Yash Thakur takes a closer look at Sam Kerr to see just what it is that makes her one of the best strikers in the world.
Six golden boots for four different teams in three different continents. Top scorer in the history of NWSL. Top scorer in the history of W-league until the 2020-21 season. All-time top scorer for the Australian National Team.
If this was all you knew about Samantha Kerr, your first assumption might be that she is a fantastic goal scorer. And you wouldn’t be mistaken. Kerr is a phenomenal goalscorer. But she is much more than that.
In this article, I will dissect those aspects of Sam Kerr’s gameplay which make her such an asset for her side beyond her goalscoring prowess. Using data and video, I will look at her goalscoring patterns, her ball carrying and her ability to link play.
Let’s dive in by taking a look at Kerr’s TransferLab profile. On the “Striker – All Round” pre-set profile, she is given the highest score of 100:
Compared to the other strikers in the WSL, she performs very strongly. As you might expect, on goalscoring metrics, she stands out. But even in those areas where she isn’t quite as strong—progressive short passing, adjusted pass accuracy, dribbling (quality) and carries (quality)—she is still well above the average.
Let’s take a look at her action map to get a better idea of the areas Kerr likes to operate in:
Notice how this map shows up certain tendencies in Kerr’s play, like her inclination to drift towards the left hand side. She also has very high involvement in the 18 yard box. On top of this, her contributions off the ball also take place in these same areas given her role in the team’s counterpressing scheme.
Already, it’s becoming obvious that Kerr is more than just a goalscorer. So let’s dig down a little to see the areas she excels in.
An Eye for Goal
I’ll address the elephant in the room first: Kerr’s ability to score goals.
Kerr’s scoring record while playing for different teams in different leagues speaks for itself. Going through over 100 goals from the Australian striker (77 NWSL, 29 for Chelsea in 20/21 season, and all NT goals in 2020), there were some clear patterns I identified:
Of the 77 goals scored in the NWSL, 22 were first time finishes and 17 were headed goals. Of the 29 goals she scored for Chelsea in the 2020/21 season, 14 were first time finishes and 10 were headers. Some of those first time goals include finishes like this:
Kerr’s ability to get into great areas and onto the end of brilliant balls makes her goalscoring look effortless. She has the instinct to be at the right place in the box ahead of her marker.
On top of this, Kerr is a high volume shooter. Last season she averaged 5.1 shots per 90. But it’s her ability to shoot from good, “high xG” areas that makes her all the more lethal. Here’s a shot map from last season:
As the graphic above shows, in 20/21, all but two of Kerr’s shots came from outside the box. This underlines the fact that, although she is taking a high volume of shots, her shots are often of higher quality as well.
This combination of high volume and high average chance quality allows Kerr to consistently top non-penalty expected goals charts. Despite the high volume of shots, only Caitlin Foord (0.23) has a higher average chance quality than Sam Kerr (0.21) among forwards with more than 30 shots in 20/21.
Returning to Kerr’s shot map, we can see that almost 85% of her shots and all of her goals have come from the central area. On top of this, out of the 21 league goals, 11 were first time finishes. This combination of shooting a lot and finding shots from good areas makes her goalscoring repeatable on a consistent basis despite the variance that comes with finishing chances.
In this clip, from the game against West Ham, Kerr starts out wide before positioning herself on the blindside of the defender before the ball is played. She then turns on the afterburners to get in ahead of the centre back to meet the ball:
These sort of out-to-in movements and slightly delayed arrivals into the box allow her to get into these first time shooting situations and aid her goalscoring. Her ability to make well-timed runs behind the defensive line enables her to get into 1v1 scoring situations against goalkeepers very often.
Sam Kerr is impressive in the air. She gets airbourne like few others in the game. Her ability to compete and win aerial duels are among the best in the world.
No doubt her background in Aussie Rules helped her in learning the techniques of soccer. Ex-Perth Glory striker, Bobby Despotovski, identified Kerr at 13 and described her athleticism and raw talent as “exceptional”. Plucking out imaginary balls from the air while playing “Footy” definitely shaped her as an aerial threat in football.
