Nick Cushing says his approach won’t change despite some frustrating results in recent weeks, with the Manchester City boss claiming he “knows no other way” than to go out with a win-at-all-costs approach.
His City side face the possibility of being eliminated in the first round of the Champions League when they host Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night after reaching the semifinal stage in both of their previous European campaigns.
But after conceding a late goal in Madrid leaving the tie level at 1-1 and only scraping to a late 2-2 draw at home to Bristol City at the weekend after trailing 2-0, Cushing is adamant he won’t change his mind-set for one match.
“I can honestly say — and the players will back me up on this — in five years here I’ve never approached a game other than to win it.
“I have no other way and it will be exactly the same tomorrow. We have a duty to our fans to play entertaining and attacking football.”
Defeat on Wednesday would be almost unthinkable for a club that was on the verge of the final in both of the past two seasons, going out to eventual champions Olympique Lyon on both occasions.
After a trophyless 2017-2018 campaign and an on-off start to the new season, Cushing can ill afford an early European exit and admits it will be a “disappointment” should City fall at the first hurdle.
“In any competition, if you don’t go as far as you want to go you’re going to be disappointed,” he said. “But I don’t look at this game any differently to any previous Round-of-32 match we’ve had. If we were hoping for one of the perceived ‘weaker’ teams it wouldn’t get us very far.
“What’s got us far is we’ve approached every team as if we’re playing the best team in that country and if they’re better than us or on par with us then we have to approach that game with the most professionalism and the most prepared we’ve ever been.”
After 0-0 draws at Birmingham City and Chelsea in the Continental Cup and FA Women’s Super League, respectively, questions about City’s creativity and clinical edge in front of goal in big games have once again come to the fore ahead of the match.
In Madrid, Cushing’s side regularly found themselves on the back foot and struggled to create chances after Gemma Bonner’s opener.
Even against Bristol City at the weekend, the hosts had more than 25 shots but didn’t score until the 81st minute when they already found themselves trailing 2-0.
“We know ourselves with the chances we create we can score more but that’s something we’ll always work at,” said Cushing.
“We’ve got fantastic players. Last season we scored the most goals any team has ever scored in a WSL season but we know there are areas to improve. We can work on that so we’re not worried, it gives us a little more incentive to go out in training and work better.”
Cushing has often deviated between his favored 4-3-3 formation and 3-5-2 this season in order to quell the issue around lack of goals but the end product has been roughly the same.
But the manager says the tweak of system isn’t purely down to his attacking options, crediting his back three as what he believes to be the “best defenders in the league” after adding Liverpool captain Bonner to his ranks in the summer.
“We’ve always naturally played 4-3-3 because of the players we’ve had. We’ve switched to a three because of Bonner, Steph [Houghton], and Jen [Beattie]. We’ve got the three best center backs in the league in my opinion so we may as well put them together to give us the best chance.”
He added, “We have four or five players pushing for a spot in midfield and we’ve toyed between the systems. It’s down to the games we play, how we want to play, and the threats the opposition have. Three at the back gives us more chance to create more opportunities. But the system to me is not that important, it’s more how we approach the game and impose ourselves on the game.”
Bonner herself says the Champions League is a “big reason” for why she joined Man City and echoed her manager’s thoughts on it being a disappointment should her and her teammates not do the job on Wednesday night.
“I wanted to test myself against the best in the world. We were disappointed with the performance in Madrid but it’s another chance tomorrow with the home crowd behind us to show what we can do.”
On her time at the City Academy so far, Bonner added that she feels she has already improved as a player in the few months she’s been a City defender.
“I’ve been really enjoying it so far and I was delighted to score my first goal [in Madrid]. I’ve settled in but I knew a lot of the other girls already. I want to be playing in big games and winning them and tomorrow gives us a chance to do that.
“I feel I’ve improved. When you’re training with the best you’re going to. We’re all trying to be the best people and players and hopefully that’s showing.”
Bonner herself has been shifted around in terms of position so far as her new manager tries to find the answer to the team’s unpredictable results.
