The Sky Blues boss has overcome a slow start to top-flight management by building a winning team capable of WSL glory, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
Gareth Taylor may have played down its title race significance but there’s never been a Manchester derby in the women’s game that has meant as much as this.
After years of Manchester City being at the top of the Women’s Super League, this year they have had to contend with a very real threat in the form of Manchester United. A win would take City a point above their rivals in second place and leave them just two points behind Chelsea on 35 points with a home game against the league leaders still to play.
Until last month, United had led the WSL for much of the season so Taylor was careful to downplay the derby’s importance in the title race but tonight’s clash has the potential to define the league’s outcome for both teams.
“I still think both teams would be in the title race, regardless of a win, a draw, a loss or whatever,” said Taylor, speaking ahead of the derby.
“But you know, we’re in a good scene at the moment. We’re playing some good stuff. We’re really keen to, especially on our own patch, make sure we get the three points. Everybody wants to be successful. We want the city to be blue after these occasions.”
The outcome will also be significant to Taylor’s managerial career. When he was appointed to replace Nick Cushing last May, it was very much in keeping with City’s previous internal recruitment policies. But a slow start to the season left many questioning whether it had been wise to promote a manager who only had academy experience to such a high-profile role.
Concerns about Taylor first arose in their Community Shield performance against champions Chelsea. Emma Hayes’ side looked totally in control of the game, even if City did make it difficult for them to score.
It was a similar story when the two sides met at Kingsmeadow in October. Chelsea kept a tight hold over the game with Erin Cuthbert standing out in particular for her ability to silence Lucy Bronze. Taylor took the decision to start 19-year-old Jess Park for the game, and whilst her impact was limited, it was a sign that he was not going to stay wedded to the system Cushing had left him.
Taylor has repeatedly shown himself to be willing and able to move players on and give opportunities in their place. Jill Scott’s loan move to Everton has been a result of this, whilst Gemma Bonner had fallen out of favour at centre-back even before Abby Dahlkemper’s arrival.
There were worries after draws against Reading and Brighton earlier in the season that City were struggling to impose themselves on games.
“We were realistic that things were going to take a little bit of time to click,” said City forward Caroline Weir. “There were a lot of new players, and a new manager. I think just before Christmas, we felt and we saw in our performances, things coming together.”
Looking at the underlying numbers suggests that even in the game where they dropped points, City’s lack of goals was more about misfortune than mismanagement.
Either way, they are not struggling to score now, with back-to-back seven-goal hauls last month meaning they have scored more than anyone else in the league.
Following Sam Mewis’ injury, Taylor has recently selected Georgia Stanway to take up her midfield position. In the past, Stanway has been used on the wing or in a false 9 position but she has looked much more effective starting slightly further back and making late runs into the box.
“She’s moved around in terms of positioning this season,” said Taylor. “I think sometimes players need to see that as a compliment that they can play in a number of positions.”
“At the moment, she’s playing consistently as an attacking midfielder and she’s providing for us. Whether that be in ball regains, whether that be in ball retention, whether that be shots at goal and goals themselves.”
City have also begun to play a consistent front three. After trying out seven different combinations, Lauren Hemp, Ellen White and Chloe Kelly have now started four games in a row together – the longest run this season.
“The front three has changed around but naturally that will happen sometimes,” said Taylor. “I think any player wants consistency of playing. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to get that, sometimes you don’t. You have to make the most of the appearances you get so they’ve done well.”
With Abby Dahlkemper also slotted into their defence – who Taylor describes as “very professional” – City are without a doubt the form team in the WSL at the moment with six wins in a row. Form will be worthless, however, if they cannot beat United in tonight’s derby.
In the past couple of weeks, City have looked like the team to beat in the WSL. A win in this fixture would certainly cement the justification in selecting Taylor to steer the ship.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph