Making sense of what could be a confusing Women’s FA Cup final

Vitality FA Cup trophy

For a variety of reasons, Chloe Kelly probably didn’t imagine that she could be lining up against Everton in the FA Cup final on Sunday. 

For one, it will be November; for two, the teams in the final had to beat Chelsea on one side and Arsenal on the other to get here; for three, she started the competition ten months ago playing for the Toffees she’ll now be trying to beat.

22-year-old Kelly might not be the match-winner in the delayed closing match of the 2019/20 season, but she’ll be a neat narrative hook. For Everton that league season she scored nine goals, fourth-highest in the division, got one assist, and generally had the kind of year that has one of the big teams knocking at the door.

Chloe Kelly's shot map in the 2019-2020 Women's Super League season, showing eight of her nine league goals
*excluding penalties and direct set-pieces, including the corner scored direct against Reading

Besides Kelly, only one Everton player (Lucy Graham — 4) scored more than one WSL goal last season, and so the young winger’s departure raised interesting questions about how the Merseyside team would fare without her. 

Yet, after five games, they have 13 points, sit second in the table, and are three places ahead of Sunday’s opponents. If Kelly wouldn’t have expected to be playing Everton in an early November FA Cup final, she also wouldn’t have expected her new club — with their six domestic trophies in five years — to be lingering below her old club in the league.

Why Manchester City, who were last season’s league runners-up on points per game, only have eight points from a possible 15 is interesting. Manager Gareth Taylor was appointed in May after the departure of long-time gaffer Nick Cushing, who was spirited away to the New York part of the City Football Group.

The return of England star Lucy Bronze and the loan arrivals of World Cup winners Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle couldn’t prevent draws against Brighton and Reading and a heavy 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in the league, although they impressed in the semi-final victory over Arsenal. With a new manager and disappointing results, ‘stuttering’ has been a common word to describe their form.

However, they’ve created plenty of chances. In the draws against Brighton and Reading, where they scored just one goal, City squandered numerous good opportunities (coloured red and orange in the below shot map).

Manchester City's shot map against Brighton and Reading, with a number of good chances from around 8-10 yards out being missed

Yet at the same time, the club have an odd situation with their central strikers — or, perhaps, ‘striker’ singular. 

Pauline Bremer — who scored ten goals in the league last season — left over the summer, leaving City with just Ellen White in that position (although others can fill in). ‘Just’ Ellen White is a bit unfair to the England international and 2019 World Cup joint-top scorer, yet she’s only averaging 1.6 shots per game in the 2020/21 WSL. There are four City players (one of them Chloe Kelly) that have played at least two full matches’ worth of minutes and averaged a higher rate of shots. 

This might not necessarily be a problem in the modern game, where strikers like Roberto Firmino are leading the way for more well-rounded forwards. White, however, is not typically one of them. She does shots more than link-up play. Her average passes attempted per 90 in the league this season is just below 16; like with shots, four teammates have averaged more shot assists per 90.

Ellen White's fairly sparse pass map in the 2020-2021 Women's Super League season
2020/21 WSL season

How should City fans take this, going into the FA Cup final and the rest of the 2020/21 season beyond? On one hand, their only experienced central striker is being out-shot and out-created by the rest of the attack. On the other, they’d probably have four extra points without a rough patch of finishing.

Everton fans have a slightly reversed set of questions to consider. They’ve started the season tremendously, but they’ve out-scored their expected goals figures to a noticeable extent. Intriguingly, a mass of their league goals have also clustered around the right-hand post region.

Everton shot map for the 2020-2021 Women's Super League

With all of this in mind, a key to Sunday’s match will be whether these finishing streaks keep up. Both teams have conceded about as many goals as expected goals, so it’s all about the attack. The two sides even have very similar team shapes (the 20 most-common passing combinations are shown and the five most-common passing combinations are highlighted).

Everton and Manchester City passing networks for the 2020-2021 Women's Super League season; both have traditional 4-3-3 shapes

The ‘magic of the Cup’ is that anything can happen in any given match; the magic of this season is that Everton, the ‘underdogs’, are performing just as well as the favourites. Wembley, at 14:30 on Sunday, will be an appropriate setting for what should be an exciting and unpredictable clash.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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