Absurd numbers behind Australia’s best comeback story

WATCH: Dub Zone discusses Michelle Heyman's case to be selected in the Matildas' squad for the Olympics.

At age 35 after six years in international retirement, Canberra United striker Michelle Heyman has made a hugely successful return to the Matildas on the back of her form in the Liberty A-League. This is the data that shows why she had to be selected.

At 35, Michelle Heyman could be forgiven for slowing down. 

Instead, Canberra United’s leading lady has scored 13 goals in the 2023-24 Isuzu UTE A-League Women season – her second highest total in a single campaign, behind the 15 she scored way back in 2011-12.

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Heyman retired from international football in 2019, bringing an end to a nine-year Matildas career. Yet in 2024, in the midst of her strongest campaign of a late-career renaissance, the striker made her return to the international scene in place of the injured Sam Kerr.

And she returned in emphatic fashion, netting five goals across two appearances against Uzbekistan in qualifying for the 2024 Olympics, including scoring four in the first half of a 10-0 rout last week that sealed the Matildas’ place in Paris.

“The job description for me as a forward is to get in the box and score goals,” Heyman told reporters after that four-goal haul. 

“The support I’ve had is just incredible. It allows me to just play and have fun and be free – as a forward you don’t want to have too many restrictions on yourself, you want to get out there and do what you are there to do.”

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Heyman has certainly been fulfilling the job description this term. 

She is two goals clear of the Liberty A-League’s second-highest scorer Sarina Bolden, who has netted 11 goals in 13 appearances for Newcastle Jets. 

Heyman’s tally of 13 from 17 games is a total that has been bettered only four times in the history of the competition – Sam Kerr (17 in 2018-19), Heyman herself (15 in 2011-12), Hannah Wilkinson (14 in 2021-22) and Hannah Keane (14 in 2022-23) – and Canberra United still have six matches to play.

A-League Women – Most Goals in a Season
Sam Kerr2018/201917
Michelle Heyman2011/201215
Hannah Wilkinson2021/202214
Hannah Keane2022/202314
Fiona Worts2021/202213
Kate Gill201413
Sam Kerr2017/201813
Michelle Heyman2023/202413
Emily Gielnik2020/202113

The veteran forward is outperforming her 8.98 expected goals by 4.02, evidencing the quality of her finishing. 

Still, her xG total is the second-most she has accumulated in a single season since Opta began collecting such data in the 2017-18 campaign, after a figure of 9.71 last term.

But this exceptional form is nothing new. Since the start of the 2020-21 season, Heyman has netted 44 goals in 61 league matches.

Her shot conversion rate of 30% is Heyman’s best since Opta began tracking Liberty A-League data at the start of 2016-17, while she has recorded her second-best shooting accuracy (58%, which trails only the 59% she managed in 2021-22).

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Heyman has converted nine of 17 big chances to have come her way (53%). 

Across the past seven league campaigns, only twice has she had a better big-chance conversion rate – 57% in 2018-19 and 62% in 2022-23.

It is not just goalscoring, though. Heyman has provided five assists from 20 chances created this season – her highest total of assists since the start of 2016-17.

Her recall to the national team came after a season-ending injury for Kerr, though frankly, Heyman’s club form since her retirement in May 2019 should be enough alone to make her a surefire pick.

Between her previous appearance for Australia back in November 2018 and this weekend just gone, Heyman has netted 45 A-League goals – 15 more than any other player in that time. 

The former Adelaide United attacker has had 250 shots, with Princess Ibini (203) the only other player to have over 200 in the same timeframe, while no player can match Heyman’s 105 attempts on target or her 34.71 xG. Only Wilkinson (21%) has a better shot conversion rate, meanwhile, than Heyman’s 18%.

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But, how do Heyman’s numbers stack up when compared to the other over-30s plying their trade in two of Europe’s biggest leagues – the WSL and French Feminine Division 1? 

The answer is… pretty well.

Heyman has scored more league goals this term than Aston Villa’s Rachel Daly (six), Manchester United’s Rachel Williams (five), West Ham’s Viviane Asseyi (six), Lyon’s Eugenie Le Sommer (nine), Paris FC’s Gaetane Thiney (seven) and Lille’s Julie Rabanne (five), with only Daly (48) mustering more shots than Heyman (44), who also has the highest shot conversion rate.

And what about her compatriots? As mentioned, Kerr’s campaign has been derailed by that serious ACL injury, with the Chelsea star having netted four times in eight WSL appearances prior to her season coming to a premature end. Caitlin Foord, meanwhile, has scored four goals in 15 games for Arsenal, with Heyman ahead of both of her fellow Australians for chances created (20 to Foord’s 16 and Kerr’s 13).

Kerr looks unlikely to be fit in time to have a stab at Olympic gold with the Matildas in Paris, but Heyman could be the player that takes up the mantle.

Kerr’s best A-League campaign came for Perth Glory in 2018-19, in which she scored 17 goals in 13 appearances, outperforming her 13.9 xG and providing four assists. 

With time still left in the 2023-24 season, Heyman is well on course to better Kerr’s tally, and is already ahead of the superstar for shot conversion rate (30% to 21%).

“It’s been a very emotional roller coaster,” Heyman said after that thrashing of Uzbekistan. 

“I’ve been pushing so hard to try and get back into the squad. And as soon as I got the email to say that you’re back in, I’m not letting it go.

“It’s just been a long and a hard journey, but it’s been so rewarding because it’s worth so much more this time around, because of the hard work I’ve actually put in to get to where I am today.”

That hard work is more than paying off, and there is plenty of proof that age really is just a number.

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