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Fran Kirby went nuclear and we need to talk about it

You know the stats, but how did she do it?

Reading Women v Chelsea Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

In the first-half of a topsy-turvy WSL season, marked by global superstars flocking to the competition and COVID-19-related postponements, Chelsea had not been quite able to live up to expectations. The 2019-20 iteration of the team routinely buried opponents in mounds of goals and looked unstoppable. This iteration, with a full preseason for January 2020 signing Sam Kerr plus the summer addition of UEFA Player of the Year Pernille Harder, had yet to appear as ruthless.

Results had been fine, of course: no losses, two draws and seven wins, enough to sit comfortably within reach of the top spot with a game in hand. But a rampaging force hadn’t yet materialized (apart from a 9-0 win vs. bottom-of-the-table Bristol City).

The numbers told the story as well. Whereas Chelsea well outscored xG (38.0) by netting 47 goals in a shortened season of just 15 matches in 2019-20, this season the Blues had been barely keeping up: — 21.9 xG versus 23 goals scored, a figure even more alarming when you consider the inflation from the Bristol walloping.

It was up to Emma Hayes then to figure out what to do in 2021 to shake off these finishing struggles and get the team banging in goals in a way that’s more fitting of the club, and our impressive collection of players.

In the first match of the new year, Hayes went for a new formation, a couple fresh faces, and a shuffling of roles. Her 4-2-3-1 featured a midfield of Melanie Leupolz and Erin Cuthbert, while Guro Reiten played wide left of the three and Niamh Charles wide right. In the No.10 spot, where it has been customary to see Ji So-yun, Hayes called on Fran Kirby to play behind lone striker Sam Kerr.

The results were a first-half perfect hat-trick from Kirby, who scored four total, and a 5-0 win over a well-organized mid-table club who had drawn 1-1 with Manchester City earlier adn were seven minutes away from doing the same to Manchester United.

Let’s take a look at why Kirby was able to have so much success against a team who clearly know how to frustrate high-powered opponents.

First Goal - 16’ (right foot)

This goal was indicative of what the day would end up being for Kirby, and Reading.

Sam Kerr is such a nuisance and force between central defenders that Kirby was able to find plenty of space by just waiting for them to preoccupy themselves with Kerr. In this instance, a quick lofted ball in Kerr’s direction became as dangerous as an pinpoint through ball, just because of how the defenders reacted. They chase Kerr, who still wins the header, and directs it into the space that was vacated. Kirby’s quickness and dribbling skill did the rest, as she was able to get around the goalkeeper before any defender could close, leaving her with an easy empty net finish.

Second Goal - 23’ (left foot)

This one was all Kirby.

Reading like to play the ball around the back to keep possession and frustrate big teams. But the Leupolz-Cuthbert midfield was doing so well at pouncing on the ball once it entered midfield that it made Reading very predictable, which in turn made them easy to press and without needing to commit too many numbers. As their midfielder drops down to receive the pass, the defender is caught not wanting to be tackled by Kirby and attempting to force a pass. Kirby reads the panic well, cuts out the pass, shields the defender from the ball, drags the goalkeeper, and holds the ball just long enough to be able to clip it over her with the left foot.

Third Goal - 45+2’ (header)

This may be my favorite goal of the bunch. I’ll remind you that Fran Kirby is 5’2, so while expecting a hat-trick was certainly a good bet, expecting her to complete a perfect one by nodding one into the net was perhaps not.

It’s a choreographed free kick in which Erin Cuthbert clips the ball into space where Sam Kerr uses her athleticism to be first to it. Kerr had quite a bit of work to do to get to it before it went out of play, so she could only lob it into space instead of aiming for someone in particular. The rest was all down to Kirby’s movement. She stalks the ball between defenders like an apex predator, and arrives at the perfect time and place to pounce. David Attenborough should’ve called this goal.

Fourth Goal - 53’ (header)

I’ll remind you again that Fran Kirby is 5’2.

This header is probably more impressive because she was actually marked this time, and it still didn’t matter. She was first to the ball and knew her only shot at beating the goalkeeper was to use the space above her — and that’s exactly what she did.

Ji added our fifth on the day with a stunning finish inside the box. After the computers were done analyzing all the facts and stats, Chelsea’s xG on the day was 2.7.

It’s unclear whether Hayes will stick with this formation, or personnel grouping. Pernille Harder and Bethany England won’t be coming off the bench in every game. But this was a glimpse of last season’s Chelsea, and of the Chelsea that was promised.

If that keeps up, Chelsea will arrive every bit as the force we expected at the start of the season.

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