If City are to bounce back from their shambolic 4-3 defeat by Aston Villa in the opening WSL fixtures at the weekend and fulfil their aspirations this season, it will take some fresh thinking from the manager, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
“Regardless of whether we hit the ground running or… ”
Ahead of Manchester City’s opener against Aston Villa, Gareth Taylor placed that caveat on his side’s performance in the face of a rash of exits over the summer. City lost five starting players prior to the start of the season as Ellen White retired, Georgia Stanway, Caroline Weir and Lucy Bronze all left on free transfers, and Keira Walsh was sold to Barcelona for a world record fee. Brighton were the only WSL side to lose players with a higher cumulative total of minutes from last season than the Sky Blues.
Taylor was clearly keen to stress from the start that despite City’s recruitment, it might not all be plain sailing. But surely even he could not have predicted how flat they would look against Aston Villa. Their WSL season opener was supposed to have been a blessing after they got to skip their originally scheduled game against Arsenal. As it was, this only piled on extra embarrassment for Taylor’s side.
Carla Ward’s Villa scored only 13 goals last season but managed 31 per cent of that total against Manchester City as they raced to a 2-0 lead after 32 minutes. Despite City pulling the game back to 3-2, thanks to a 10-minute spell across the end of the first and start of the second half, they were unable to hold on as the hosts came from behind to win for only the second time in three WSL seasons. The fact they managed this seemed to predominantly come from a belief that they had had City on the ropes (true) and City handing both their second-half goals to them. Defensively they were shambolic, with all four Villa goals coming from obvious errors — Laia Aleixandri’s turnover, the inability to clear the ball from a corner, Steph Houghton’s misplaced pass, and Ellie Roebuck’s spill.
But going forward might have been even worse. To be honest, the fact that City even scored three goals flattered them. Their xG from the game was only 0.68 despite having seven shots on target. City maintained the familiar 4-3-3 formation that Taylor inherited from Nick Cushing, but Filippa Angeldahl and Laura Coombs struggled to have the same attacking impact that Stanway and Weir had in their equivalent roles (although Coombs did at least score twice).
For Manchester City, this problem was replicated across the pitch. They were living in the past, expecting players long gone to still be ghosting around the pitch. Take central midfield. Aston Villa pressed well but City’s build-up play was not complicated. They were going to continue to try and play into Aleixandri’s feet even though it was patently clear that this choice was not working out from very early on. It was depressingly unsurprising 22 minutes in when Rachel Daly finally successfully turned over the ball allowing Alisha Lehmann to sprint off the right-hand side and score.
Even further forward, the case was the same. City signed Bunny Shaw last summer when she was one of the most highly-rated strikers in the world. She shared minutes with White last summer — a debatable choice, but one which you would think at least saw City preparing for the veteran’s retirement decision. Yet Taylor picked out White as the shock exit aside from Walsh. Against Aston Villa, City were resistant to playing the ball directly up to Shaw, even though that had brought them some success against Chelsea in May’s FA Cup final. The 25-year-old will not do all the things White did, but she is an elite striker, and it is worth playing to her strengths. When she was taken off for Deyna Castellanos on the 70th minute, it immediately felt like City’s goalscoring threat leaked out of them.
There were other issues too — some of them individual, some systemic — and none of this should take away from the fact that Aston Villa executed their game plan to perfection. They carried on believing and had their best players bring out their quality when it mattered. But there is no way Manchester City should be losing so pathetically to a team of their level.
City are a squad filled with talented players. Their front three of Lauren Hemp, Shaw, and Chloe Kelly are arguably the best in the league. Despite the exodus this summer, with the recruitment they did, there is no reason why they can’t finish in a Champions League spot or even compete for the title.
But if that is going to happen they need to come up with some new ideas fast. Taylor at the very least needs to accept that his squad is no longer the same. But they were already creaking at points last season without seemingly so much as a threat to his position. Will this be the season where we find out if anyone at Manchester City cares?
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph