Nick Cushing admits Manchester City’s recent slow starts are “on his mind” after a goal just four minutes in from Atlético Madrid left City with an uphill challenge to save their Champions League campaign.
Another goal from Brazilian Ludmila in first-half stoppage time all but ended the match as a contest and ensured Cushing’s side was eliminated from the tournament at the first hurdle after making the semifinals in their first two seasons in the competition.
Silvia Meseguer’s early goal isn’t the first time in 2018 that Man City has given themselves work to do; City found themselves 2-0 down at home to Bristol City on Sunday and rallied late on to a 2-2 draw but would likely have won if they’d started the game quicker.
Now a long-term issue, City’s 2017–2018 domestic campaign unraveled after they fell behind to goals in games against Liverpool, Reading, and Birmingham City, failing to score or take a point on any of the three occasions.
They also found themselves having to recover to a 2-2 draw from a 2-0 deficit against rivals Chelsea as well as failing to score in the FA Cup semifinal defeat at Kingsmeadow and Continental Cup final defeat to Arsenal.
“I wouldn’t say we start games at the intensity we should,” said Cushing post-match. “At Everton last week we started really quickly and imposed ourselves on the game. We didn’t do that against Bristol City and we didn’t do that tonight, we have to start games quicker.”
Aside from the timing of the goal, Cushing likely won’t be happy with how the goal came about. Ludmila’s pace was too much for Jen Beattie and when Steph Houghton decided to leave the cross, midfielder Meseguer was left with the easiest finish she could wish for to put José Luis Sánchez’s side in front.
On a night in which two youngsters were City’s best players, more experienced players fell well below par in their performances and Cushing says every player, young or old, knows what their level should be.
“For every player, young or senior, it is your responsibility to impose yourself on the game,” he said. “I’m a believer that as a player you’ll always find your level. Your performances become consistent whether they’re good or bad and you control whether they’re good or bad, so it’s up to our players to make sure they get their level up.”
But that level never came. In truth, they never got anywhere near what was required to beat an impressive Atlético side.
Lining up in a mixture between 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, Gemma Bonner and Abbie McManus, center backs by trade, lined up at right back and left back, respectively, while Melissa Lawley and Lauren Hemp played out wide with Nikita Parris through the middle.
Nothing ever quite worked though. Four center backs in defense showed why Cushing has often switched to a 3-5-2 this season but it appears to be a move out of necessity rather than what suits his team.
A 3-5-2 negates City’s major strengths out wide but because a replacement for Lucy Bronze still hasn’t been signed and both left backs Demi Stokes and Abbie McManus injured, Cushing is playing with a hand he’ll feel is restricting his side.
Some of it is down to bad luck. The injury picked up by Stokes in May has been more complicated than imagined while Campbell is still recovering from an ACL injury sustained a year ago. But there have been chances to replace those players, particularly Bronze who now departed the City Academy more than a year ago.
With City conceding the killer second goal just before the break, Cushing made a slight tweak in formation and introduced Tessa Wullaert for the ineffectual Mel Lawley at the break.
In truth, Lawley was one of six or seven players Cushing could have hooked at the break given the ineptitude of the first-half performance.
The tone was set within 90 seconds when Karen Bardsley — retained despite two errors on Sunday — kicked a ball straight to Ludmila while the passing of Houghton, Beattie, Bonner, Keira Walsh, and Jill Scott was often inaccurate.
“We started a bit tentatively,” said Cushing. “We didn’t show any conviction and we’ve spoken about that. We don’t allow opposing teams to gain momentum and enthusiasm here so giving a goal away so early and never getting into our rhythm gave the impetus to the opposition and in the Champions League you cannot do that.”
City were better in the second half but had once again given themselves too much to do. Wednesday night was the sixth time in all competitions in 2018 alone City has trailed 2-0 in a match and that suggests a clinical issue when it comes to starting games on the front foot.
In the first half, only Lauren Hemp and Georgia Stanway could walk away having been happy with their performances, the latter almost equalizing when Dolores Gallardo somehow tipped her trademark long-range effort onto the bar.
It would have been a very different game had Stanway’s shot found the net but it didn’t change the narrative that City were deserved losers on the night. Stanway had several more goes in the second half before substitute Caroline Weir rattled the bar with a trademark effort of her own.
Nikita Parris seeing her shot saved by Gallardo and Jen Beattie’s disallowed goal suggests City had enough chances to win the match, but in truth, the improvement was nowhere near enough to overturn the deficit, but Cushing says he has to take those positives into another tough match at unbeaten Birmingham City on Sunday.
“I thought the second half was much better. We started to control the game and we started to be more offensive. We have to take that into the Birmingham game.
