Nick Cushing says he thought it was going to be “one that was going to get away” after Manchester City clinched their third Continental Cup with a tense penalty shootout victory (4-2) against Arsenal.
Cushing’s side hit the bar twice in normal time, first through Nikita Parris and then substitute Janine Beckie in stoppage time, though the Canadian international would go on to score the decisive penalty in the ensuing shootout.
“You go through the emotions but as a coach you have to stay on the game,” said Cushing, “You have to think about your substitutes and your tactics.
“We just didn’t put the ball away. I’ve said it before when we drew against Reading and Bristol City, if you don’t put your chances away you’ll draw games.”
Cushing was able to make several changes with a largely fully fit squad and reverted to what many now view as his strongest 11, with Karen Bardsley getting the nod over Sheffield-born Ellie Roebuck at Bramall Lane.
For Arsenal, it was a different story. It was a strong line up but one big surprise saw Vivianne Miedema left on the bench. Aside from Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, Joe Montemurro’s three remaining options consisted of players not old enough to remember Pokémon.
Speaking about Miedema’s absence, Montemurro said, “Viv didn’t recover entirely from the game on Wednesday and there were some areas where we felt if we put her through 90 minutes we might be putting her at risk. We had to make a decision as to whether we did that or use her for the 30 minutes.”
Miedema was eventually introduced but didn’t look fully fit as she struggled to make a meaningful effort with Man City pinning the Gunners back as the game went on.
It was a repeat of last year’s final but not a repeat of the result. On this occasion it was Man City who looked the fresher, fitter side with options on the bench and despite a cagey and largely uneventful first half, it was Cushing’s side who took the initiative as the game progressed.
“Their mentality and their application was excellent,” said Cushing. “We know you can’t always win and we suffered a bit last year where physically and mentally we weren’t at it.
“We made some changes in the summer and changed a few things about the way we work, employed some new staff, and we bought some new players who improved the squad.”
One of those players, Caroline Weir, was voted player of the match and proved a constant menace with her tantalizing balls into the box, one of which was flicked onto the crossbar by a misfiring Nikita Parris.
Beckie, who was introduced as a second-half substitute in place of Tessa Wullaert, struck the bar deep into stoppage time but got her moment when she fired home the winning penalty.
“We said to Janine after the West Ham game last month that she was coming into games and really improving us and making us a stronger team. She picked up a knock but we know she’s a good player and we know she’ll contribute.”
Another who made a big contribution was goalkeeper Bardsley. The previous undisputed No. 1 has regularly split duties with Roebuck and had little to do during the game before she saved consecutive penalties from Leah Williamson and Daniëlle van de Donk.
“Karen’s situation is evolving,” said Cushing before adding, “She was Man City and England number one and now she’s competing for both shirts. KB shows her strength of character and her ability to be a big keeper in big moments.
“She made a big save in the semifinal and two big saves in the shootout. She’s an incredible person, an incredible goalkeeper and she’s made another big contribution to us winning a trophy.”
Montemurro was honest post-match in accepting Man City created more chances and was probably deserved winners, but also went on to suggest he was hamstrung by the lack of players available and called the style of play on the day “Un-Joe Montemurro.”
“We played a little bit of an ‘un-Arsenal way.’ We had to use the resources that were available but from my perspective we found an Arsenal team with a massive heart and one that has a massive backbone now and a team that has shown it wants to work for each other.”
The manager also admitted he couldn’t watch the penalty shootout but said he was prouder of his players today than 12 months ago when his side walked away with the trophy.
“We had to play a certain way today and I call it very ‘un-Joe Montemurro’ because that’s not my style but we had these resources and we had to come up with solutions for the scenarios. Yes, we played a little bit on the break. Did we want to keep the ball more? Absolutely.”
Arsenal though still hold an advantage over Man City in the league, trailing their rivals by two points with two games in hand and Montemurro and Cushing now won’t see the majority of their players for a while with the international break starting immediately.
Montemurro admitted Arsenal’s primary target has remained the league and securing Champions League football while Cushing believes the win will “galvanize” his side.
“I’m not going to lie to you, the league and Champions League has been our major focus but it’s our nature to go for everything we can,” said Montemurro. “Now we can be a little more calculated in how we approach the title and how we get everybody ready to try and win this thing.”
Cushing said, “I don’t know from Arsenal’s point of view but for us it will give us confidence and give players who haven’t won trophies here to see what we’re about. We lost this last year and it went downhill pretty quickly.
“We lost an FA Cup semifinal we were the better team in because we didn’t have that mentality in the big games and then we lost at Liverpool and Arsenal. All we’re going to do is concentrate on us, keep winning football and keep putting the pressure on.”
It’s Man City’s third Continental Cup triumph in five years and Cushing held a wry smile when discussing his affiliation with the competition.
“Today, we’re proud. The last six to eight months we’ve put in an incredible amount of work. It has a strange meaning to us. It was our first trophy, then we won it on the day my daughter was born, and today we’re the first to lift the brand-new trophy.
“We don’t want to sacrifice trophies because we don’t feel we can be competitive enough across the board and we’ve used the squad. Fran [Stenson] played at Villa, Jess Park has scored goals, Lauren [Hemp] has played games; and to win the first trophy of the season shows our strength and character.”
Speaking about the club’s first trophy in more than 18 months after enduring a trophy-less 2017/18 campaign, Cushing said, “I think we needed it for the team because the team want to win. I don’t think we needed it because when we reflected at the end of last season there were some changes we needed to make and that’s pretty natural because we’ve only been a team for five years.
“It was natural we were going to make some mistakes and change personnel, but for the team I think yes. It just lets you know we’re here to win trophies, play good football, and win for the fans.”
Expanding on the changes made in the summer, Cushing said, “We have a certain strategy with the type of player we sign and the type of person and you can see that in the squad. Then it’s about the number of players and if you’ve got good people around you, which I do, we consistently talk and challenge each other, it’s a collective strategy drive. We reflected last year, we didn’t lose trophies because we weren’t good enough but we didn’t get the strategy right.”
Montemurro now has to pick his side up and admitted he had “mixed emotions” over his players now going off on international duty, adding he’d prefer them to have a break, but both managers and clubs will be ready to do battle as the FA WSL looks to go down to the wire.