For 45 minutes of their match at Meadow Park, Manchester City Women looked like genuine title contenders. A fifth-minute goal, superbly finished by Bunny Shaw was followed by 40 minutes of dominance over an Arsenal side, who themselves looked to get back into the title race.
But City would pay for many squandered chances, with Lauren Hemp guilty of a glaring miss that would have made the blues two clear at the break. Hemp and Chloe Kelly would also be denied by home keeper Sabrina D’Angelo as City threatened to be out of sight at half-time.
Unfortunately, whatever Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall said at half-time, together with well-timed substitutions, worked as the game was turned on its head in the space of 12 second-half minutes.
Frida Maanum and Katie McCabe scored the goals that won the match, but at least one of them could have been prevented.
City had already had a warning during a short spell of Arsenal pressure in the first half. Four Gunners were queueing up in the box with only one City defender available. The shot went high and wide, but the blues simply didn’t heed the warning. And they paid for it in the 62nd minute.
There was no doubt about the quality of Arsenal’s second goal which gave Ellie Roebuck no chance, although the City keeper did get a hand to it, but could McCabe have been closed down earlier? And should she still have been on the field after a first-half clash with Kelly that resulted with the Arsenal star deliberately hitting Kelly in the face with the ball? McCabe was booked for her actions, but, on another day, it could have been viewed as violent conduct.
But, we can’t take anything away from Arsenal as they were much the better side in the second half. Whereas the first half saw City first to the loose balls, intercepting passes, and making essential challenges, the second half saw the opposite.
City were sloppy in possession and passes went awry. They lost the belief that they could beat the Gunners on their own patch, while the substitutions made by Eidevall made a world of difference.
Contrast that with City, where Gareth Taylor seemed to be the only one who couldn’t see that Arsenal were in the ascendency, and anyone could see what the end result was going to be. However, Taylor waited until City were 2-1 down before changing things and, as usual, he couldn’t find a way to make things right once the blues were behind against one of the league’s top sides.
The introduction of Hayley Raso was too late, even though she tried to make an impact, and Mary Fowler came on with six minutes to go. Sadly, changes should have been made long before then.
It was clear that, once Arsenal had scored, they would go all out and get a second. Yet Taylor’s delays in making changes once again proved City’s undoing. It’s just another example of his tactical ineptness once his team are behind. At Aston Villa in the FA Cup, he waited until the 105th minute of extra time to make his first change. By then, Villa had made two changes that were 2-1 up.
Taylor loves to make numerous changes when his team are winning, but just doesn’t have the knowledge to change things when in a losing position.
And it’s costing the team points.
Hasegawa Proving Her Worth
Bunny Shaw will get a lot of plaudits this season and rightly so. The Jamaican star has been on fire in front of goal and may end up as the WSL’s top scorer. Laura Coombs has stepped up to the mantle, filling the hole that was left when Keira Walsh joined Barcelona. And Alex Greenwood has been solid at the back regardless of who she is partnered with.
But, one of the stand-out performers this season has to be Yui Hasegawa. Despite scoring on her debut, the Japanese midfielder had a slow start with the blues since joining from West Ham in September, but has propelled herself to be one of the stars of this City team.
At just 5’2”, Hasegawa is easily identifiable on the pitch, but she doesn’t let her lack of height prevent her from performing well. Hasegawa is tenacious with her tackles, finds space where space shouldn’t be and is dynamic going forward. If just one of Taylor’s signings has been a hit this season, Hasegawa is that one.
In the first half against Arsenal, she covered every blade of grass on the pitch, making some excellent challenges and picking passes at will. However, she faded in the second half as Arsenal moved through the gears, but she is definitely one to watch for next season - providing Taylor continues to play her in the right position.
What Next For City?
Their title challenge isn’t over, but it has taken a serious knock. They had an opportunity to go level on points with United in second place, but, instead, sit fourth in the table, three points behind the reds. Chelsea and Arsenal each have a game in hand on the blues, and victory for both will make the task almost impossible.
The blues will now have to rely on results elsewhere, while they still have to go to United in May. What could, and perhaps should, have been a title decider, may end up being a battle to secure third place once again.