There was a lot expected of Manchester City entering this season. With a squad packed with internationals, a number of whom had participated in the Olympics, as well as the addition of a few high caliber players in the offseason some thought this could be City’s year to regain the Women’s Super League crown.
Those prospects dimmed again last weekend with defeat at the hands of Arsenal. No team has ever won the FA WSL with more than two losses in the same campaign. Last season’s winner Chelsea only dropped nine possible points overall. The loss to the Gunners was City’s second of this WSL campaign, after falling 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspurs in their second match.
It also continues City’s dubious start to the 2021-22 season. The Mancunians crashed out of Champions League qualification in the second round of qualifiers after losing on aggregate to Real Madrid. This means the club will not have any European play this year.
To be fair to City, they have had a number of players out with injury to start the season. Head coach Gareth Taylor called his squad a “wounded animal” prior to the Arsenal match, when asked about opposition teams wanting to capitalize on City’s current predicament.
For last weekend’s game Taylor had Steph Houghton, Karen Bardsley, Lucy Bronze, Ellie Roebuck, Keira Walsh, Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan and Hayley Raso unavailable. This forced Taylor to incorporate newly signed players and converted players into important positions. The central defensive pairing of Alanna Kennedy and Alex Greenwood, both unfamiliar with each other, showed a lack of cohesion which Arsenal were able to capitalize on.
What made last weekend’s loss even more worrisome was the magnitude of it. A 5-0 loss is massive for any club, especially one with the pedigree and investment of City. While City were able to gain the majority of the possession, their final touch was ineffectual. Combined with defensive errors, Arsenal were able to efficiently take advantage of City on a number of occasions and easily get the win.
The large amount of players away at the Olympics was the reason stated for the inability to play any pre-season matches. Taylor said to Sky Football after the loss to Arsenal last weekend that a review will be held by the club into the women’s team’s lack pre-season preparations and the many factors contributed to this:
“We were impaired, obviously, by the Olympics and when it would it was kind of finishing and what schedule looked like, you know, and what players left the club, what players were joining, the size of our squad, there were so many factors that go into it.”
This explanation and its excuses though is not consistent to the experience of other clubs. WSL opponents Chelsea and Arsenal managed to pull off pre-season preparations despite having nearly as many players missing due to Tokyo 2020. They also each had player turnover during the off-season. In turn, both have started their seasons looking significantly more match sharp than Manchester City.
Part of the strategy used by these two WSL opponents was incorporating a large number of academy players into pre-season games to make up the numbers. Taylor had chosen not to go that route, stating that the gap between the academy and first team was to big, and thus sacrificing a pre-season schedule in the process.
This is a trend the head coach has carried into the 2021-22 campaign. Speaking ahead of his mid-week FA Cup match, where combined with injuries City also two players ineligible to participate in the competition, Taylor spoke of his continued non-selection of academy players:
“Our academy players are not even training close to our programme, so it’s very difficult to kind of thrust someone in at short notice, so we’ll go with what we have and we’ll make the best of it.”
Manchester City entered their FA Cup clash against Leicester on Wednesday with four players on the bench. All substitutes were utilized with the exception of backup goalkeeper Khiera Keating. In a rare positive turn this year for Taylor, it was a gamble that did not adversely affect City’s outcome.
As they had in the previous weekend’s game, they dominated possession. This match though they were able to convert chances into goals. New signing Vicky Losada broke the deadlock in the first half. A hat-trick by Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw in the second half alongside goals from Alex Greenwood and Filipa Angeldahl contributed to the final 6-0 scoreline.
For the first time since their WSL season opener, the Mancunian side were able to pull off a decisive, convincing win. Despite fielding forwards Georgia Stanway and Janine Beckie as full-backs and Jill Scott as a centre-back, the team were also able to keep a clean sheet.
Whether this progression to the FA Women’s Cup semi-final is enough to uplift the team and remove pressure on Gareth Taylor will be seen. Arguably though, it is not enough to ease worries currently surrounding the side and their manager.
A number of City’s players are out with long term injuries, meaning injury problems will not be alleviated anytime soon.
Currently eight in the WSL, Manchester City have only beaten teams currently ranked lower than them in the ladder. If Taylor and his side cannot keep the momentum of Wednesday’s win going, then it will not only be questions that will need to be answered. It will be time for heads to roll, regardless of the outcome of the City review.