Manchester City may be unbeaten in their last 13 matches in all competitions, but yet another defensive lapse and more dropped points mean any distant hope of a title run is already looking unlikely.
Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Aston Villa was yet another match without a clean sheet for the 2016 Women’s Super League champions. This time, they held onto their lead for just under three minutes. Villa’s equaliser, scored in the 31st minute by Kirsty Hanson, made it four home league games in a row without a clean sheet — City’s worst run since April 2019.
The incredible form of Khadija Shaw, who shone again, providing a wonderful pass for Deyna Castellanos’ first WSL goal and also having a chance to win it in the second half, has been the biggest positive for City in what is proving another rocky season.
They began it with back-to-back defeats, having had to deal with a major squad overhaul in the summer when they were also still reeling from a historic losing run during 2021-22. An impressive run of 11 wins in 13 games in all competitions over the last few months seems to reflect an upward trajectory, and much-needed stability, for their season. But a sometimes shaky defence continues to set them back.
City lack the defensive organisation that’s vital to a team with aspirations of challenging for the title.
Alex Greenwood, who has been captaining the side this season and is one of their most consistent performers, is the most experienced player in the back line but has struggled to instil the same level of confidence she plays with in her team-mates.
Alanna Kennedy has spent much of her 18 months at City sidelined by injuries, and when fit she has looked nervy and error-prone. The Australia international has strong passing ability and is confident when bringing the ball out from the back but her decision-making and marking are poor.
Esme Morgan came off at half-time against Villa and was replaced by Kerstin Casparij. It was an injury-enforced substitution, but the change felt like a key sign of a defence still struggling to find its best combination of personnel.
Gareth Taylor wasn’t concerned by, or even aware of, City’s poor clean-sheet record in his post-match press conference but admitted the back line has chopped and changed a lot in recent games, saying: “The defence can look different one game to another. But I think since the turn of the year we’ve got two clean sheets (against West Ham in the league and Leicester City in Continental Cup) and conceded one goal in three games.
“You can always drag the stats in (whichever direction) you want to make them really positive or really not so good. Nothing changes for us in the way we operate and the way we work.”
Saturday was one of the few games where Taylor named an unchanged back line.
Greenwood and Steph Houghton started at centre-back in City’s first two games of the season and Demi Stokes was at left-back. Stokes and Houghton have spent most of the rest of the season on the bench and Leila Ouahabi has been preferred at left-back, with Kennedy in the middle alongside Greenwood for both league matches so far in 2023.
There are fewer than 100 WSL appearances between Morgan, Casparij and Ouahabi, with the experience they lack provided by Kennedy and Greenwood. But when City look at the back lines their WSL rivals can field — especially Manchester United, who are looking nailed on for a first ever WSL top-three finish this season — it’s clear there is a huge gap.
The midfield grit, which used to be City’s greatest asset, has escaped them too.
Yui Hasegawa has slotted in well following her move from West Ham and replaced Keira Walsh’s metronomic passing, but the feisty, aggressive unit Walsh made up with Caroline Weir and Georgia Stanway is lacking. Summer signing Castellanos has been quiet since joining from Atletico Madrid and while Laura Coombs has been an important contributor this season, she’s still not quite the player Stanway was for this team.
It would be unfair to not mention an impressive performance from Villa.
This result shows just how much they have grown in the last five months thanks in part to two impressive transfer windows and the work of head coach Carla Ward, who recently signed a new contract to the end of next season.
Hanson, on loan from Manchester United and quietly having one of the best seasons of her career, was at the heart of everything Villa did well against City. She scored their equaliser just after the half-hour and could have won the game for them with a shot in the second half that hit a post.
Although the signings of Kenza Dali, Rachel Daly, Jordan Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth have won more headlines, Hanson has been one of Villa’s key players, and is second in the league for tackles won with 25.
The level of Villa’s performance, having already beaten City 4-3 in September’s reverse fixture, shows just how much the tides are turning for these two clubs — and much of the middle of the WSL pack.
Former City and England striker Ellen White, a pundit on Sky Sports’ live coverage of Saturday’s match, said of her old club: “From a fan perspective, I don’t know if (finishing) top three and winning a trophy is enough.”
For Villa, this is another game proving they can match, and take points off, some of the best teams in the league.
For City, it could be the final sign they are no longer part of the WSL’s big three.
(Photo: Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)
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