As the team with the most points from away games in the WSL this season, it was time for Carla Ward’s squad to put their quality to the test once more. Hosts Manchester City knew they needed a point or three to stay in contention with the teams at the top, while Villa needed the points to break away from the bottom of the table. Ward’s side are far too close to a relegation battle no one expected after the highs of last season.
In her pre-match interview, Ward mentioned how the team “have shown a lot more promise and quality” recently and that “the girls can take confidence from the past results against Manchester City”. But this Villa team are in a very different place to the ones who beat City 2-1 in the Women’s FA Cup quarter-finals in March this year.
Ward chose a 4-2-3-1 formation to try and stifle City’s attack with a strong backline. By moving Rachel Corsie forward to hold that midfield with the commanding Lucy Staniforth, it allowed Simone Magill, Jordan Nobbs, and Kenza Dali freedom to support Daly upfront, offering last season’s Golden Boot winner the supply lines she’s crying out for.
Personally, I would have chosen Kirsty Hanson and Adriana Leon to start as having two attacking threats down the wings might have enabled a stronger, fast-paced start against the home side.
The match began with Villa looking for a first-ever win at City.
Even though the hosts had a very early chance, Villa stayed strong and were able to crowd out Lauren Hemp and remove the danger. It was clear that a mix of progressive, attacking football and solid defending would have to be Villa’s approach.
Villa’s most underrated player, Dani Turner, showed her worth from the off with some great clearances and it was obvious that decision-making from the defenders and goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar would make or break this match, especially with how high City were pressing.
One of our most experienced players, Nobbs, stood out with her quality during this match. Willing to push forward and make some vital runs, demonstrating good link-up play with the forward line, especially Maz Pacheco.
As the game settled, Villa created some really nice build-up play and Nobbs managed to make something from a bad Alanna Kennedy clearance, but the chance went just wide after a deflection and handball calls fell on deaf ears.
But within a minute, super Turner hooked the ball with her right foot over Khiara Keating to make it 0-1 to Villa. It was her first goal in 18 months and one born of complete instinct. The young City keeper certainly wasn’t expecting it and didn’t have a chance to save it.
Villa had followed through on their warning signs and showed they were here to compete. But, as we said in the stands, we’ve seen this before: Villa had already lost the most points after a winning start in the WSL before this game. The signs were ominous.
City were right back on the attack, but Nobbs again was able to run on the counter. She’s working hard to really push the team forward but loose passes on both sides were disrupting the rhythm of the game. Villa needed to capitalise on those errors, instead of making them. Ward’s side would also benefit from someone with the initiative to switch up play. Could that someone special be something to hope for in the transfer window?
In the first half we had glimpses of brilliance with Anna Patten and Turner’s strong partnership at the back, Dali showing her magic to find a way out of the congested midfield area, and moments of lovely link-up with Daly and Nobbs. However, more often than not, Daly could be heard shouting she wanted the ball to her quicker, as her game intelligence saw her in some great positions but she kept getting caught offside, to her frustration.
Close eyes were kept on City attacker Bunny Shaw, and Villa tightened up to make it hard for City to break through, with the home side having to work harder to find any gaps in the defence.
Although the first half was very City dominant, they hadn’t been able to ripple the net, but it wasn’t for want of trying from Hemp. The young City striker’s quality was incredible: her pace, her foresight, her ability to switch up play, and her determination to score is what Villa need from someone to help Daly upfront.
In these first 45 minutes, Villa were thriving on the pressure of playing a top team like City, and the quality of play against a lower team would have probably been enough to win it on another day.
However, the second half was a different story.
Both sides had attempts, with another Nobbs effort going just wide of the crossbar for Villa. She was such a presence on the pitch and was able to quieten Leila Ouahabi while showing her technical experience from Arsenal and England. Villa were finally able to dominate possession since the restart and the stats were going in their favour, they just needed to make something of it.
But City are so dangerous, and Villa’s bliss ended in the 60th minute when the hosts equalised through a strong header from an unmarked Hemp. We’ve seen too often that once Villa concede, they are liable to concede again quickly, and within five minutes Hemp had her brace from a toe-poke into the bottom corner, her fifth goal of the season. Again, no one was on her in the box and Villa had lost another winning position.
As the half progressed, City grew in confidence and Villa looked conflicted between not wanting to concede on the counter and trying to go for the win. Players like Pacheco kept fighting until the end but, unfortunately, is this the consequence of having one of the oldest average team ages in the WSL and not enough depth on the bench to stay in the game after the 70th minute?
An injection of youth and strength did come into the game with Ebony Salmon and Lucy Parker coming on for Nobbs and Corsie, and Salmon made an impact down the wing with Parker right there with her for support. The latter even managed a powerful strike but it was straight into the arms of Keating.
This fight was encouraging and Sarah Mayling and Salmon showed a very good partnership down the right wing with the former picking out space to run into, but the end product was just not there.
As a fan sitting in the stadium, the lack of end product was frustrating. Keeping possession is important, but passing backwards will never help get balls in the back of the net. The only real late chance was Daly’s header in the 93rd minute but she just couldn’t get enough of a connection to put any real power behind it.
Overall, although City were frustrated by us, their skill, quality, and squad depth were the difference, plus some questionable decision-making from the visitors. The way Villa hung in the game after going 2-1 down was a positive, but ultimately, whether it’s 12-1 or 2-1, it’s still another game without any points to show for the effort.
Villa now sit in 10th place on six points, a mere two points above West Ham in the relegation spot. Villa’s last game of the year is at home to Brighton, where every Villa fan is hoping for those magical three points for Christmas.