Best of Three: How is Sam Kerr's injury affecting Chelsea?
Plus Manchester City's squad size and the development of the loan market
The Women’s Super League finally returned from its winter break this weekend with Chelsea keeping their hold on the top of the table thanks to a 3-1 win over Manchester United. Manchester City and Arsenal were also able to keep up the pace whilst Tottenham came out on top in a seven goal thriller with West Ham.
How is Sam Kerr’s injury affecting Chelsea?
Sunday’s match was obviously Chelsea’s first WSL game without Sam Kerr, after she ruptured her ACL on a pre-season training camp in Morocco. A lot of focus has been placed on how Chelsea adapt without her with conversations around the suitability of Lauren James to playing as a false 9 vs Mia Fishel’s readiness to step into the role. Chelsea’s reported move for Mayra Ramirez suggests they are not entirely happy with the options currently available to them.
But Kerr’s injury is affecting the team in other ways too. Hannah Hampton made only her second appearance for Chelsea in the game at Stamford Bridge with the 23 year old goalkeeper having seemingly been third choice for most of this season. Chelsea’s former no1 Ann-Katrin Berger has been left out of both of Chelsea’s squads in January despite warming up with the team, suggesting she is fit.
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After the match, manager Emma Hayes revealed that the decision to start Hampton was specifically linked to Kerr’s injury.
“I’ve made it clear that I want to build up [with the ball] better. Every goalkeeper has been given the opportunity to do that.”
“Without having a stretch nine, I knew [Manchester United] were going to be aggressive. So Hannah [Hampton] gave us a different option. Because without Sam [Kerr], who is able to run a little bit longer, we have to find a different way.”
“I knew we had to have composure in the deepest space and Hannah [Hampton] is the best goalkeeper at those things. And that was a decision I took in light of Sam [Kerr’s] injury and the fact that she’s the best build-up goalkeeper of the three of them.”
Hampton has long been lauded for her ability with her feet which is a big factor as to why she has proved so popular in the England set-up and it seems like right now that talent is worth the possible drop off in shot-stopping that has been present in her game in the past.
Is Manchester City’s squad big enough to last the title race?
It is hard to look past Manchester City as the form team in the WSL right now. The second placed side have scored an average of 4.2 goals per game over their last five matches and their surprise 1-0 loss to Brighton feels a long way back. Right now it feels like they are heavily benefiting from having an incredibly settled squad, with the front three of Lauren Hemp, Chloe Kelly and Bunny Shaw all flourishing. Shaw in particular feels unstoppable, scoring at a rate that means she is on course to break the single-season goals record of 22 set by both Vivianne Miedema and Rachel Daly. This is now the second proper season where they have all started together regularly and those relationships are really paying off.
What is interesting is how thin City’s squad actually is. With Julie Blakstad’s departure to Hammarby being announced this week and Deyna Castellanos rumoured to be heading to Bay FC, City only have 21 senior players in stark contrast to Chelsea and Arsenal who both have full squads. Players like Jess Park and Mary Fowler offer cover across the front three but Park has only featured for 120 minutes in the WSL this season whilst Fowler has not started a match since that Brighton loss in November. If City can keep all of Kelly, Hemp and Shaw fit for the rest of this season, it is impossible to look past them as having genuine shots at all three domestic competitions (although they do have to play Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round). But any kind of injuries could leave them in the lurch with Gareth Taylor seemingly reluctant to rotate.
Is the growth of the WSL going to affect the loan market?
Grace Clinton played a key role in Tottenham’s 4-3 win over West Ham with two goals and an assist further cementing her place as one of the stand out stars of the WSL season. Asked after the game whether Tottenham would be able to keep her, Robert Vilahamn was pessimistic about their chances and hinted that this is why he wanted to move away from using the loan system.
“I would be stupid to not want to keep her here. But she is a United player and I am developing their player, which I am happy for at the moment as we get to work with her.”
"In the future, we will not loan so many players, instead we will try to develop our own players. I am happy to work with Grace at the moment but she will go back there at the end of the season... Unless we find some way to sign her."
His answer reflects the way that the ambitious smaller clubs do not want just to act as feeder clubs to the top four, which is even more pertinent given that Tottenham and Manchester United are currently both on 18 points.
Teams like Chelsea and Manchester City in particular have benefited from their younger players going on WSL loans but it is notable that across both clubs, there is only one WSL loanee this year. That in itself is a unique situation given it is Brooke Aspin who Chelsea signed only to immediately loan back. As mid-table teams look to develop their own talent, bigger clubs might have to be more inventive as to how they bring their own players through.