It is not unrealistic to say Manchester City’s devastating week could derail their season only two weeks into the campaign.
Gareth Taylor’s team crashed out of Champions League qualifying to the debutants Real Madrid, conceding late in Spain to draw 1-1 before losing 1-0 at home last Wednesday. Four days later City conceded in the cruellest of ways with four minutes remaining of their Women’s Super League game against Tottenham to lose 2-1.
Taylor can lament the manner of the goal, with Rosella Ayane’s almost comical handball causing the ball to deflect off Steph Houghton, bounce off the post and go into the net via the knee of the goalkeeper Karima Benameur.
“It’s pretty incredible that we’ve not had that chalked off,” Taylor said. However, as the manager himself said, the game “should have been out of sight before the time we get to that”.
It was the first time City had lost in the league to a team who were not Arsenal or Chelsea since a 1-0 defeat by Liverpool in May 2018 and it ended a 33-game WSL winning streak at home. Every defeat is costly in the WSL. With only 12 teams the margin of error is small and that is part of the attraction of the league: every result matters. City lost only once last season, to the champions Chelsea, but that cost them the title and an automatic spot in the Champions League group stage.
As City reflect on a start that sees them off the pace in the league and out of the Champions League it would be natural to ask questions about the capabilities of the manager of the highly ambitious team. Except Taylor has, in many ways, begun with both hands tied behind his back.
No fewer than 13 City players took part in the Olympics and four reached the final four in Tokyo. There were only 25 days between the Olympic women’s final and City’s Champions League first leg against Real Madrid. Accounting for travel, jet lag and time off for players who had endured a gruellingly long and complex season because of Covid, Taylor’s time to get his squad ready was minimal.
Madrid, meanwhile, had one player in Japan, with Kosovare Asllani part of Sweden’s silver medal-winning squad, and played five times before their home leg against City.
After City’s exit, Taylor said: “We didn’t do any games in pre-season and that was the situation we were in. Our pre-season preparation wasn’t great and the Olympics probably hurt us more than most teams in terms of the return to training for most of the girls.”
Gareth Taylor is under pressure after a disappointing start to the season. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, expressed solidarity with Taylor after her team’s 4-0 defeat of Everton on Sunday. “For a manager to go through pre-season without a pre-season friendly … The pressure is on us to win games and I think that can always be seen as an excuse, but I agree with him.
“I’ve made this point several times about player welfare. It’s not acceptable, it’s not acceptable on the players, and Man City lost out as a result of that.
“Real Madrid had their players together the whole time, didn’t have players at the Olympics, all had a full pre-season, and then everybody is up in arms, having a go at City and come on, give them a break.”
City’s injuries are another reason to feel somewhat sympathetic. In addition to the longer-term injuries to the goalkeepers Ellie Roebuck and Karen Bardsley (calf and hamstring respectively), the defender Lucy Bronze (knee), midfielder Keira Walsh (calf) and forward Chloe Kelly, who ruptured an ACL before the Olympics, City have had to ease in the striker Ellen White and midfielder Georgia Stanway. Now Scotland’s Caroline Weir has tendonitis, the Australian forward Hayley Raso a shoulder injury and the right-back Esme Morgan had to leave the field on a stretcher on Sunday.
It was somewhat inevitable that eventually the huge number of games City players have had to play would take their toll – and that time has come.
“We need to be pretty flawless for the rest of the season,” Taylor said after the defeat by Tottenham.
The pressure is on. How Taylor navigates his fragile and depleted squad through the next few games after the international break, including a fixture against a rampant Arsenal and a Women’s FA Cup quarter-final with Leicester, will be a true test of his managerial and tactical skills.