Can Chelsea’s attacking trident give them the Champions League title?

Sam Kerr, Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder of Chelsea Women.

Three world-class players lead Chelsea from the front, but is that attacking trident enough for the Blues to find European glory?

During the 2017/18 season, Chelsea dominated domestic football and ended up winning the double. From there, few would have thought the following season would become a struggle for the Blues. Yet, they finished third in the table and missed out on the Champions League for the 2019/20 season. 

While the 2019/20 domestic season was cut short and decided via points-per-game (PPG) due to Covid-19, Chelsea showed that they were not happy about the previous year’s performance. They were once again crowned Women’s Super League champions and qualified for the next year’s Champions League.

Ahead of the current UWCL season, Chelsea have been up there to compete with the best teams in Europe. In the 2017/18 campaign, they were knocked out by German titleholders Wolfsburg in the semi-finals. This was followed by a narrow defeat against multi-year champions Lyon in another semi-final the next season. 

So, what are the differences from the season Chelsea themselves might want to forget about and now? And, can the Blues already go all the way this season and win the Champions League?

Fran Kirby

First, Fran Kirby has been a key player for Chelsea throughout the years. Based on her recent performances, Kirby is a central attacking midfielder who is good at finding space between the lines. Her decision-making is quick. An example of this is that she often tries to make a key pass to a teammate right after meeting the ball.

Kirby has scored 11 WSL goals this season while playing 13 games. Back in 2018/19, she played 16 games and scored nine goals. Yet, there are still six rounds left to play this season.

In total this season, Kirby has scored 15 goals in all competitions and has made seven assists. As a world-class player even before this season, she is on track to having the season of her career.

Before this season, Kirby mostly operated as a centre-forward and an attacking midfielder in the central parts according to her heat map. This change in positioning has certainly impacted her productivity on the pitch.

Fran Kirby's 2018/19 heat map.
Fran Kirby’s heat map during the 2018/2019 season. (Photo by WyScout)
Fran Kirby's heat map.
Fran Kirby’s heat map during the 2020/21 season where we have mostly seen her operate on the right-hand side of the Chelsea attack. (Photo by WyScout)

With Australian striker Sam Kerr joining the Blues as well as Danish attacker Pernille Harder, Chelsea’s attack has started to take a form that delivers the extra bit and parts that one might have thought was missing from the 2018/19 season. Chelsea scored 46 goals in total that season in the league. The current season already has 47 goals to their tally.

Attacking play

Chelsea start their buildup play from the back, and even here we can see differences. The stats tell us that skipper and centre-back Magdalena Eriksson has played a greater part to get the ball moving forward this season. Chelsea play with more connection from the back up to the front. 

Without taking anything away from every single player in the team, in a squad that has more depth than perhaps any other of the WSL teams, the attacking trident of Kerr, Harder and Kirby has led the way for the Blues in many crucial games so far. In total through all competitions, the numbers speak for themselves.  

Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder

The Aussie has scored 13 goals and has made four assists in all competitions so far. She is described as a mobile centre-forward, effective in passing through oncoming motion from the goal. She manages to move back towards the goal quickly, too.

Kerr is extremely dangerous in proactive plays and lob pass receptions behind opposition backs. But more than ever when Chelsea were down to ten players in the first leg of the Round of 16, she showed her quality when moving from wide to central areas on either side of the field, to drop and act as a hold-up player. 

Sam Kerr's heat map in the first leg against Atletico Madrid.
Sam Kerr’s heat map vs Ateltico Madrid first leg. (Photo by WyScout)

Naturally, Chelsea’s defensive play had to kick up a notch after Sophie Ingle was shown a red card in the 12th minute. And what was more even unexpected perhaps, was the fact that Chelsea managed to win the first leg 2-0 despite two penalties given to Atletico.

Kerr and Harder were both involved in more duels than any other Chelsea player on the pitch at Kingsmeadow last week. Harder attempted 33, of which she completed 14 and Kerr attempted 32, winning 19 of them. Defensively, Harder was involved in more duels than any of the Blues’ defenders (12) winning five of them. Kerr attempted three duels and was successful in two.

Yet these two played a huge part in the two goals Chelsea scored to win this game. Kerr, with her running ability, managed to give Chelsea a penalty for the first goal. For the second, when Harder had made a move up on the pitch on the left-hand side of the pitch quite far outside the Atletico box to serve Kerr, who had ran inside the box on the right-hand side, with an accurate cross.

That cross ended up perfectly at Kerr’s feet who just put the ball into the central parts of the box for Kirby who took a shot and scored. 

Attacking prowess

Harder has 11 goals and four assists for the season in all competitions. She is an attacking midfielder with great mobility and always makes herself available in the build up phase.

Due to this, she is also able to provide cover for teammates quickly. She is able to reach the opponent’s half coming from deep, as well as being uncompromising in counter-pressing.

Pernille Harder’s heat map vs Ateltico Madrid first leg. (Photo by WyScout)

It’s obvious, after the first leg vs Atletico, that it’s no question for all of the Chelsea players to take one for the team. What is also obvious is that the Blues’ fluidity and flexibility in attack, their determination and strong winning mentality in the defence along with every single player’s knowledge of which part each one of them were playing and contributing, gave Chelsea a clear advantage ahead of the away game on Wednesday.  

How far will it take the Blues?

To win games and titles you have to score goals. What was missing in the 2018/19 season was just that.

Chelsea sit top of the WSL table, they’re now back in the Champions League and on Sunday they play the Continental Cup final vs Bristol City. 

Chelsea’s ‘new’ attacking trident have contributed with 39 goals so far this season in collaboration with each other. Three world-class players with both similar and different skills, helping each other to be the best they can for their team to win. Three players as a champion unit within a team full of champion players.

This trident unit on paper and with their performances so far, should be able to compete to become one of Europe’s best.

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