After a third successive Barclays FA Women’s Super League defeat on Sunday, Manchester City Women manager Gareth Taylor summarised his feelings to the club’s website: “I’m not feeling great if I’m honest. We are in a tough moment, we really are.”
It’s a more than accurate assessment. The stats make for painful reading too – never before have Man City lost three successive games since joining the Women’s Super League and have only won twice this season in all competitions.
City currently sit ninth in the WSL table, already nine points behind joint leaders Arsenal and Tottenham and six behind current champions Chelsea. Only Leicester, Birmingham and Reading – who are yet to win any points – sit below Taylor’s side.
The season began with a sense of optimism. Man City had missed out on the Women’s Super League title by two points – named runners-up for a fourth successive season – and reached the Champions League quarter-finals. The aim this year was to go that step further and claim those big titles.
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A 1-1 draw against a newly-formed Real Madrid Women in their Champions League qualifier in August put them in a good position heading into the home second leg. They then swept Everton aside with a 4-0 win in their opening WSL game.
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But soon, things began to unravel. They were shocked 1-0 by Real Madrid in the second leg, knocked out of the Champions League before the group stages. Then, successive league defeats to Arsenal and Tottenham, with a 5-0 loss away to the Gunners their heaviest ever defeat since becoming a professional club.
Taylor said after the game: “It’s a difficult one to take. We’re in a difficult moment – there’s no doubt – but we have to fight and we will fight… It’s way too early [to count City out of the title race] but it’s not great.”
There was a moment of relief when City thrashed Leicester 6-0 in the FA Cup quarter-finals last week – setting up a home tie with Chelsea – but they slumped again to defeat, losing 2-0 against West Ham on Sunday to extend a painful run of results and increase the pressure on Taylor.
Highlights of the Women’s Super League clash between Man City and West Ham
It’s pretty easy to find the source of their recent troubles – City have had numerous persistent injury issues, which has led to difficulties at both ends of the pitch.
Sky Sports News pundit and WSL co-commentator Sue Smith said: “None of us are used to seeing Man City where they are in the table, we’re not used to seeing them lose games, especially against teams you’d expect them to beat, like Tottenham and West Ham, then getting well and truly beaten by Arsenal.
“It’s something that we’re not used to and that’s because of the bar Man City have set. They’re always competing at the top of the table, they’re always competing in the cups, they’ll be looking to get into the Champions League.
“The investment that the club have put into the women’s side and the players that they’ve got, they should be, so it’s been a really disappointing start to the season.
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“But I think to back Man City up, we have to talk about their injuries and to key players. The missing players would probably get into most WSL sides.
“You’re also seeing mistakes from players you don’t usually see them from, like Demi Stokes against West Ham, so you’re wondering if maybe their confidence is getting hit now. I’m sure it must be, it’s difficult because you have to learn how to deal with getting beaten because you’re not used to that and I’m sure the players are doing that.
“They need to get those injured players back quickly, not just for what they bring on the pitch but also what they bring off it. When you’ve got players who are leaders and big voices in the dressing room, when they’re not there anymore, you do miss something. You feel like those sorts of players, if they had been available and on the pitch, that 5-0 defeat to Arsenal wouldn’t have happened.”
As Smith eludes to, Man City’s list of absentees already this season would make a formidable starting XI – just for context, City had 10 unavailable players for the defeat to Arsenal. Regular No 1 Ellie Roebuck is currently sidelined, as is her back-up, Karen Bardsley. City captain Steph Houghton is also missing, as well as recent Best FIFA Women’s Player recipient Lucy Bronze, who had surgery on a knee injury in the summer.
Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan, Keira Walsh, Demi Stokes, plus summer arrivals Vicki Losada, Alanna Kennedy and Ruby Mace have all been in and out of contention, just to name a few. The sheer volume and quality of the missing players is enough to hamstring even the best of sides.
Sky Sports’ lead WSL pundit Karen Carney explained: “They have had a lot of injuries to first-team players and I don’t think this has been spoken about enough. Any other team in the league that has had these injuries would be feeling it too. City have a big squad, but if Chelsea or Arsenal had 10 plus key players out, they would notice it.
“I would also argue that their squad last year was stronger. That’s no disrespect to the current signings, but you are missing Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle wasn’t used enough, Abby Dahlkemper was another big one and these are world-class players who I felt improved City last season.”
City’s current injury crisis – although more widespread – is comparative to the defensive problems Liverpool men’s side had last season. In the space of a few weeks, they lost their two first-choice centre-backs in Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez to season-long injuries. Joel Matip was also in and out of the side with injury – leaving Jurgen Klopp without any recognised senior centre-backs at one point – with midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson being deployed at centre-back throughout the season.
Taylor has had to be creative with the players at his disposal too. Against Leicester, forwards Janine Beckie and Georgia Stanway, plus midfielder Jill Scott, lined up in a makeshift defense alongside Alex Greenwood. Beckie and Scott were again deployed in the back line to face West Ham, but unlike the FA Cup match, were not able to keep a clean sheet. Taylor also named just four substitutes for the Hammers defeat, using three.
Georgia Stanway is one of the City players being asked to play out of position at the moment
Smith said: “I was a left-winger or a No 10, so I played in a more attacking position, but often within a game, my left-back might get forward and I might have to fill in, but I’m trying to get out of that as soon as possible.