There could be multiple reasons a player wins their aerial duels and standing at 167 cm, Kerr isn’t the tallest striker out there. Her aerial prowess comes from the incredible jump that she generates to get to the ball, her hangtime in the air and her movements to create space. With her jump Kerr is able to power through her headers.
According to TransferLab’s database, Kerr ranked third in Europe for headed shot attempts last season: only 2 fewer than Cristiana Girelli. If you only consider headed shots in the league since the 2017/18 season, Kerr moves to the top of the list for all players in the world.
Kerr has a tendency to separate herself from her marker at the far post while remaining in the blindspot of the defender, using her acceleration and diagonal movements to get ahead of her marker to meet the header. This athleticism and movement sees her aerial duel win rate bump up to 63.41% inside the box as compared to 57.89% in general.
While her aerial prowess allows her to score a lot of goals, that’s not the complete picture. Kerr’s control on her headers allow her to link up and create chances for her teammates by a simple flick of the head. This is a recurring theme in her playstyle and underlines the control she has over these headed passes.
“Sam Kerr is the ultimate team player,” Emma Hayes has gone on the record saying. It’s true that Kerr will always be a goalscorer first and foremost but her ability to link up play with her teammates using short exchanges is fantastic as well. In the 20/21 season, her partnership with Fran Kirby up front for Chelsea was among the best in world football.
Kerr’s gravity in pulling defenders by dropping deep when her team is building possession opens up space to attack:
These neat first-time balls by design allow her teammates to run through into space behind opposition defences and get into better positions to pass or shoot.
Kerr also likes to attack these spaces opened up by quickly playing a pass and turning, then using her acceleration to create separation:
Despite not being the most physically imposing forward, Kerr does enough to hold her own while playing with a defender on her back. She is capable of shrugging off challenges to then turn into space and carry the ball or create a shooting opportunity for herself or lay it off for her teammates.
An example of this was seen against Wolfsburg in the UWCL last season, as she received the ball with her back to goal and defender on her back, controlled it, turned into space and scored the goal:
Ball Carrying and Chance Creation
While Kerr isn’t a creative powerhouse, she is pretty effective at turning provider with her crossing when operating from wide areas. Her ability to cross the ball is fantastic, capable of picking out targets from wide areas. Kerr ranked fifth in the league for key passes last season, and looking at her assist map, we can notice the crosses from out wide being a big part of this:
In the example below, we can see her turn and carry the ball before firing a cross into the box with her left foot. This is a recurring theme in her game; she moves out wide and then whips a great ball in for her teammates.
While Kerr isn’t the main ball progressor for her side, her ability to pick up the ball out wide and then attack the box or move the possession forwards is great. She ranks fourth for “Shot creation via Progressive carries” among her WSL peers. This metric considers all carries that led to a shot within the next five actions following it.
In the visualization above, we can see a lot of the carries that led to a shot originate from the wide left as well. She has incredible acceleration allowing her to quickly gain yards on her marker creating separation.
Take a look at Kerr’s assist against Bayern Munich. You can see a couple of her traits in operation in this sequence:
The move begins with Kerr dropping off to link up with Kirby before turning and running into the space created behind the full back. She then receives the return ball from Kirby, and after beating a player, slides a ball through into her path for the goal.
One of the indicators we can use in TransferLab to judge a player’s overall impact on a team is the Goal Difference Added metric. Using a unique algorithm, we are able to quantify how much goal difference each player has generated per 90 minutes through their on-field actions.
Over the last 12 months, Sam Kerr sits comfortably in the Top 5 of Goal Difference Added in for players in the top tier on the platform. She only finds Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor, teammate Fran Kirby and PSG’s Marie-Antoinette Katoto ahead of her:
Kerr’s coaches, Emma Hayes of Chelsea and Tony Gustavsson of the Australian Women’s National Team, have both deemed Kerr to be “one of the best strikers in the world”. It’s not hard to see why.
With 40 goals and 17 assists for club and country in 2021, Kerr’s contract extension with Chelsea gives them one less thing to worry about. At 28, she still has a lot of years, goals and backflips in her. All of the attributes discussed above aggregate into making Sam Kerr one of the best strikers in the world.
Header image copyright IMAGO / Colorsport