample size is admittedly small, but Charles’ shot creation — via passing and dribbling — is impressive enough to want to see more.
The Fix: If Emma Hayes sees Harder as a forward and not a No.10, then it might be worth shifting Fran Kirby into that central attacking position. Fran’s acceleration and close control could help Chelsea deal with a crowded area, and her vision and weight of passing is top notch. Kirby is also no stranger to burying long-range bangers.
This would also allow Niamh Charles to get more match time, as she could take on Kirby’s winger/wide forward position. Charles will need to step up defensively to help provide support to right back Maren Mjelde as Kirby has done an excellent job of that this season, but Kirby’s central playmaking and Charles’ offensive impact might be worth considering the risk.
Reiten and her cyborg left foot joined Chelsea ahead of last season. In her debut WSL season, shortened as it was by COVID-19, Reiten still scored five goals and notched an absurd seven (7!) assists.
This season Reiten has found playing time hard to come by, having only three appearances (two starts) for a total of 169 minutes. Reiten has been the player most disrupted by all of the additions in attack. Pernille Harder, Sam Kerr, Bethany England, and Ji So-yun are all players who play centrally, and together, which narrows the pitch and makes it difficult for a natural wide player like Reiten to fit in.
The Fix: This is probably the most difficult problem to address. Last year’s opposite wing-mate, Erin Cuthbert, has called on her versatility and tucked into midfield areas so she can stay on the pitch this season. Reiten, a chalk-on-the-boots wide player who seeks space and isolation in the attacking half doesn’t have the pace or scrappiness that makes Cuthbert a viable midfield option. Emma Hayes will have to venture from the 433 she’s used the majority of this season in exchange for a wider formation that allows Guro to do what she does best.
Bethany England scores goals and creates chances. Bethany England must start.
The Fix: Start Bethany England.
If taking the goalscoring pressure off Kerr is important — having Bethany England on your team allows you to do so — then it may be even more important to allow the pair to continue developing the relationship they began building last season. Their pairing is a nightmare for defenses not only because they are two of the most talented forwards in women’s football, but because they complement one another so well.
England’s ability to play outside of the box in central and wide areas, while still being a goal threat from those areas, allows her to roam the attacking third and demand defensive cover, freeing Kerr to make runs in behind or isolate defenders in the box.
A benefit of having world class talents is that they not only create chances at an above average rate, but they finish at a higher than normal rate as well, particularly when the chances are there to be finished. Though Chelsea have struggled so far with the latter part, there are tweaks that can be made in a busy December that can help rev the team up to the level of performance we enjoyed last season.