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Is Sam Kerr struggling at Chelsea?

Short answer: no. Longer answer: it’s complicated, but no.

Since her arrival at Chelsea a little over a year ago, Sam Kerr has won a Women’s Super League title, a League Cup, and scored a boatload of goals in the process. But if you scour media commentary, you’ll see countless references to her struggles, her poor finishing, and a general sense of disappointment about a player who was billed as perhaps the best in the world.

What’s the evidence that Kerr is struggling?

What’s going on here? It’s not just a case of fickle supporters. In fact, more of the Kerr-skepticism seems to be coming from neutral media than from Chelsea fans. And that’s telling, in some ways. The folks who care most about Kerr’s contributions are quite reasonably pretty happy. Their team is flying, and Kerr is a big part of why, so they’re generally satisfied.

But Kerr was billed as an all-time great goal-scorer. And in some big moments over the past twelve months, she’s failed rather spectacularly at that specific task. Scroll back to the pre-COVID days, and you’ll see some evidence of a rough settling-in period. In four WSL matches, she scored just one goal, which compares unfavorably to the prodigious scoring rates set by Bethany England in the months before Kerr’s arrival. Then consider that Kerr’s solitary goal came from thirteen shots which added up to 3.3 xG, a statistic that estimates the expected goals that a given shot will produce. Not only was she not scoring, she was not scoring on a lot of excellent chances.

Fast-forward through six months of COVID delays to the return of football in the late summer with the preseason Community Shield match against Manchester City. Again, Kerr spurned chance after chance. In top form, she could probably have bagged a hat trick that day. Instead, she left with nothing.

Soon after, the tide turned and Kerr began to renew her acquaintance with the back of the net. By the middle of the WSL campaign, she was among the league leaders in goals. But not because she had turned into a clinical finisher. In fact, as of late January she had one of the worst G-xG numbers in the league. This stat measures actual goals vs. how many goals a player would expect to score on her shots, and it’s a crude but fairly accurate measure of finishing. And it said that Kerr had scored 1.2 goals fewer than you’d expect from an average player who took her shots.

That number has equalized a bit after two more games in which Kerr scored from limited chances. At this moment, she is almost exactly average, having earned 9.1 xG and scored 9 actual goals. Still, strictly average conversion rates are nothing to write home about, especially when compared to players like Fran Kirby, Claudia Walker, Ellen White, and Vivianne Miedema who are scoring 2-4 goals above their expected number.

Sam Kerr's greatness is in the chances she creates, not how she finishes them

But this is the conundrum of Sam Kerr. Because she’s never been a world-class finisher. When she was leading the NWSL and W-League scoring charts year after year, it’s not because she was any more clinical than other players. The thing that makes Kerr a world-class goal-scorer is actually very simple: she scores a lot because she generates a ridiculous volume of chances.

If you only watch one or two games, you might see her miss a few big chances and wonder what all the hype is about. But if you watch her regularly over time—especially if you see her in person—you will marvel at how often she generates those big opportunities.

Consider Chelsea’s recent match against Manchester United. Kerr was slated for missing several huge chances in the early going. And the stats at least somewhat back up that narrative. She accumulated 1.2 xG from those opportunities, but failed to convert any.

But look at the chances. These were not easy tap-ins generated by someone else. Kerr herself did significant work to create the opportunities, using her speed to get behind the defense, initiating play through clever passes that created space for her to move into to receive the ball back. If you want to blame her for missing, you have to recognize that virtually no one else in the world would have even had the chance in the first place.

Another thing to consider: I said that Kerr’s genius at generating chances is particularly apparent if you can watch her in person. I’ve been lucky enough to see her play live quite a few times, and it really is very different from watching on TV. Her movement is incredible, both in its athleticism and in its intelligence. She is lightning-fast and uses that speed to unlock high lines. She is shockingly good in the air for a player who was not blessed with all that much height, but it mostly stems from her ability to leap at odd angles to discover balls that no one else would even get a head on.

Winning as a team

There's another thing about that match against Manchester United, something that may seem too obvious to mention but is important for precisely that reason. Namely: Chelsea won the game. As they almost always do. If Kerr had scored two goals early, they probably would have won by more. But they didn’t need those goals. And that’s because the Chelsea unit is designed to flourish collectively, without heaping responsibility on any single player.

They have several of the world’s best goal-scorers, and plenty of players right behind them who would start on almost any other club in the world. They have world-class chance-creators like Fran Kirby, Ji So-yun, and Guro Reiten. They have defenders who contribute in the attack. Most importantly, the team continues to develop as a unit—using the wealth of options to spread the attack and make themselves extraordinarily difficult to defend.

Some teams stock up on attackers and become unbalanced in the process. Chelsea has adroitly avoided the problem so far. That is a credit to players like Kerr, Harder, and Bethany England—each of whom has the ability to serve as the sole focus of an attack, but who have been willing to play collectively. In fact, this was a big part of the reason Kerr wanted to make the move to Chelsea in the first place. She has spent virtually her entire career as the sole goal-scoring option for her teams—from Sky Blue to Chicago to Perth to the Australian national team. Playing for Chelsea has finally allowed her to more aggressively exercise her creative muscles, and the results certainly suggest it’s been a success.

She's second in the league in goals, and has contributed three assists on top of that. With 1.44 goals+assists per 90 minutes, she's in an effective four-way tie (with Miedema, Kirby, and Jordan Nobbs) for the most productive players in the league per minute. And she's lapping the field with 1.36 xG+xA per 90 minutes (second place is Miedema at 1.12). And her team is flying.

For a player of Kerr’s extraordinary talents, there's an understandable desire to set the expectations sky high. She really might be the best soccer player on earth, so any small gap in the armor is going to provoke surprise. And it is true that she's missed a fair few chances in the past year that she probably should have scored.

But at the end of the day, she’s leading the line for the best team in the league, generating an absurd amount of value for her team and scoring plenty of chances in the process. And that’s what really matters. The final months of the season—particularly their performance in the late stages of the Champions League—may determine whether this is judged as merely a successful or as a truly transcendental campaign. But there’s no reasonable standard by which it could be called a disappointment.