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Manchester City have signed off for 2022, sitting fourth in the WSL table and seeing their Champions League journey end prematurely once more.
It was a busy transfer window window for City ahead of the 2022/23 campaign, with a number of key players departing and a host of new additions arriving to subsequently plug the gaps.
City’s new-look side had a tough start to the season, but have since rallied to remain within touching distance of the top three heading into the second half of the 2022/23 campaign.
With four WSL fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United still to come in 2023, the season could really go one of two ways for City.
After an injury crisis derailed City‘s first half of the 2021/22 campaign, they embarked on a stunning winning streak in the second half to eventually leapfrog rivals Manchester United and secure the final Champions League spot, as well as lifting the Continental Cup in March.
Despite the strong finish to the season, Gareth Taylor’s side headed into the 2022/23 campaign on the back foot once more after a summer of high squad turnover.
Eight players permanently departed City during the transfer window – particularly detrimental were the losses of midfielders Caroline Weir, Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway and right-back Lucy Bronze.
Striker Ellen White also retired on the eve of the new season. This was essentially the spine of the City team. Jill Scott and Karen Bardsley called time on their respective careers, while goalkeeper Karima Benameur Taieb joined Marseille.
City brought in seven new faces during the summer, and while all were players of international calibre, there would need to be a settling in period.
The 2022/23 season did not start well for City. For a second year in a row, they were eliminated from the Champions League during the qualification rounds by Real Madrid – Caroline Weir scoring the decisive goal only rubbed more salt into the wound. The domestic season also started with a stutter, as City suffered two straight WSL defeats – a surprise 4-3 loss to Aston Villa on the opening day, before being beaten 2-0 by league champions Chelsea.
Since the October international break, the pieces have started to fall into place for City. They won nine on the bounce in all competitions, and finished the calendar year with a 1-1 draw with rivals Manchester United in front of a club record crowd at the Etihad Stadium.
City sit three points off the top three and eight points behind WSL leaders Chelsea having played one game fewer than the Blues. With two fixtures against Arsenal and one against both Chelsea and Manchester United to play, Taylor ambitiously has his sights on more than just European football.
“We want to win the league,” the City boss said following the 1-1 draw with United. “We’re not just looking at the Champions League. We’ve put ourselves in a position to win the league. If we win all of our games in the second half of the season, we win the league, it’s as simple as that. We’ve shown that we can go on winning streaks.”
There hasn’t really been one outstanding win or moment for City this term, rather just a string of consistently good results and performances. City’s highlight is therefore is not necessarily an iconic milestone in their season, but it’s been chosen because of what it represents in the wider context of their campaign.
Laura Coombs expertly rifled the ball into the top corner from the edge of the area to net City’s third goal inside half an hour against Brighton in December – a 3-1 victory that marked their sixth successive league win. This winning run came in spite of such high squad turnover in the summer and losing so many vital players.
“I didn’t expect it to gel so well so quickly,” new right-back Kerstin Casparij said in October. “Obviously the first two games weren’t good, but now everything’s settling in very well and we’ve really found our pace, found our feet.”
City lost their entire, world class starting midfield three of Weir, Walsh and Stanway in the summer. Coombs, largely a fringe player since joining the club in 2019, has stepped up in the trios absence and blossomed into a really important player for City this term, netting four goals in nine appearances from midfield.
City’s winning run was against teams all outside of the WSL’s ‘big four’, but featured victories over Tottenham, a team that tripped them up at a similar stage last term, and a much improved Everton. To click so quickly, and still be within touching distance of the Champions League places despite the exodus that occurred during the summer is the real highlight for City. It will be interesting to see how they fare against Arsenal and Chelsea in the new year.
Having put together such an impressive winning streak during the second half of last season to pip Manchester United to the final Champions League spot, City had exited the competition by August.
Just like last season, City were handed a tough opponent in the qualifying rounds in the shape of Real Madrid, and just like last season, they crashed out before the group stages after failing to overcome the Spanish outfit. To rub salt into the wound, it was former fan favourite Caroline Weir who netted the decisive winner, just three months on from her departure from the club.
“You just need time and unfortunately in this format you don’t get any at all especially with the Euros,” Taylor said following the defeat.
“The Lionesses went all the way which limited match exposure and cohesion. It’s the same for both teams though. It’s very early in the season to play this calibre of game.”
Taylor admitted that White’s retirement in August – announced a day after City exited the Champions League – was ‘a bit of a jolt’. But it wasn’t a case of panic stations for City, as in Bunny Shaw they already had a player who had shared the starting striker role with White last season, netted nine WSL goals, and previously boasted a fearsome goalscoring record with Bordeaux in France.
With the ‘number nine’ role now exclusively hers, Shaw has excelled. The forward has found the net eight times in nine WSL appearances this term, averaging a goal every 96 minutes. Her aerial ability is lethal and she has thrived from the service provided by Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp on either wing.
Although it is her alertness, instinct and movement in the penalty area that has proved so effective this season, Shaw also has a long range spectacular in her locker, netting a stunning strike from distance against Tottenham in October.
“She had a good season last year, people overlook that a bit, and she’s taken on the responsibility of being the number nine for this club,” Taylor said of Shaw in October. “She’s a young player, with lots more to come I believe. She’ll score goals. She’s proven that previously and she’s proven it here.”
Laura Coombs has also stepped up massively following City’s midfield exodus in the summer and deserves a mention for her superb performances during the first half of the season.
City made seven new summer signings – Deyna Castellanos, Leila Ouahabi, Laia Aleixandri, Mary Fowler, Sandy MacIver, Kerstin Casparij and Yui Hasegawa – many of whom have already firmly established themselves as regular starters.
Keira Walsh’s world record transfer to Barcelona was confirmed towards the latter stages of the window, leaving a huge void in the City midfield. Hasegawa was brought in as her deadline day replacement – not a like for like holding midfielder by any means, but a similarly technically gifted player.
The 25-year-old has fitted in seamlessly, a perfect match for City’s passing style of play with her bravery on the ball, ability in tight spaces and composure. City are yet to lose a match that Hasegawa has featured in.
“It’s like she’s been playing for us for the past five-ten years,” Taylor said after Hasegawa’s second City appearance. “A real maturity to her play. We’ve slightly changed her position a little bit because I’ve said she’s bright enough to play in all the midfield positions. I can’t speak highly enough of her in how she’s come in and how she’s contributed.”
Laura Coombs has exclusively scored stunning or important goals for City this season. A well-taken brace against Aston Villa on the opening day, a wonderful strike from the edge of the box against Brighton in December, and the vital equaliser in the Manchester derby a week later.
Her second goal against Villa in September is the pick of the bunch. The midfielder collected Chloe Kelly’s cross on her chest and watched the ball bounce, before rifling a stunning half volley into the roof of the net. The technique was exquisite and it was such a sweetly struck strike.
City’s new signings have bedded in swiftly, and December’s Manchester derby was the first ‘big four’ test for Taylor’s side since the team’s settling in period. The 1-1 draw demonstrates they are still competing with the league’s elite despite their squad turnover, but a title tilt this season does seem unlikely, despite Taylor insisting that that remains their aim.
City are still in the mix for a Champions League spot, and to be in with a shout given the start they had and the players they lost is an achievement in itself. However, Manchester United have strengthened this season in comparison to last, while the players City have brought in fill the void created by the summer deaprtures rather than actively making the squad better.
It could go down to the wire again, but City may miss out on the Champions League for the first time since their debut season as a WSL club.
Predicted finish: 4th