Fran’s 50: Kirby Hits a WSL Landmark
Last weekend Fran Kirby became just the third player in WSL history to score 50 goals. We delve into the data to see what makes her such a special talent.
When Chelsea signed Fran Kirby from Reading back in 2015, it marked their emergence at the top table of women’s football in England. The switch came at a time where interest in women’s football was piquing, and the race to sign Reading’s star forward was one of the first women’s transfer sagas to capture the attention of the media.
With Kirby’s signature secured, the cup-tied player sat in the stands as Chelsea won their first piece of major silverware, the 2015 FA Cup, at Wembley. A new chapter had opened for the London club.
Since then, Chelsea and Kirby have gone on to win eight major honours together with Kirby becoming Chelsea’s all-time top scorer in December 2020. She joined a high-profile list at the weekend by scoring her 50th goal in the WSL, becoming only the third player to reach the half-century, joining Ellen White and Vivianne Miedema as one of the most prolific scorers the league has ever seen. This is how she has done it.
The Journey to 50
Fran Kirby only took eleven minutes to score her first goal for Chelsea, coming off the bench to add a fourth to Chelsea’s tally against Birmingham City. With her third and fourth goal for the club, she helped secure them their first league title as they beat Sunderland 4-0 in 2015. Her goals have gone on to help Chelsea to wins against Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United.
Her journey to 50 was interrupted when she missed the vast majority of the 2019-20 season due to a diagnosis of pericarditis, which she thought might lead her to never playing football again. But she returned to the Chelsea side in startling form, scoring 16 goals in the 2020-21 campaign – the most she had ever managed in a single season.
Part of why Kirby has been able to reach 50 goals, despite spending a large amount of time on the sidelines, is how economical she is when it comes to scoring. Her 50 goals have come in only 52 WSL starts, and she scores a goal, on average, every 102 minutes on the pitch. Of players with more than 30 WSL goals, only Miedema scores more frequently.
Of her half-century of goals, only two have come from the penalty spot, whilst she has scored 32 with her right foot, 13 with her left, and somewhat surprisingly, five with her head. Given that she is one of the shortest players in the WSL, she has been remarkably successful at going undetected when it comes to heading in goals, demonstrating just how good her movement is in the box.
She is also one of only three players to score four or more goals in a single game, doing so against her former club Reading last season, joining only Vivianne Miedema and Bethany England in that exclusive club within the WSL.
Reading are just one of a couple of teams who Kirby seems to relish playing against. She scored her fastest hat-trick against them, requiring only 31 minutes to put three past Grace Moloney. Only against Bristol City has she been more prolific in the WSL, with the recently relegated Robbins conceding nine goals to the Chelsea star over the years.
Kirby stands out from Miedema and White in reaching 50 goals because she does not play as a traditional striker for Chelsea. Her role is a lot more creative, having been used as a 10, off the right, or in a front two. Regardless of where she plays on the pitch, Kirby is always central to Chelsea’s attacking play, whether in the build-up or finishing.
She is ruthlessly efficient in front of goal. When it comes to shot conversion rate, Kirby scores 23.4% of her shots. For players who have scored more than 30 goals in the WSL, only Kim Little has done better (24%).
She also excels at turning seemingly low-quality opportunities into goals. Last season Kirby scored a career high of 16 goals in a single season, from an expected goals total of 7.1. No player has ever outperformed their xG total across a season in the WSL by more. She’s not traditionally been a significant over-performer of expected goals, so we can probably expect her hot streak to tail off a bit this season, although having scored twice in Chelsea’s opening three games, it is not currently showing any signs of fading.
The Perfect Partnership
Kirby’s peak form last season came alongside Chelsea’s top scorer Sam Kerr. Kerr was initially signed whilst Kirby was out of the side with pericarditis, and she has admitted that she feared that Kerr was there to replace her. Instead, the duo have formed an almost telepathic connection which Chelsea boss Emma Hayes has compared to Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
Kerr has assisted Kirby more often (6) than any other Chelsea player has in the WSL. Kirby returned the favour too, with the two players combining to create 12 goals for one another in the WSL in 2020-21, breaking the record of eight previously set by Beth Mead and Miedema in 2018-19. Their connection has continued this year, combining for three goals already in 2021-22 – including fittingly Kirby’s 50th goal – all coming in Chelsea’s 6-1 win against Manchester United last weekend.
Kirby has long been recognised as one of the most talented players in the Women’s Super League and her inclusion in the ‘Fifty Club’ is simply more evidence of the impact she has had on the game. With Chelsea looking set to continue their attacking dominance this season – no team has scored more goals in their opening three games – there is no doubt that she will be adding to her total and reaching a new landmark in the future.