The England international kicked off the season playing at right back before being moved into her current role alongside Houghton and Beattie in a back-three.
Despite dropped points which leave City clear of last year’s champions Chelsea, they already trail leaders Arsenal by four points, but Cushing says he’s “happy” with City’s start to the season.
“We knew it would be difficult. We don’t underestimate any team and I knew this season would be difficult for everyone because it’s probably the most competitive season that we’ve had.
“We were disappointed against Bristol because of the performance, we didn’t impose ourselves the way we know we can. We have to be better than we were in Madrid because they’re a good team, but we know we’re a good team.”
Expanding on his reasons for the coming season being a difficult one, Cushing says the talent is growing in the league all the time and believes it’s no longer about top three teams anymore.
“I’m not surprised [by the start to the season]. I said in 2015 and 2016 that I thought the head-to-heads would win the league and in 2017 and 2018 I said they wouldn’t. Now, those games against Bristol, Yeovil, Liverpool, West Ham, etcetera will be the most difficult for the top three.
“People talk about the Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal three quite a lot but it won’t be as simple as that now. There are very good teams and it’s a credit to the women’s league because from when I became involved it has developed every year.
“Whether you’re playing Bristol or Chelsea you have to play well. We didn’t start well on Sunday and we clawed back a point we didn’t really deserve.”
One of the key reasons for City dropping points on Sunday were uncharacteristic efforts from goalkeeper Karen Bardsley for both of Bristol City’s goals.
The Man City number one has been a regular in the team again since Gemma Bonner got injured back in April, but Cushing was giving little away as to who may start in goal on Wednesday, but did back the England international.
“When goalkeepers make mistakes it’s always highlighted more,” he said. “We’ve relied on KB a lot in the last five years and we’re not going to look too deep into two mistakes.
“Last year we rotated because Karen was injured, then Ellie got injured so we chopped and changed largely because none of the keepers were fit enough for long enough. KB has the shirt and she’ll train today so we can review who is best to start the game tomorrow. The most positive thing is we have two top-level goalkeepers and Fran Stenson chasing them both.”
Three players Cushing won’t be able to call upon tomorrow are Demi Stokes, Megan Campbell, and Pauline Bremer.
Stokes has been out since going off against Arsenal in May while Campbell and Bremer remain long-term absentees after missing the majority of last season.
Despite hopes the trio would be back early in the season, Cushing doesn’t expect them back within the next few weeks at least.
“They won’t be back in the short-term,” he said. “They won’t be up for selection in the next week or two but it’s more about looking ahead for us. We’d like to have them back before Christmas without putting a date on it, but that’s the aim.”
Stokes has been Man City’s first choice left back since her arrival at the club in 2015 and her loss has created a consistent headache for Cushing with back-up left back Campbell also unavailable for the same period of time.
It was initially thought the England international’s problem wasn’t serious but Cushing says the injury has been a bigger problem than they first assumed.
“Originally, we thought it was a pretty normal hip injury but through the investigations, recover and rehab it hasn’t settled as quick as we thought it would. It’s the pain really, we’ve been waiting for the pain to settle down but we’re not too worried because we’re seeing progress.”
Despite the possibility of instant elimination from the tournament on Wednesday night, Cushing doesn’t believe that recent suggestions the tournament could or should move to a group stage to mirror the men’s tournament is right at the moment and added he likes the excitement of the current format.
“What we want and what is possible are two different things,” he admitted. “A group stage would give teams more games but I quite like the old European style of you’re in or you’re out. A group would be brilliant if we had the parity across the teams but we have to just play the competition as it is.”
If City are to progress tomorrow, set pieces could be key to their success. The team has made a habit over the past seasons of being dominant from free kicks and corners, with the addition of Caroline Weir now ensuring City have a top class set piece taker.
Bonner scored her goal in the away leg from a corner and the center back believes it’s something the team has to exploit.
“It’s a real strength as a team,” she said. “I played with Caroline at Liverpool and her delivery is exceptional, it’s there for all to see. If we can marry the two things together it’s a real strength because set pieces can be the difference in so many games.”