(I don’t always write about football matches, but when I do I watch them at six in the morning on BT Sport 2 because I missed it live)
Liverpool have started their defence of the Women’s Super League title well, with a 1-0 home win over league newcomers Manchester City at the Select Security Stadium, thanks to a 70th minute strike from last season’s top scorer Natasha Dowie. Although City boast great individual players, such as Toni Duggan and Jill Scott, their lack of, particularly defensive, team cohesion was obvious in the goal they conceded, and the chances Liverpool created.
This was City’s first WSL match, and it showed, with manager Nick Cushing encouraging a high defensive line, but perhaps lacking the team unity to make it work; Liverpool’s goal came from a long ball from the centre-halves over the top, with the back four failing to step up in unison to catch Dowie offside. The front end of the team was also ineffective in pressing the ball, with new signings Duggan and Scott being left largely isolated upfield to chase the Liverpool back four and three central midfielders; the wingers Johnston and Christiansen didn’t press the Liverpool full-backs enough to generate the high pressure needed for a high line.
City were also playing a strangely narrow high line, with Lipman, Marsh, and later Harding, tucking in almost as wide centre-halves, as opposed to full backs. This gave Liverpool’s wingers Davison and Longhurst space to run into wide, but also meant they had time to cut inside, and run at the centre-backs, as they did five minutes into the second half, with Longhurst running in from the left, Dowie and Da Costa surging through the middle, and Davison finding space on the right of the overloaded City defence to shoot, and win a corner.
The defence was not helped by individual mistakes; the left back Harding looked uncomfortable playing so narrow after she came on for the injured Marsh, passing to a Liverpool player in the penalty area, leading to a chance the Reds should have scored from. Had she been as wide as she perhaps expected to play, this mistake wouldn’t have been so dangerous. Also, centre-back Chelsea Nightingale played poorly, often stepping up too far to press Liverpool midfielders, leaving space in behind the left centre-back area for Dowie to run into; it’s no coincidence that her goal came from running in behind the gap between Nightingale and Harding.
But Lucy Ward is correct in saying there are positives for City; Houghton had a great game at centre-back, clearing off the line in the 52nd minute to symbolise the fact that she was good enough to compensate for most of Nightingale’s weaknesses on the night, and City played very well when playing quickly: a series of one-touch passing on the right created space for Johnston, whose first-time cross was headed wide by Duggan after 65 minutes. Duggan also had a chance to equalise for City five minutes from time, after being played in behind the Liverpool right back Easton on a counter-attack, and the late introduction of teenage winger Flint provided more pace and direct running than Johnston, which complimented Duggan’s movement and good shooting and could have been a greater threat had she played for longer.
The Champions were largely untroubled, with their 4-3-3 echoing old Italian broken teams; Dowie, Longhurst and Davison attacked, while the back four and midfielders sat off City, which was especially effective for starving Jill Scott of the ball; she was ineffective against Bronze and Bonner, and was overwhelmed by Da Costa, Omarsdottir and Williams as she came deeper to collect the ball. It’s telling that her best bit of play, a sweeping pass through to Duggan after 66 minutes, came as she was forced wide to find the ball. Liverpool also played a much better pressing game than City, even if Longhurst’s closing down goal of Worrall was called for handball, with the three strikers covering the width of the pitch, and switching positions to ensure the ball was always being pressed with energy, unlike the isolated, central figures of Duggan and Scott for City.
They attacked very well, too, exploiting City’s high line as early as the tenth minute, forcing a good reaction save from Worrall, and finding space in the City third three times in three minutes, with Da Costa in the right-hand channel, Dowie running in behind Nightingale and Davison finding space on the wing from a clearance, all just before half-time. The fact that Da Costa got forward, despite sitting deeper for the majority of the game, is another testament to the pressing of their front three, which left their midfielders fresh to attack and exploit space as needed.
The defence was also solid, with the only real pressure being put on them coming from the substitute Flint in the 88th minute, and poor positioning from Bronze and Bonner on a cross in the 39th minute was not punished by Christensen, as Goalkeeper Stout was able to cover the ground and force a corner.
Although there was a worrying lack of goals in this game – that for all the energy of the front three, they scored once against an injury-depleted defence, with Marsh going off at half-time and Worrall herself being a 37-year-old backup – the Reds did score 46 in the 14 games last season, and the addition of Davison to their front line should only result in more goals over the next 13 games. A more offensive-minded midfield three would also be helpful in games against weaker sides, who will simply sit off Liverpool; I love their front free, but they might simply be overwhelmed by a park-the-bus job, such as their home Continental Cup game against WSL 2 side Sunderland on the 3rd of May.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Stout; Harris (Easton 69), Bonner, Bronze, Schroder; Williams (Dale 88), Omarsdottir, Da Costa; Longhurst, Dowie, Davison
Subs not used: Gibbons, Stewart, Hodson
Goals: Dowie 70
Man City (4-4-1-1): Worrall; Lipman, Houghton, Nightingale, Marsh (Harding 45); Johnston (Flint 81), Holbrook, Hassett, Christiansen; Scott; Duggan
Subs not used: Brooks, Turner, Shepherd
Cards: Three yellows (Johnston, Nightingale, Holbrook) and no reds
Referee: A. Fearn
The next round of three matches is at 2pm on Sunday 20th April, which might be streamed somewhere, and the (legal) FA WSL Review Show is on at 6:30pm on BT Sport 1 on Tuesday 22nd April.