What does defeat to Manchester City mean for Manchester United’s Women’s Super League title challenge?
Had things gone to plan for Manchester United this week, they would be three points clear at the top of the Women’s Super League table.
Casey Stoney’s side had only lost once this season before Sunday, that at the home of champions Chelsea, and have spent the campaign either setting the pace or keeping up with it, despite it being their second season in the top-flight.
Instead, they go into the international break three points off the top having played a game more than everyone else.But where United are is exactly where they wanted to be. It’s important, given the disappointment of the last few days, that isn’t forgotten.“We never set our aspirations for a title race in the first place,” Stoney said on Friday night, after a 3-0 defeat in the Manchester derby.“It was about qualifying for the Champions League. That is still very much in our hands. We need to improve, we need to learn, we need to try and pick up maximum points from here on.”The manner in which this team have fallen behind in their unlikely title race will be tough to take.Last Sunday, they hosted a Reading side who have been inconsistent in their results this season. They have taken points from Arsenal and Manchester City, but have lost to both West Ham and Birmingham – two of the bottom four.Given Man Utd went their first 10 games of the season unbeaten, dropping points to only Manchester City and Chelsea, one would’ve expected a comfortable win over the Royals.Instead, Stoney’s well-drilled side uncharacteristically conceded goals from set pieces to suffer a 2-0 defeat.As a former defender herself – and a very good one, at that – it will have annoyed United’s head coach enough, but to see her side repeat the unwanted trick a few days later at the home of their bitter rivals will have been infuriating.Her team were following the game plan to a tee until Lucy Bronze fired home midway through the first half, too.Knowing City would have plenty of the ball, especially on their own patch, United set up to frustrate them. They let Gareth Taylor’s side have the ball in defence, but as Steph Houghton and Abby Dahlkemper looked to build attacks, they were faced with a flat midfield four and two energetic bodies up front that covered every option they might have.To be undone from another dead ball situation, then, will have been a real blow.
“Imagine how frustrated I am now,” Stoney said, reminded of how frustrated she was when her side conceded from two set pieces just five days prior.“If we make ourselves a target from set pieces, it’s going to cause us a problem.”The defending for the second goal was hardly a masterclass, either, with United given two chances to clear the ball before Lauren Hemp put it in the back of the net.Were the lapses in concentration this week signs of the pressure the team are feeling in being in a title race, whether it was in their ambitions or not?“I’d have to speak to the defenders about that,” Stoney said.“We’re in a very different situation, aren’t we, in terms of always being the underdogs, always being the ones that aren’t expected to win, then all of a sudden the pressure is on you to perform.”
It may have been a tough week, but this is no autopsy. United are still firmly in the driver’s seat for their aim this season: Champions League football.There is one especially big clash left in that respect, when they face a stuttering Arsenal side, who sit one place and nine points behind them, next month. Avoid defeat in that game, win the rest of their fixtures and they will be assured of a top three finish.Leah Galton limped off during the defeat to City, but Alessia Russo, who the Gunners themselves wanted to sign, will be back for Arsenal. Lauren James, the sensational teenage talent who scored at Chelsea last month, could also have returned by then. Lucy Staniforth, a well-established creative midfielder in this league, may also be available.
Given the shocks the league saw last week – Brighton beating Chelsea as well as Reading beating Man Utd – Man City and Chelsea may even slip up and let United back into this title race too.It might feel like all doom and gloom for the Red Devils’ fans right now – and that’s fair. Losing to your bitter rivals is never going to bring the positives into view.But the bigger picture is still very pretty and could get better yet.