Manchester United manager Casey Stoney cut a frustrated figure after a narrow 0–1 defeat to Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village on Wednesday night.
The United boss took a split second to consider her thoughts before expressing it was the “same story, different day.”
It was the second cup competition that Stoney’s side has been eliminated from in the past four days and their seventh defeat in all competitions this season.
While Stoney once again lamented the standard of refereeing quick off the back of Saturday’s “goal or no goal” debate against Manchester City, the United boss claimed referee Elizabeth Simms missed a “blatant, obvious penalty” when Jess Sigsworth was nudged to the ground under pressure from Millie Bright.
Lack of Goals
But there is a common theme in each of United’s seven defeats this season: every single one has been only by a single goal.
Five of the seven have seen United lose 0–1, with their inability to put the ball in the back of the net their downfall now twice against Chelsea, once against their city rivals, once against champions Arsenal, and recently in a frustrating home defeat to a Bristol City side without a win all season.
Fine margins have often denied United in some of their defeats this season, but Stoney is hoping at some point her side’s luck will turn.
“It could have been different if we’d been given a blatant, obvious penalty,” said Stoney. “It’s a very well taken goal by them, but considering we were missing Kirsty Hanson, Leah [Galton], Ella Toone wasn’t available.
“I thought Lizzie Arnot came in and did exceptionally well. We’ve had two days’ prep and had a very difficult game at the weekend, so I thought my players equipped themselves brilliantly. Like I say, hopefully, maybe at some point, our luck will turn.”
After admitting her side played “terribly,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes praised Stoney for making her side so difficult to play against given how new they still are to the top division, as once again Hayes had to rely on Maren Mjelde to be the difference in an encounter with United.
Hayes will bring her side back to Leigh next week for a crucial league match and knows it will be another tough match.
“Well I now know the size of the pitch — and let me tell you, that’s the biggest pitch in the league,” said Hayes. “When you’re running around thinking, ‘Jesus, it’s two meters longer and one meter wider extra’, you have to think about those distances and that made it harder for us to press in the way that we wanted to. So, yes, I’ve learnt about the pitch.
“About Manchester United, they’ve come into the league with a group of players that have brought them up and they’re so difficult to break down. Real credit to Casey and the staff — they’re such a tough group to play against and defensively, they’re one of the best teams, because you can’t get around them easily. They’re organized, efficient, aggressive. I think it’ll be even harder coming up here.”
For a newly promoted side, United has conceded just one goal against the “big three” in their league meetings this season, but not found the net themselves. With Jane Ross not firing on all cylinders and Lauren James the only apparent alternative after the departure of Ebony Salmon, Stoney admitted she can’t “hide away” from the fact she needs more goals in the team.
“Yeah, I suppose you would say that,” she said. “We maybe lack a bit of clinical edge in the final third, which we have done all season, so that’s not different. But Jess is through on goal, one on one. Why would she go down? That’s a game-changing moment and a potential goal-scoring opportunity. And then Lauren goes in, very well defended by Hannah Blundell, has another chance, that goes over the bar.
“We’re playing against a good Chelsea team, full of internationals, my players are still bedding themselves into this league. We do need more goals in our team. We can’t hide away from that, we definitely do. But we do pride ourselves on defending well because it’s gives us a good chance to win the game.”
It’s easy to forget United is indeed only six months old at this level and 18 months old as a club, but with a loyal fan base behind them who are quickly demanding improving results, a return to winning ways against Reading on Sunday is much needed, even with an ever-increasing injury list.
Stoney admitted Hanson will miss a “considerable amount of time” with an ankle injury and that Leah Galton remains out but is hopeful of a return soon for one of the stars of the season.
Abbie McManus will be assessed after leaving the pitch with an ankle injury and was seen on crutches soon after the game.
“It seems to be that when it rains, it pours in terms of injuries. But that’s why we have a squad and that’s why our game-changers come in and make a difference,” said Stoney.
