'Kerrby': Inside the greatest strike partnership in English football right now

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Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr have been instrumental in Chelsea's success this season
Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr have been instrumental in Chelsea's success this season

Their telepathic partnership is so instinctive, Sam Kerr didn’t even need to look as she cut the ball back perfectly into Fran Kirby’s path for Chelsea’s second goal on Sunday. There wasn’t even a glance over her shoulder. Kerr knew exactly where her fellow 27-year-old strike partner would be. With 37 goals and 18 assists across the 22-game WSL season, the devastating duo dubbed ‘Kerrby’ are the most prolific partnership in English football right now.

Fittingly, the two combined for three of the goals that sealed the Women’s Super League title with a resounding 5-0 victory over Reading on Sunday. The trophy was held aloft by the team, in a season defined by the pair’s unstoppable goalscoring form.

Together they have been involved in more goals than anybody else in the WSL this term and - by some distance - set a new WSL record in setting each other up for 12 league goals. Only the partnerships of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min for Tottenham this season, and Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton’s title-winning efforts for Blackburn in 1994-95, according to Opta, have produced more goals in an English league season than Kerr and Kirby's 12 assists for each other this campaign. And that’s despite the men's Premier League playing a far greater number of games.

"How do you define chemistry between people?” asked Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, ahead of their Champions League quarter-final in March. “They are yin and yang - one goes one way, one goes the other. Some call it telepathy, some call it chemistry, some call it a brilliant partnership. For me, the thing that stands up is their selflessness. It is making runs or making decisions for someone else. The amount of times Fran has been in great positions herself and set someone else up, the amount of times Sam makes a run, if not for herself but to clear space, that for me is as impactful as the chemistry between them. They are the hardest things to get across to players - doing stuff for others - and those two understand it in their droves."

The pair had set the tone from their team's very first goal of the season, away at Manchester United in September, Kirby crossing low from the right for Kerr to turn home inside the six-yard box. It was the start of an unforgettable campaign, which would culminate in a stunning final two months. Indeed, since the start of March, Kerr and Kirby have scored 15 and 11 times respectively in all competitions.

But glance back to last season, and things looked very different. This time last year Kirby was struggling with a career-threatening viral illness, bed-ridden with an inflamed sac around her heart. Meanwhile, Kerr, whose hotly-anticipated signing had prompted the first ever paparazzi-style shot of a female player arriving at Heathrow with her suitcases, failed to dazzle for the best part of a pandemic-stricken year after making her debut against Reading in January 2020.

While the Australia star was trying to settle in England and find her rhythm in the WSL, Covid saw the latter stages of the 2020-21 WSL season called off and a rusty Kerr missed a hatful of chances in August’s curtain-raising Community Shield win at Wembley. By the time she had netted a hat-trick in a vital 3-2 win over West Ham United in December, however, her critics had been silenced. Meanwhile, fit-again Kirby has rediscovered the form of her life and in January scored four goals in a single game against Reading, whom one assumes would be happy never to face these two again.

For Kerr, whose off-the-ball movement and on-the-shoulder running is arguably without comparison anywhere across the world, there was a sense of redemption on Sunday as she was presented with the Golden Boot. Only the second player in the WSL’s 10-year era to exceed 20 goals in a season, after Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema netted 22 times in their title-winning season of 2019, this term, the Netherlands striker was three goals adrift of Kerr, whose 21 goals saw her score once every 73 minutes that she was on the pitch.

After Sunday’s win, as she held the Golden Boot award in her arms, Kerr told BBC Radio 5 live: “This probably means the most to me, out of all my Golden Boots, I feel a lot of people said I had to come to Europe to prove myself and here it is.

“[This team] is a dream come true, they’re amazing, I’m so proud to be part of this team. I’m just proud, happy, everything you can imagine. I’ll be enjoying this, don’t you worry, I’ve waited a long time for this [title] so we’ll enjoy it.” The award follows similar prizes in Australia and the United States, where she became the all-time record scorer in both country’s top divisions before her 2019 move to Chelsea.

As Kirby cheekily lobbed the ball into the box for Kerr to volley in Chelsea’s fourth of the afternoon at Kingsmeadow on Sunday, their confidence was flowing like the champagne that would follow at full-time. Lifting the WSL trophy with their team-mates, 'Kerrby' had scored a combined 52 goals in all competitions this term for their club, Kerr with 27 and Kirby with 25. In the league, they had scored 37 times in total, plus 18 assists.

Last season, Chelsea’s heroine was Lionesses striker Beth England, who deservedly picked up the PFA Player of the Year award after spearheading her club to a league and League Cup double. This year she has ended up playing more of a supporting role from the bench - albeit, the powerful finisher still managed to be involved in 15 WSL goals, including nine assists - and she was forced onto the sidelines after suffering concussion after a painful collision in March’s Women’s Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid.

Concussion protocols meant England had to watch on as Chelsea hit six goals past Bristol City in the League Cup final, in which Kerr netted a 49-minute hat-trick and Kirby also starred with two goals and four assists. In Hayes’ pre-match press conference last week, her thoughts turned to England, stating: “She has been a crucial player for us and had some setbacks this year. I genuinely believe we wouldn't have won the double last year without Beth, no way.”

When asked about 'Kerrby’s' mesmeric form on Sunday, manager Emma Hayes’ replied: “It’s no surprise, it’s been there the whole season, they [Kerr and Kirby have] been unbelievable, and I said to Beth this week it’s really difficult, because you guys always ask me questions all the time about Sam and Fran and she must be sick to death of hearing that, but last year Beth was such a huge contributor to why we were there. Today [Sunday] I didn’t take Beth off the bench, because I really wanted Sam to get the Golden Boot, which Beth is more than happy for her to do. But the fact that we’re producing 20+ goals in our strikers every season is the reason why we’re in the hunt for the title every year.”

Arsenal to sign Iwabuchi

Arsenal are closing in on the signing of Japan star Mana Iwabuchi, as they step up preparations for their return to Women's Champions League football next season after securing a top-three finish on Sunday.

Skillful deep-lying forward Iwabuchi, 28, was a World Cup winner with her country in 2011 and a World Cup finalist again in 2015. She has been with Arsenal's fellow-Women's Super League side Aston Villa since arriving in January, but the 5ft 1in former Bayern Munich star is said to have only been on a short-term deal with the West Midlands side.

She is understood to be poised to join Arsenal this summer as a replacement for Netherlands international Jill Roord, whose transfer to German side Wolfsburg was announced on Monday morning. Iwabuchi could be reunited with former Bayern team-mates in Arsenal's Vivianne Miedema and Lisa Evans.

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