The WSL season returns this weekend and for Manchester City manager Gareth Taylor, it must surely be a make-or-break season.
City relinquished their Champions League spot last season as Arsenal claimed third place and United took the runners-up spot to Champions Chelsea meaning that, despite an influx of new players, the blues ended the season without silverware.
Taylor was rewarded for his failure of last season with an additional year on his contract, a clear indication that he has one more season to get City back on track and competing again.
For two seasons running, the blues have started with consecutive defeats, however an unbeaten run that lasted through to spring made the blues brief contenders for the title. However, the form of United, Arsenal and Chelsea prevented City from making a top-three position their own and the blues eventually finished fourth on goal difference.
In previous seasons, the blues would have made it, but their main problem last season was a failure to prevent teams from scoring, which cost them dearly.
City’s Defensive And Attacking Decline
In the 2020/21 season, Cit finished second to champions Chelsea, missing out on the title by just two points, but well clear of Arsenal in second place by seven points. The blues lost a solitary match all season, hit 65 goals that season and conceded just 13. Only Chelsea bettered that record.
The following season, the blues hit a slump, finishing in third place, eight points behind Arsenal, losing five matches, but still scoring 60 goals and conceded 22. Taylor reinforced the defence, but, for some reason, the decline continued.
Last season, City lost five again, but scored just 50 goals, while the defence continued to leak, conceding 22. Despite scoring a goal more than third-placed Arsenal, City’s defence had the effectiveness of a paper dam. They managed to keep just six clean sheets in the league, and, in their last six games of the season, lost half and conceded in every match, conceding 11 in those matches.
That is not the form of a team that wants to be champions.
New Signings Need To Click
Summer 2022 saw Taylor clear out some of the players he felt weren’t good enough. To shore up the defence, Taylor brought in Spanish duo Leila Ouahabi and Laia Aleixandri and Dutch full-back Kirsten Casparij. In midfield, Japanese star Yui Hasegawa arrived from West Ham to fill the void left by the departing Caroline Weir, Jill Scott, Keira Walsh and, eventually, Vicky Losada.
Up front, Taylor boosted his attacking options with Venezuelan striker Deyna Castellanos and Australian international Mary Fowler, while goalkeeper Sandy MacIver also arrived from Everton to challenge Ellie Roebuck.
However, the new signings haven’t worked out as yet.
City’s defence was leakier than ever while Castellanos struggled to adapt to life in the UK and scored just four goals all season, one in the WSL. Fowler has identical statistics and City need the pair to be firing on all cylinders to support Bunny Shaw up front.
In midfield, Taylor’s over-reliance on Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp was evident. At times, throughout the season, the pair looked tired, yet Taylor persisted, rather than finding another option.
Hasegawa was brought in to run the centre of the park, but was required to do a similar job to that of Weir, Walsh and Scott, something that one player just cannot do. To combat this, Taylor has brought in Jill Roord, and it remains to be seen how the Australian star will fit in to City’s set-up.
But it’s the defence that needs tightening and it’s surprising that Taylor didn’t reinforce the back line further. With Demi Stokes out for much of last season and Esme Morgan returning from serious injury, Taylor struggled to find the right combination at the back.
This season, Taylor needs to bring out the best of the players he signed last season, as well as Roord if City are to make any impact on the WSL and challenge for honours this season.
Blues Must Do Better Against Their Rivals
One key factor last season was City’s defeats to Chelsea, Arsenal and United, as well as surprise losses to Aston Villa and newly promoted Liverpool. The blues lost all three matches at their title rivals last season and this has got to improve.
City lost 2-0 at Chelsea in their second game of the season and, while they gave Chelsea a good game, a spirited performance does not win points. City also lost at Arsenal when in a winning position and a 2-1 defeat at United, their first derby defeat in the WSL, showed exactly where the blues are lacking. United overran City in midfield and the blues just couldn’t cope.
Of course, City beat both Chelsea and Arsenal at home and drew with United, but they need to do better against the top sides if they are to make this season a success.
The first test comes in the first home game of the season as they welcome the champions to the Academy Stadium, and they travel to both Arsenal and United in November. City must be on their game if they want to come away with anything from those fixtures.
This Season’s Scapegoat
Two years ago, Janine Beckie became Taylor’s scapegoat and he relegated the Canadian international to only featuring in the Conti Cup, before she eventually left the following April. Last season, he did the same to Hayley Raso, with the Australian eventually joining Real Madrid. So, who will it be this year?
Castellanos may be in line to take the title, unless she starts the season well. Even then, I think Taylor will already have targeted her, so I’m going for the striker as this season’s player to be ostracised by Taylor.
Can City Win The WSL?
It’s a tough ask for the blues to claim the WSL title. Chelsea continue to look strong, Arsenal will soon welcome back Beth Mead after her ACL injury forced her to miss the World Cup and United have strengthened further after losing Alessia Russo to the Gunners.
With Roord the solitary signing of the summer, Gareth Taylor is throwing his trust in his signings from last season. Last season, it didn’t work out and Taylor did a lot of changing to find a good combination.
However, there are still signs that he is yet to find it.
City have won their pre-season friendlies by a solitary goal and, despite scoring eight in their three matches, City also conceded five. Of course, pre-season friendlies are not a prelude to what the season will hold. But unless Taylor gets to grips with his defence and finds the right combination from the first game, winning the WSL will be too big an ask.
As much as I’d love to say City will win the WSL, I really can’t see it, although I’d love to be proved wrong. I just don’t think Taylor has the tactical brain that Nick Cushing had when he led the blues to their only WSL title in 2016.
I think City will finish fourth, with West Ham, Spurs, Villa and Everton close behind. Sadly, I think that’s how far City have dropped where we’re now competing to finish higher than the traditional mid-table sides than we are against the top sides.
If this happens, it must surely be the end of Taylor’s reign.