On the fine margins defining games, Stoney added, “It’s encouraging but frustrating, because we need to try and turn those fine margins into our favor. Like I say, they work so hard, day in day out. I’ve got a fantastic group of players who I’m extremely proud of. On a different day, maybe we come away with a different result, but we’re growing, we’re learning, we get stronger from these losses, we definitely do, we learn so much from them.
“There’s not many teams that would come into this league and six months in be able to put on the show they did against Man City and have the resilience to come back and then put on the show they did tonight against a very good Chelsea team. I’m really proud of the players and how far they’ve come.”
After a semifinal loss in the same competition last season to Arsenal, Stoney believes it will teach her young team lessons moving forward but returned to the subject of refereeing and continued to hammer home the point that standards need to improve.
“It does teach them. It teaches them [my players] that when they work hard, and they go out there and they perform, they deserve a better standard of refereeing, because we have to do something, as a game, to improve that level.
“For me, that’s not a semifinal performance from a referee, with two top sides. They’re big moments that change games. We’ve been on the wrong end of two decisions over the last two games. All I want is for my players to be rewarded for their hard work.”
Hayes, meanwhile, was delighted to reach the Continental Cup final, surprisingly, for the first time, after a number of semifinal defeats herself in the past, as well as a shock defeat to the London Bees in 2016.
“Everybody knows we’ve stumbled at this stage, so to finally cross that line and not be at our best… I think most people would say winning teams, you have to have all sides of you, and I think we showed another side to us tonight without two very strong players who are absent, and we came through it in a very difficult place.
“I’m proud of the players for that. I think there’s a really good togetherness in the squad — they’ve always been a good bunch, but right now there’s a calmness, a composure to the team. I can see them making decisions throughout, which is dreamland as a coach when they’re on top of that. We had a lot of poor performances tonight, but we did enough.”
Hayes admitted Mjelde’s second-half goal was the “only moment of quality” in a game where neither Carly Telford nor Mary Earps had much to do, though the latter did make one top save to tip a Bright header onto the bar in the first half.
The Chelsea manager has in the past been critical of the Continental Cup but there’s no doubt she’s got her full focus on beating Arsenal when the sides go head to head at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground next month.
“I want to win, and winning breeds more winning,” she said. “That’s what I’ve learned. So, in the past, when we haven’t won this competition or not made the final, there’s question marks over what your momentum will be. Now, you’re in a final, you got that to prep for. You’re competing on the front for the league, you’ve got the FA Cup to look forward to — I think getting on a roll is important. There’s a hunger in our group this year that wasn’t there last year. There’s a stronger mentality in the group. Setback creates that. But we’re not going to the final to make the numbers up.”
Hayes was quick to scupper any talk of a potential domestic treble with the Blues looking strong in all three competitions heading into February.
“Bloody hell, Jesus,” she laughed. “I have far too much respect for this league and the teams within it. I think there will be twists, for sure. If Arsenal go and win for the second time at the weekend, that’s some feat. For you to beat the same opponent within four days, that’s tricky. If that happens, where does that leave Man City in the title race? And then we have to go up there — maybe there’s a swing again, who knows? I think it will be a bit clearer come April.”
Hayes also believes it’s the first time all three sides have genuinely been in the hunt for the FA WSL title heading into the run-in.
While City will has to deal with the departure of Nick Cushing after the weekend, there’s little to separate the three teams. Last season, Chelsea’s sub-standard start to the season left City and Arsenal to duel it out while Arsenal had largely been out of the picture until Joe Montemurro was appointed head coach from Melbourne City.
“I think it will be a three-horse race all the way through,” said Hayes. “I think Man United still have a role to play on where the title ends up and I think that’s what starts to happen at this stage. You start to see the value of the squad at this stage, we lose players, so do Man United; we have Arsenal too but they’ve got a bit more depth than perhaps some of the smaller clubs. I think it’s those that manage to keep their best players on the pitch that will last the distance. No pressure to my backroom team.”