Setting the tempo
Sheffield powered out of the blocks, Emma Johnson chancing her arm inside of the first minute, her shot off target but the visitors starting as they meant to go on.
The Bees looked to be growing into the game, Jo Wilson driving forward before unleashing an effort that was a comfortable claim for Juliana Draycott. Moments later, the Bees came forward again, this time Deanna Cooper was the one to dance through the Sheffield bodies in a cluttered midfield.
But their opponents hit them right back. Jodie Michalska powered through midfield and into the box and out came Imogen Riches to trouble her, making the angle a tight one for Michalska. Riches stood up to make the save, but her parry fell to Emma Johnson who lashed home from three yards out.
With Sheffield fully settled into the game, the Bees were still trying to find their groove. Evdokia Popadinova chased down the right flank but ran into a firm challenge from Hannah Dale as the hosts looked for chances. Tenacious work from Ashleigh Goddard saw her come away with the ball after two well-timed slide-tackles, but her eventual shot from outside the box deflected harmlessly into Draycott’s arms.
From there on out the Bees started to fade, and fast. Their infrequent spells of pressure were always well met by a regimented Sheffield defence, Carla Ward on hand to make a number of meaty challenges and blocks to keep the hosts at bay.
At the other end, Michalska was making light work of splitting the make-shift defence and getting between and behind the centre backs. One of the moments of the half was halfway through when Riches made a fine fingertip save to push Johnson’s ferocious drive away from the top corner and out for a corner. The eventual effort at the set piece came from Emma Lipman who attempted an over-head kick from seven yards out, the ball flying comfortably over the bar. But still Sheffield came; Michalska, Chelsea Flanagan and Johnson all keen to widen the advantage but unable to capitalise.
Sheffield were doing everything right; smooth build-up play, dangerous looking attacks and when they were asked to defend they flocked back in numbers, blue shirts always outnumbering orange.
The visitors had a glorious chance to make it two when Cooper missed her header and the ball dropped perfectly for Flanagan. However, with Riches rushing out to grab the ball, the striker took aim and somehow managed to drag her shot millimetres wide of the post. Minutes later the Bees were on the charge, Wilson evading two challenges before rolling the ball wide of the far post at the other end, groans resonating around the Hive.
More of the same
Somehow, despite their dominance, Sheffield had only managed to score once in the first-half and the home fans were hopeful that a shakeup at half-time would be enough to see their side get back into a game that was far from over. The break looked to have done the trick as the Bees pressed from the whistle, winning two successive corners, but Sheffield stood up to the attack and were soon pressing onto the front foot.
Ten minutes into the half Sheffield finally doubled their lead, Flanagan picking out Michalska in space in the box for the striker to nod past Riches.
With Sheffield well on top, the Bees found a rare good move as neat work on the left saw Wilson guard the ball and shimmy into the box, her square ball flashed across for Popadinova to poke home at the far post, but the flag was already raised on the Bulgaria international.
With Rhema Lord-Mears down the Bees made their second change, Dani Scanlon – who had started in Sophie Fogarty’s left-back spot looking sharp with good ideas and vision but, like her teammates, her execution was lacking – was replaced by Arsenal loanee Holly Greenwood.
Sheffield also used the stoppage to freshen their personnel, using their second substitution to bring on Liverpool loanee signing Kirsty Hanson for Lord-Mears.
From strength to strength
Ellie Gilliatt – who had been Sheffield’s first change immediately after the second goal – looked to cause problems, tearing up the pitch to feed Flanagan, the attacker's shot well blocked by Cooper.
Dale fired the ball to Hanson whose low cross found Michalska, but the striker could only volley the ball well over the top of the bar from point-blank range. Still, it mattered not when Flanagan made it three just seconds later, Hanson once again providing from the right, Flanagan with the definite touch in amongst cluster of bodies in the Bees box.
With the game quickly slipping from their grasp, the hosts won a free kick in a dangerous position. Paula Howells stood over the ball just outside the box, her delivery straight into the wall summing up the match from the home point of view.
From one end to the other, the visitors won a free kick 30-yards out two minutes later, with Ward sending the set-piece just wide of Riches’ near post.
With less than ten minutes left Sheffield made their last change, Kenedy Owen the replacement for Michalska who’d been exemplary. With their number nine off the pitch Sheffield might have thought they’d lose an attacking edge, but Gilliatt made it four seconds after Michalska had departed. A smart cross from Flanagan found the substitute in acres of space near the back-post, and with time and space Gilliatt finished easily into the bottom corner.
There was to be no respite for the hosts either as Flanagan added a quick-fire fifth just two minutes later. Wilson looked to break for the Bees from the restart but Draycott was a match to the shot and the keeper got the ball rolling through midfield to find Flanagan whose tame shot should have been an easy claim for Riches. However, the deputy keeper could only flick the ball to her right and into the waiting net, misery compounded for hosts, Sheffield absolutely soaring.
It was a sterling performance from the visitors. The team recently-promoted from the FAWPL have been putting the sword to established FAWSL sides for weeks and this win is just the cherry on top of recent wins over three of the top four in WSL 2 (Durham, Bristol City and Everton). Everything Sheffield had to do they did right and they made the win look impossibly easy.
However, what stood out over the 90 minutes was the team mentality. Sheffield weren’t 11 players, they were one team. Everyone played for each other, defending together, attacking together, everyone helping everyone else, blue shirts always swarming orange.
Unfathomably the main quibble from this match was that the finishing still wasn’t all it could be. The visitors scored five but it could have been eight if not more, for all they scored they spurned many more. It would be impossible for their fellow WSL 2 teams not to be wary of them after the results they’ve been putting together, although the composed performances have been there longer than the results.
But then there’s the hosts, the beaten Bees. There were moments in the game when they almost looked to have settled and to have remembered what they’re capable of but they were short-lived. In their 3-1 win over Oxford United last week they’d looked off the pace, but today they were just nowhere near it.
Dave Edmondson’s squad is stretched to the limit. The defence is a patchwork of midfielders and defenders who have either not featured regularly this season or are just out of place and out of sync with each other. Emma Beckett’s absence was palpable. Her no-nonsense defending has been huge for the Bees in recent weeks and without her the rackety home defence looked paper-thin in front of Riches, who really struggled. Whilst there was little she could have done about some of the goals, her decision making throughout the match was poor, and she lacked her usual level of composure. As with Beckett, you only have to look behind the Bees bench to see Sophie Harris urging her side on from the sidelines, in full voice throughout the 90, trying to lead and guide her side as she would if she was on the pitch.
For those who did make it onto the pitch, many were carrying various knocks from a rigorous few games. Goddard, who was once again doing all she could to boss midfield for the hosts, was withdrawn less than an hour in. Arguably the best on the pitch in orange, her withdrawal signalled her inability to give anymore to a team that were fading.
With injuries and players out of position across the pitch, when the Bees looked to attack they were rushed and worried, lacking cohesion, sizzling in the blistering heat but fizzling under pressure. With Bristol awaiting them next Saturday, Edmondson will be hoping they can continue running repairs and he can field a competitive 11, or at the very minimum, a more competent performance.