“I made a slight tactical adjustment that meant we could get a foothold in the game. We hit the bar twice, had a goal disallowed but we just didn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
With so many players underperforming on City’s biggest night of the season so far, Cushing didn’t go as far to say they’d let themselves down but admitted his team will know they’d done enough to win.
“They’re an honest group,” he said. “They know they’ve come short by their own standards but they’ve played a good team. It’s very, very disappointing and we’re hurting at the moment because this is where we’ve played well but it’s football, we’ve lost against a team that was better than us for 135 minutes.”
He added, “I’m a realist. If you don’t play well or start well you’re always going to give yourselves a mountain to climb. We didn’t play well enough in the first half. We didn’t show enough hunger and desire to control the game.”
City may feel they were unlucky to come up against the champions of Spain in theoretically the first round of the main tournament, but Cushing said in his prematch conference on Tuesday that wishing for lesser opponents wasn’t the right attitude.
After a defeat which now sees City already just fighting to get back in the tournament for the 2019–2020 season, the City manager believes people should no longer be surprised about teams struggling.
“I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised. With it being such a random draw you never know who you’re going to get. You have to prepare to be the best. You see on Sunday people perceived we should beat Bristol but the women’s game is getting so competitive that just thinking you’re the best is going to leave you short. You have to improve because everyone else is improving.”
Cushing’s task doesn’t get any easier. With Man City already trailing FA WSL leaders Arsenal by four points, Cushing now takes his side to Marc Skinner’s Birmingham City on Sunday, a ground which left their title bid last season in tatters and could already leave them seven points off the top of the league.
“I don’t really ever distinguish between opponents. All the games are tough, I consistently speak to the team about it. You’ve seen in 2016 when London Bees beat Chelsea or last year when Yeovil drew with Arsenal, these are all results people perceive the big teams should win.
“The women’s game is growing and if people don’t understand this then you’re going to be left behind if you’re a player or a coach.”
If City is to get a positive result at Birmingham and get their season back on track and avoid what would be one of Cushing’s lowest weeks in the job should they succumb to another defeat, they’ll have to do better than the 2-0 defeat of last season.
With long-term question marks still hanging over City’s inability to score goals in big games, the Atlético defeat came two years and a day after they beat Chelsea 2-0 to secure the FA WSL title in a season where the team went unbeaten and conceded just four goals all season, only one from open play.
City is now struggling to score and suddenly struggling to keep the goals out after starting the season with positive 0-0 draws at both Chelsea and Birmingham, the latter in the cup.
Wednesday night was, incredibly, the eleventh time in 2018 that City has failed to score in a match, a figure far too high for a team with their quality.
An overhaul in attack during the summer appears to have bared no change. Lauren Hemp is still a teenager and with Janine Beckie currently in North America for World Cup qualifiers, Cushing turned to Nadia Nadim in the second half but the Danish forward endured another frustrating game.
Not for the first time, Nadim was unable to influence a big game and it’s hard to imagine Cushing would have been so set on keeping the want-away forward had the club been able to secure a replacement before the end of the transfer window.
“We’ve said before we need our forwards to show more hunger to score goals and be more clinical,” he said.
“We want to create more clear chances and we’ll get on the training pitch to work hard to improve that.”
Cushing, though, did reserve praise for both Hemp and Stanway, who were undoubtedly City’s two best performers before the former was withdrawn with a hamstring problem.
“I’m hugely impressed by Lauren and Georgia. Two young, English players taking the game to Atlético, showing they are fearless and they want to work hard to play at the highest level. They were our best players tonight.”
When asked if defeat now puts more pressure on Sunday’s match against Birmingham, Cushing was defiant. After a trophyless season, it should be remembered Cushing has led City to all three domestic trophies during his four years in charge and he was quick to remind everyone of City’s impressive European record.
“I think we put ourselves under more pressure than anybody could put us under,” he said. “We’ve just gone out of the Champions League in our third season and it’s only the third game we’ve lost. We know we’re a good team, we’re not going to panic.”
If there is one silver lining to City’s defeat it is that it now opens up the opportunity for more midweeks to train, rest, and recover.
The Man City boss often lamented what had become an overly hectic schedule in the second half of 2017–2018, with City playing in every game available to them bar the Champions League and FA Cup finals.
With a slightly larger squad and now fewer games to play, Cushing says it’s “not his job to keep people happy,” and adds, “The players’ job is to prove to me they’re good enough to play in the games. I thought Tessa and Caroline showed in the second half they had a hunger to be in the team and they’ve put themselves in line to start on Sunday.”
Cushing also sent a reminder that the two teams City are currently chasing don’t have European commitments either.
“It’s not an advantage [to have weeks off] because the team at the top don’t play Champions League either. We’ll have six more five-day breaks, which we’ve not had so we have more rest and more time to train.”
Whichever way Cushing looks at it, after a night where City crashed out of the Champions League with little more than a flicker, it’s a silver lining he may need.