New-look Man City face tough derby test but bringing Coombs in from the cold could prove to be a masterstroke

The revitalised 31-year-old’s started every game for City so far this season after not featuring much in the past couple of years. Now Coombs can cement her place as Weir’s replacement by helping to shut out Manchester United in this weekend’s derby — or by scoring a long-range banger, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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Manchester United must be beginning to wonder what they have to do to win a Manchester derby. In a number of the past WSL meetings between themselves and Manchester City, they have arguably been the better team, only to be repeatedly foiled by City — or Caroline Weir, specifically — in getting three points in the league.

It is hard to argue that United have been the stars of Manchester so far this season. With City kicking off the season with two losses, the only real attention given to them has been a cursory nod at Bunny Shaw’s goalscoring prowess. City have won six consecutive WSL matches but all six of their opponents have been in the bottom half of the table. The Manchester derby will be the first chance to see how far City have actually come.

The problems that Gareth Taylor had to solve at the start of the season were pretty clear but that didn’t make them any easier to solve. Rebuilding an entire midfield from scratch would be a tough test for any manager. There was no doubt that City had done the recruitment to make it work, but how successfully it would gel was another question.

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Key to the process has been Laura Coombs. The 31-year-old has not played much over the past couple of years at Manchester City but has started eight games this season, already more than she has managed in any of her previous years at the club. In fact, if she plays against United she will exceed her minutes totals from both 20/21 and 21/22. Playing on the left of the midfield trio, in the role formerly occupied by Caroline Weir, Coombs does not have the kind of passing range or creativity of Weir but excels at defensive work in the midfield. And she also offers a continuity with past seasons of Manchester City, having become a player that Taylor wants to rely on.

In fact, in some ways, though they are on opposite sides of the pitch, it might be more accurate to conclude that Coombs has replaced Georgia Stanway as the engine room, with Deyna Castellanos looked to to bring the creativity. Whilst the Venezuela forward is yet to score this season, it is notable that she is recording very similar shot per 90 numbers (3.38 for Castellanos and 3.09 for Weir) and expected goals per 90 numbers (0.21 for Castellanos and 0.26 for Weir) as Weir did in her final season at City. However, where the drop off might be is in how Castellanos creates for other players. Weir made 4.26 shot-creating actions per 90 last season compared to Castellanos’ 3.24, although 0.62 of Weir’s numbers came from deadball situations. It seems fair to say that Castellanos is not currently managing to fill the Weir gap but at only 23 years old, City will view her as a work in progress.

The final part of the new-look midfield is the use of Yui Hasegawa as the deep-lying playmaker. The late departure of Keira Walsh was always going to be the most problematic with City unable to properly plan for it. Hasegawa played in a variety of midfield roles when she was at West Ham but she always looked at her best in a more advanced position. Now she is in a possession-heavy side like Manchester City, she is much more protected despite playing deeper.

Sunday’s game, however, will be Hasegawa’s biggest test, matched up against Ella Toone, who, despite a slow start to then season coming off a Euros high, is really hitting her stride. Not only will Hasegawa likely be put under a lot more pressure on the ball, she will also have more defensive work to do playing against a side who are unlikely to want to cede much of the ball to City. United had the majority of possession in their games against both Chelsea and Arsenal.

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The way that City attack has not really changed. When you have players like Lauren Hemp and Chloe Kelly you are always going to back them taking players on out wide. City have had 12 shot-creating actions from dribbles this season, almost double any other team in the league.

However, they are playing more direct. Last season, their direct speed of 0.96m/s was the lowest in the WSL whereas this season they are above 1.05m/s, meaning they are playing more directly than Everton and Arsenal. The ability of Shaw to hold the ball up allows City to play directly into her, on top of their more traditional plan to get possession out wide.

Manchester City have always been fairly tactically inflexible. Taylor has his system and likes to stick with it so it makes sense that when it has come to rebuilding this side, he has slotted similar players into the gaps left by this summer’s departures.

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Off the field, there has been a lot of noise from those departures with none of Lucy Bronze, Walsh or Stanway particularly holding back in interviews. It is hard not to feel like right now they are thinking about Manchester City a bit more than City are thinking about them. After all, if they were to win the Manchester derby, City would be level on points with United and potentially only three behind Chelsea and Arsenal.

Manchester United will be their toughest test since the Chelsea loss in September. They have the meanest defence of any team in the league in terms of expected goals conceded, and are coming off two confidence-boosting wins against Arsenal and Aston Villa. Yet Manchester City will know that they still have the psychological edge in these situations. It might be a test for the new-look side, but they will believe they can pass it. And if they do get into a sticky situation, it probably helps that the woman they have replaced Weir with is no stranger to a long-range banger herself.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

1 Comment on New-look Man City face tough derby test but bringing Coombs in from the cold could prove to be a masterstroke

  1. flangeslammer // December 9, 2022 at 3:57 pm // Reply

    that people are calling this “the first test” for City since September tells you everything you need to know about the overall strength of the WSL top to bottom. a haves and have-nots league, full stop. could not be thinking about expansion at the current state of the league right now. a league must be more than just a top 4 and the WSL is not currently. the top 4 are getting more separation from the other 8 than ever and the quality on 75% of the match days is suffering because of it.

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