Chelsea’s James vs. Man City’s Shaw is a WSL clash of titans

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It will be a battle of first vs. second as Chelsea host Manchester City on Friday night, and a win for either would strike a firm blow in the Women’s Super League title race. Although both teams boast a wealth of riches across the pitch — such as midfield maestros Erin Cuthbert and Yui Hasegawa — the main focus will be the league’s leading goal scorers, who are battling out for this season’s Golden Boot: Khadija “Bunny” Shaw and Lauren James.

Coming into the game, the pair have 13 and 12 goals in the league respectively, despite operating in very different roles and attacking formations at their clubs.

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The stats show that Shaw is more of a traditional centre-forward; she has fewer defensive actions and completed passes, but her goal return and Expected Goals (xG) are among the top percentiles in the league. Boasting an xG of 0.75 per game and a total xG of 7.4 (to her 13 goals), it’s clear the Jamaica striker is thriving this season and that is in no small part down to how City set up to feed her the ball. Indeed, Shaw is in such strong goal-scoring form, she’s even bettering Manchester City’s male counterpart Erling Haaland over 90 minutes: scoring 1.31 goals to Haaland’s 0.97.

At 6-foot tall, it’s no surprise that Shaw has contributed six goals with her head this season and 11 of her goals have come from inside the box. Indeed, in the past, the 27-year-old has spoken about relishing attacking duels, more than happy to oblige if defenders want to engage her in physical tussles.

Conversely, James plays primarily as a roving No. 10 in a team that has an ethos of defending from the front. Involved in almost three times as many tackles as Shaw (and with just under four times as many tackles won), the England forward has both the best dribbling numbers and most shots on target of any Chelsea player. On paper, James is a classic No. 10, at her best when she can float around, and this is by far her most profitable season so far in the WSL — with nine of her 12 goals having come on home soil.

One of the issues the 22-year-old has had over the years at both Manchester United and Chelsea, injuries aside, is a propensity to fade in and out of games. She can be electric in some, but almost anonymous in others. This season we have seen more consistency and she seems to be more prepared for the big occasions.

Unlike Shaw, who has a set position as a centre-forward between wingers Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp in a regular starting XI at City, James has been asked to deputise in an unfamiliar role as a No. 9 striker at points this season due to Sam Kerr‘s ACL injury. With Mia Fishel set to be away at the Gold Cup with the United States Women’s National Team, we may even see James shifted back there during games. And, although she has drawn plaudits for her performances, it’s clear that unencumbered role as a No. 10 is where she is at her best and most comfortable, giving her the freedom to roam and allowing her to break into the box when she wishes.

James’ natural understanding and ability on the ball have drawn high praise from manager Emma Hayes, who said last month: “I’ve never seen a player like Lauren do the things she does individually. If you get tight to her, she’ll roll you, if you drop off her … next time she makes a move you think you’ve got her, she’s so explosive.”

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As it has been with James, Shaw’s football intelligence should also be lauded. She’s far more than a goal poacher; her anticipation and ability to read the game means she often takes the best option to scoring or creating a goal. Her understanding of how her teammates like to play is what has made her so potent for City this season: where to be, when to shoot, where to move or pass.

There is a clear benefit from having a player like Kelly playing on her right. For the second season running, the England attacker leads the league in chance creation (38), as well as crosses (133) so far this term — almost 50 more than the second on the list, Man United’s Katie Zelem.

James and Shaw are different players who do different things in different teams, and although both are top of the goal-scoring charts and both overperforming their xG they attack the game in different ways.

The title might not be decided at Kingsmeadow on Friday night, while both superstars might not even end up on the scoresheet — Shaw, for all her goal-scoring prowess, has failed to score in her four previous outings against the Blues — but both will make their presence felt and will impact the game as they have done all season. The WSL’s most in-form attackers will relish the competition and have a chance to lay down a marker for the Golden Boot.

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