“You can do it and you can do a job for five or 10 minutes, but it’s not your position, it doesn’t feel natural to you. I think if they’d asked me to play centre-half, I wouldn’t have even known where to start.
“But Jill has got the quality in terms of being good in the air, she’s good on the ball, she reads the game well, she’s good at tackling, so she’s got the attributes to go in and fill in that position. She’s such a pro that she would do that and she’s done really well, but it must be hard for her because she has to suddenly adapt to a new position that, as far as I know, she’s never played in before.
“She’s got Alex Greenwood alongside her, who can play there and is very good there, but is naturally a left-back. If she’s maybe got someone alongside her like Steph Houghton, then you can maybe say she would help her out and talk her through it, but you’ve got two players who, naturally, it isn’t their position, so it’s difficult for them.
“But when it’s a bit of a crisis like this, you have to do whatever it takes for the team.”
The defensive impact shows in the numbers too. City rank bottom of the league for total tackles and interceptions, as well as low for headed clearances and challenges lost. On the other side, they rank high for shots conceded both inside and outside the box, as well as aerial duels lost.
“You can be an intelligent player and know the role and to be fair, those that filled in did their job for the team,” Carney added. “But the bottom line is, when you are specialised in an area, that is your unique selling point and your strength. You want to be playing in those positions that you are familiar with, or why else would you be there in the first place?”
With a depleted defence, City’s attacking options have remained pretty consistent in comparison. They rank fifth for shots and second for shots on target. They’ve also completed the second-highest number of take-ons, with respectable numbers for chances created too.
But they have been guilty of not taking their chances and that was evident against West Ham. Ellen White had a goal ruled out for offside on Sunday – with no VAR in the Women’s Super League to check for accuracy – and Laura Coombs also struck the post.
“Regardless of injuries and player availability, I thought we had enough to win the game and we didn’t,” Taylor continued to say after the game.
“It was one of those games where everything went against us… I suppose the only consolation is the amount of opportunities we had – the goalkeeper had a lot of saves to make so we had final actions rather than moments. It will get better, it will. We have to take responsibility and finish our chances off.”
“There has been a lack of clinical edge and missing players”, Carney said. “They don’t seem to have gelled that well and I see more of a disconnect in the final third from City, which I have never really worried about before.
“At the start of the season and throughout really, they have dominated teams, but have not been clinical. This has allowed other teams to get back in the game or go on to win, so there is something lacking there.”
There has been a mark of controversy too. City’s defeat to Tottenham was their first league defeat at the Academy Stadium since April 2018, but it attracted headlines when the ball appeared to hit Rosella Ayane’s hand before being inadvertently turned home by City’s third-choice goalkeeper Karima Benameur Taieb.
As with White’s offside, there was no VAR to reprieve City, seeing them miss out on vital points once again. In a league with only 22 games, the minute details and close results are magnified even more.
“Some would argue that they’ve still got a good enough side to compete,” Smith added. “I looked at their team against Arsenal and they had a weak bench, but the XI that was out on the pitch, it was a decent team and they should have done better.
“But in the Spurs and West Ham games, they dominated possession and created chances, especially against Spurs in the first half, they created so many opportunities and they couldn’t score.
Highlights of Tottenham’s 2-1 win over Manchester City in the WSL
“In women’s football, if you lose three games, it sounds strange to say, I don’t think they’ll win the title now and I think most people would say the same. With the quality of Arsenal and Chelsea, I can’t see them dropping points to the likes of West Ham and Tottenham. I hope they prove me wrong and it becomes a three- or four-team race, but you see Arsenal and Chelsea running away with it now.”
Put all of these factors together and you come out with a really difficult and frustrating time for Taylor and City. While every side goes through injury spells, being without half of your regular starting XI is something that tests even the best teams. It’s true that City have incredible depth overall, but at the moment, Taylor is struggling to name a complete matchday squad.
“Gareth Taylor will be feeling a lot of pressure right now,” Smith said. “But he is a good manager, he’s a good coach and he’s somebody that will be doing everything in his power to turn this around. It’s not a thing you can try and coach or work out or anything like that, it’s just that you’re struggling for players and even to name players on the bench.
“They need to get the confidence and belief back and I’m sure once the players start coming back, that will certainly happen. But it’s also where you look to your leaders, players like Ellen White who have been there, they have the experience and they’ve been in teams where they’ve had this before so they’ll know how to turn it around. Ellen will certainly be helping everyone else, I think she’ll be key in turning this around, and Jill Scott.
Gareth Taylor has a big task on his hands to deal with the number of injuries among his squad
“I think they just have to put it down to one of those seasons. You’ve just got to take it as a bit of a learning experience and say ‘this has been an absolute nightmare, but we’ll learn from this and if it ever happens again, we’ll know how to deal with it’. They will be hoping it never does happen again, though.”
Carney added: “It is hard for him [Taylor] to juggle and he has not blamed injuries in his interviews yet, which you can only commend, but it is a factor. But I guess this is the issue when you sign international players that play a lot of football and all year round, they are at more risk to injuries.
“They need to keep working hard on the training ground and get confidence back in the players because I can see it is lost and hopefully players get fit soon.”
With confidence at arguably its lowest ebb at Man City in many years, it can be hard to find the light and at this stage in the season, you feel like it will already be an under-par campaign for City. However, with plenty of talent still to return, they will certainly fight until the end to achieve their goals this season.
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