Gareth Taylor had urged fans to be patient with his new-look Manchester City squad after a hefty turnover of players this summer, but after a disjointed performance in a blistering 4-3 defeat to Aston Villa, spearheaded by Rachel Daly, City fans were left with more questions than answers about their club and the manager.
It was Aston Villa’s first win over Manchester City in five attempts, having conceded 17 and failed to score in their previous four meetings, and they were made to work hard for the win at Villa Park, with City coming from two goals down to take the lead before Villa upped the press on an unconvincing City backline and secured the win.
“It’s a tough one to take,” said Taylor. “I thought we were off it a little bit in the first half, got a lifeline just before half-time and then turned the game around in 10 minutes of the second half. At that point we looked like we were finding our rhythm but if you score three goals and still don’t get anything out of the game – even a draw – it tells you everything about what we were like without the ball.”
There was only room in the starting XI for one of Taylor’s seven new recruits, with the former Atlético Madrid midfielder Laia Aleixandri making her debut in a midfield that sorely missed the bite provided by Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway, who departed for Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively in the summer.
Aleixandri would feel the pressure in the build-up to the opener, being dispossessed by Villa’s new striker Daly before Alisha Lehmann latched on to the loose ball and raced away on the right and fired low past Ellie Roebuck.
The goal was worthy of the home performance, with Carla Ward’s Villa side pressing, harrying and brimming with confidence. Ward had also overseen a summer of changes, with seven new recruits and nine outgoing, but the difference between the transfer windows of the two sides was that City were forced to find replacements for a number of key players, while Villa worked on upgrading their squad to move to the next level.
Villa’s second spoke to that upgrade, and City’s weakening, with Lehmann this time the aggressor, beating the City midfielder Laura Coombs to a dropping ball and allowing Daly to smash it into the top corner.
A mistake from Hannah Hampton gave City a look-in before
the break, with the young England keeper leaning back to atone for her poor footing and sending the ball up into the roof of the net.
It was a lifeline for City. If Taylor had a plan, his players did not seem to know what it was. In the second half, buoyed by the goal and likely fuelled by a testing half-time team talk, City pounced, scoring twice in two minutes to take the lead for the first time.
First, a corner from the left was headed back across goal by Steph Houghton and Bunny Shaw steered her header into the bottom corner. Then, a ball over the top found the winger Chloe Kelly, who lashed a cross into the middle for Coombs to fire past Hampton.
It was a rapid turnaround powered by City’s electric attacking talents but the team’s midfield and defensive fragility would be brutally exposed twice more to cancel out those efforts.
Three minutes after going behind, Villa were level. The new recruit Kenza Dali latched on to a woeful pass into midfield from Houghton before cutting on to her right and lashing past Roebuck, with the strike taking a deflection off Alex Greenwood on the way in.
With less than 15 minutes to play Villa had a deserved winner. Kirsty Hanson’s strike was spilled by Roebuck and Daly was on hand to prod in.
Ward said her players were “sensational” and added that Daly will be “a massive player” for them this season. “Believe it or not she was unwell yesterday and this morning,” Ward added. “We didn’t know after team breakfast if she was going to play and she’s gone out and produced that today. She’s a winner, she sets standards, she gets after people but she can play for sure.”
For Taylor it is a different story. With City already out of the Champions League, having been knocked out by a goal from their former player Caroline Weir in qualifying against Real Madrid, and a 12-team league meaning every point matters, can they afford to be patient for long?