WSL 1 End of Season Review: Manchester City

The WSL 1 and Continental Cup double caps a successful season for the Sky Blues.

WSL 1 End of Season Review: Manchester City
WSL 1 End of Season Review: Manchester City

Manchester City certainly weren't settling for second-best again this year after falling short to Chelsea in 2015. And, this is certainly the season everything came to fruition for Nick Cushing and his side. FA Women's Super League 1 champions, Continental Cup champions and their first venture into the realm of UEFA Women's Champions League football. Proof of a highly successful campaign and in no uncertain terms a sign that the club have become one of Europe's top teams.

When City re-formed in 2015 and were promoted straight into FA WSL 1, it meant that historic women's football club Doncaster Rovers Belles were pushed down the footballing pedestal in to WSL 2, which certainly came with an onslaught of controversy. However, the Sky Blues weren't just looking to move Manchester City forward but in fact continue to push the progression of women's football in this country.

Three seasons on and the advancement has surpassed everyone's expectations. Having made excellent progress in their first two campaigns, Nick Cushing's side stepped things up a gear this term and are now undoubtedly the best team in England.

Crowning champions

Manchester City completed the season in some style becoming champions after going the whole season unbeaten, conceding only four goals in the process.

Steph Houghton hoisted the trophy in front of a jubilant Manchester City home crowd at the Academy Stadium following the 1-1 draw with Birmingham City, in which they came from a goal down to maintain their unbeaten record.

The draw meant the Sky Blues capped the season with a total of 42 points out of a possible 48, winning 13 and collecting three draws out of their 16 WSL fixtures.

With one game remaining Nick Cushing's side claimed the title with victory over Chelsea, who finished in second place in the table - 5 points behind the champions.

All City needed to do was avoid defeat against Chelsea to seal the title and they certainly did that. Jill Scott headed home from a corner and Toni Duggan converted a spot-kick following Gilly Flaherty's mistimed penalty, to take the crowning glory.

Transfers

Last season's runner's up completed a number of key signings coming into this season, a strong marker that Manchester City were here to take the title this time around.

The WSL off-season saw the arrivals of seasoned internationals Jane Ross and Kosovare Asllani, the latter a real statement of intent from Manchester City and an indication of the progress the league is making as a whole.

Asllani and Ross were the final pieces to complete Nick Cushing's puzzle in 2016 and the Scotland striker was emphatic in front of goal in her first season for the Citizens - scoring 13 goals in 23 games for the club.

Exceptional from start to finish

Manchester City kicked off the season with a bang, a last-grasp injury time winner from captain Steph Houghton was enough to steal the points away from Notts County in the 2016 league season curtain-raiser.

The Blues dominated posession in this match, but only found the breakthrough after a final roll of the dice from the skipper, who curled a trademark free-kick into the back of the net from outside the box to send the Academy Stadium into delirium. Isn't grinding out results the mark of true champions? 

Nick Cushing faced criticism from some about his squad selection, as the City boss opted to whittle down to a very small squad. Having lost last year's player of the season Izzy Christiansen to injury in the victory over Liverpool in the FA Women's Cup, the manager brought American Daphne Corboz into replace the England international.

Whilst Georgia Stanway headed off on International duty, Cushing was forced into bringing development squad players Zoe Tynan, Alethea Paul and Amelia Kemp into the fold. Many thought he was mad for competing with a bare minimum squad coming into the start of the season, but did this turn out to be a stroke of genius? 

As, Pedro Martinez Losa struggled to keep seasoned internationals happy whilst warming the bench for Arsenal, Nick Cushing created a squad with a strong core and an enigmatic will to win.

After a tight affair in their opening fixture City kicked on and picked up vital victories over both Arsenal and Birmingham. Nick Cushing's side beat fellow title contenders Arsenal 2-0 in March, with goals from Ross and Duggan. Following the victory, Duggan was quoted saying she believed her team's form would have the other WSL teams quaking in their boots, but they needed to start putting their opportunities away after squandering numerous chances against Notts County. 

In between putting two goals past the stern defence of Birmingham City, Nick Cushing's side faced Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final where they faced the only disappointment of their season to date. Last season's Women's Super League champions Chelsea celebrated an unbelievable last-gasp victory over their rivals, after Fran Kirby slotted home an extra-time winner to send Wheatsheaf Park into ecstasy and holders Chelsea into their second FA Cup Final in consecutive years.

The Blues bounced back

Manchester City certainly bounced back after the tough defeat to Chelsea, the victory over Birmingham City and then a 6-0 thumping of Doncaster Rover Belles, quashed any concerns Duggan had about City converting their opportunities. The champions were ruthless against the Belles, who have now been relegated to WSL 2, as the six goals impressively came from six different players. This victory left City at the top of the pile, six points above Chelsea in second, albeit with two games in hand.

And, ironically it was Chelsea who were their next opponents. A crucial 2-0 victory over the Blues, courtesy of goals from Demi Stokes and Jennifer Beattie either side of the break, saw City once again move six points clear and robbed Emma Hayes' side of their own 100 per cent record.

The leaders went into their next two matches, a double header against Liverpool albeit a month apart, having won six matches from a possible six in the FA WSL. But, tactical brilliance from Liverpool saw the league's top team faulter and were forced to a settle for draws both home and away. 

The Citizens continued to dominate up until the last match of the season only dropping two points following the draws against the Reds and the dominance in the league was matched by their joy in the Continental Cup. City were crowned champions following their victory over Birmingham City at the Academy Stadium in October, Lucy Bronze's solitary extra time strike was the difference on the day.

Flourishing young talent

Manchester City were dealt a heavy blow during their 5-1 thumping of Notts County, centre-back Abbie Mcmanus suffered a serious ankle injury which unfortunately kept her out for the remainder of the season. The England under-23 international was a regular fixture in City's backline and created a strong partnership with Steph Houghton at the heart of defence. As new arrival Megan Campbell suffered an injury early in the season Mcmanus became the first choice alongside the captain and she certainly grabbed the opportunity with both hands. With regular appearances in the City starting line-up, the defender became a figure of consistency for Nick Cushing and her injury was a real loss for the team. However, Scotland defender Jennifer Beattie was a reliable replacement and stepped into the role with ease.

Whilst Nick Cushing opted for a small squad, he relied on the development of his young players to see City to the top. And, it was the likes of Nikita Parris, Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway who have all impressed throughout the double-winning season.

Parris signed a permanent two-year deal with Manchester City in January following an impressive loan spell from Everton in the 2015 season. The 22-year old's impressive run for her club also caught the eye of Mark Sampson, who granted her a full international debut in June against Serbia and the forward has kept her place in the squad - scoring three goals in England's last three Euro qualifiers.

Since an early season injury kept her on the sidelines for much of the first half of fixtures, Keira Walsh has got better and better as the season has progressed. The 19-year old has secured a regular starting spot in Nick Cushing's side - featuring in both the Continental Cup final and numerous Champions League matches - the youngster has a magnificent reading of the game and an ability to control play which is well beyond her years.

Only last week Walsh scored City's winner against Brondby in a UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie, unleashing an unbelievable 25-yard curler to take a 1-0 lead going into the second leg. And, things could only get better for the midfielder recently, as she was rewarded with a new contract extending her deal with the club for another three years.

What's next for City?

As the rest of the WSL teams take a well-earned break from footballing action, Nick Cushing's side continue to collect results in their maiden Champions League campaign. The WSL 1 champions travel to Denmark on Wednesday to take on Brondby in the second leg of their round of 16 tie.