Since crashing out of the Champions League to Atlético Madrid in the first knockout round of this season’s showpiece European competition, Manchester City have taken seven points from nine in the FA Women’s Super League, scoring 12 goals in just three games since the Spanish champions humbled them in their own home.
Overall, Nick Cushing’s team sits in a relatively strong position in third place in the FA WSL with 11 points from 15 in what has so far been an unbeaten start to the season. Not bad for a team that has already had to travel to both champions Chelsea and perennial challenger Birmingham City before October is out.
City sits a point behind both Marc Skinner’s side and early leaders Arsenal while sitting five points clear of Chelsea and having scored a staggering 14 goals more than the stuttering title holders over the five first games.
Just days after Atlético dumped them out of Europe and in which Cushing had admitted slow starts in games had finally become a worry for him, City once again found themselves 0-2 down at home to usual strugglers Bristol City.
As has so often become the norm for a team viewed as one of the best in Europe after back-to-back Champions League semifinals, City found themselves trailing by two goals for the sixth time in 2018 alone and not for the first time battled back to take something from the game.
It was a show of strength and proof Man City can score at will when they up the intensity but another warning sign fired straight at the manager that his team is struggling to put the ball in the back of the net given the context of how many chances they create.
Fast forward to their next league game against Birmingham City and Cushing found himself and his team in full crisis mode. Having already dropped points at Chelsea and at home to Tanya Oxtoby’s Bristol either side of European elimination, the Citizens found themselves once again trailing 0-2 against a team that had yet to concede all season.
One week later and City had completed a remarkable comeback to win 3-2 and backed that up with an impressive 7-1 demolition of Matt Beard’s West Ham United at the City Academy. Ten goals, six points, and a positive position in the table has somewhat brightened the picture at the Etihad Campus and it now looks like City is well equipped to challenge to take back their title.
But the issue of City’s ups and downs in front of goal won’t dampen. In games against the so-called “weaker” half of the league, the players put out on the pitch by Cushing haven’t struggled to be ruthless when needed.
City also beat Everton, 4-0, earlier this season and at the end of last season beat the same team, 3-0, on the final day as well as Yeovil Town by five just days before.
A 6-1 win versus Bristol City, 3-0 versus Sunderland, 4-0 versus Liverpool, 5-2 at Reading, and even a 5-2 win at home to Arsenal during their 2017–2018 campaign showed that at times the team is as good as anybody, eventually comfortably out-scoring champions Chelsea over the course of the season.
But it’s the big games where questions still remain. City was toothless at Chelsea on opening day, failed to trouble Atlético Madrid for a game and a half bar one corner and appeared to have a hangover from the season previous.
Because intertwined with the impressive looking victories against teams weaker than themselves, City lost 1-0 at Liverpool on an evening where their title ambitions fell by the wayside, following on from 0-2 defeats to Birmingham and Reading, an FA Cup semifinal 0-2 loss at Chelsea, a 0-1 Continental Cup final loss to Arsenal, and they also drew a blank in both legs of their Champions League semifinal against Lyon.
Punishing the smaller teams while having their deficiencies exposed against the better sides? Perhaps. It’s still a question which is unanswerable and while City continues to challenge for the titles the reasons for their fluctuating form in front of goal can be pushed to one side.
Speaking after Sunday’s 7-1 victory, the first time in fact City had ever reached such a tally in the FA WSL, in-form winger Nikita Parris said it was something that came more from the media than from the team themselves.
The team’s top scorer last season, their top scorer this season, and indeed the team’s top scorer in their short history, Parris is better placed than most to make a judgement.
“I think that’s the perception of you in the media, not us as a team,” said Parris. “You guys say to us we don’t score enough goals yet we were the top scorers in the league last season.”
A fair point, and a factual description which indeed is inarguable when faced with the FA WSL tables for both last season and this.
But you can also place other evidence, such as the continuous run of tough games in which City failed to find the net, in front of people and suggest there is indeed a clinical issue when it comes to the tougher challenges, something Cushing will certainly hope to address when they welcome league leaders and likely now their main title rivals in Arsenal on December 2.
The manager himself is less blunt on the issue, stating he both agrees and disagrees with elements of Parris’s statement and admitted last weekend his side could score even more despite their more than impressive haul, a ratio of just over three per game.
“I do agree with Nikita but I disagree a little bit in the sense that yes we do score a lot of goals for an FA WSL team, we broke the record last year, we’ve scored 16 this year, but the amount of opportunities we create our decision-making can be better.”
Cushing added, “Am I pleased with the start? Of course. I’m hugely disappointed about the Champions League but it is what it is. We’re in and around the top of the league, we’re unbeaten, and we’ve just won 7-1 against a difficult team. We want to score more goals, concede less of them and make games more difficult for the opposition.”
With the game coming off the back of three consecutive matches in which his side found themselves 0-2 and with all the work to do, City turning the tables and leading a match 2-0 after just nine minutes would have been a big relief to the manager.
Though questions will continue to float over the City Academy until the team finds its groove one way or another in the big games, Cushing said his side can’t keep gifting goals to teams.
“I think as a team and as a coach we’re a little bit annoyed with ourselves that in the last three games we were making some really basic errors, starting slowly in games.
“If you gift goals to teams at this level you can’t really win football games. Today we wanted to make sure we did ourselves justice and prove to ourselves we are a good team, that we’re not being complacent.”
After Parris herself grabbed a couple of goals and a couple of assists to continue her good form for club and country, Cushing did find time to praise the winger, as well as new signing Caroline Weir who was as equally impressive in both the win against West Ham and the week before against Birmingham City.
“We try and find a rest for Nikita somewhere but trying to play without her is really difficult,” he admitted. “Her best attribute aside from being a good footballer is how competitive she is. I love how she plays the game. I love that type of player who plays with so much heart, so much spirit, so much fight, she drives the team on.”
On Weir, Cushing said, “Caroline is an incredible footballer and today was almost a masterclass from her if you watch the way she played. Her tactical knowledge of how to get the ball back, her passing, her ability to change the game, her set-piece delivery, she’s a very, very good footballer.”
Man City go to Brighton this weekend looking to continue their good run of form, safe in the knowledge one of Birmingham or Chelsea will again drop points while Arsenal faces the tricky proposition of a good Reading team without the injured Kim Little.
Cushing’s side have every chance of regaining their FA WSL crown this season, aided ironically by their lack of Champions League games which hindered them last season, but for now the questions of whether or not his side will step up when it really matters will linger until the evidence proves otherwise.