Man City come up short in 'cruellest' WSL title race

Gareth Taylor and Man City players

They won 18 of their 22 Women’s Super League matches. They had the division’s top scorer and kept the most clean sheets.

Yet for Manchester City, it was not enough to dethrone Chelsea and earn a first WSL title since 2016.

No wonder Gareth Taylor admitted to being frustrated, as his City side came second to a Chelsea team who claimed their fifth league championship in a row.

"Winning 18 games in a 22-game season is usually enough to win the league," the City manager said after their 2-1 win at Aston Villa. "We have come up the cruellest way short of that.

"But that’s the challenge. They have good support in what Emma [Hayes] has been able to do."

Victory at Villa Park held up City's end of the bargain on the final day, where they needed to win and hope Chelsea slipped up at Manchester United.

But Chelsea blew United away, winning 6-0 at Old Trafford, leaving City to rue a season where they had the league in their hands – then lost it.

With two games to go, City knew two victories would be enough to seal the title. They had beaten Chelsea at Kingsmeadow, it seemed like the hard work had been done.

But losing against Arsenal, despite leading in the 88th minute, allowed Chelsea to seize control by thrashing Bristol City then squeezing past Tottenham.

It left City needing a favour from local rivals – something which Arsenal's men learned in the Premier League you can never rely upon – or otherwise winning their game by a four-goal margin greater than Chelsea’s winning score.

'We could have done it'

Khadija Shaw on crutches
Khadija Shaw, on crutches because of her broken foot, was present with her team-mates at Villa Park on Saturday [Getty Images]

It would have meant City needed to score 10 at Villa – although they did have 31 shots on goal, and Taylor said afterwards they had the "ability to take care of our business".

"I was concentrating on our game, but the rest of the bench, I could feel it from them without them telling me," Taylor said, when asked if he had been following events at Old Trafford.

"But I spoke to the players at half-time, it was 4-0 there and 1-0 here, it was still achievable.

"And the chances we had in the second half, we could have done it."

But really, it was the events of recent weeks which had denied City more than anything at Villa Park.

Not only the Arsenal defeat and Chelsea's wins, but the injury to WSL player of the season and top scorer Khadija Shaw too.

"Shaw broke her foot a few games ago, and the drop off has been monumental," former England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis said.

"It has had such a ripple effect on the whole team. Squad depth is something they absolutely do need to address."

City may well be addressing that by signing Vivianne Miedema, the out-of-contract Arsenal forward they have been heavily linked with.

But for now, Taylor can only wonder whether they would have beaten Bristol City by more than four goals, or scored enough to earn at least a point against Arsenal, had Shaw been fit.

'Everyone knew Chelsea would walk through the door'

Alex Greenwood and Alanna Kennedy
Many of the Manchester City players were in tears at the final whistle at Villa Park [Getty Images]

Instead he can only reflect on a WSL campaign which, despite missing out on the title, has brought plenty of positives.

They won 14 successive games, a new league record, and vastly improved on a 2022-23 campaign where they finished fourth and missed out on the Champions League.

"Yes, missing out on the title will hurt these Manchester City players but this experience today will do them good moving forwards," former England international Fara Williams said.

"They haven't been in this position much over the last few years, getting close to Chelsea at the end of the season. The experience, or lack of it, has told for City today.

"They created a number of chances in front of goal today but were not calm and composed enough in the moments that they needed to be. This group of players will learn from this season, a young team lacking experience but they will learn from it moving forwards."

City could look at moments throughout the season which cost them – the controversial draw at home to Chelsea where they had two players sent off, or the shock home defeat by Brighton where they missed a hatful of chances against relegation candidates.

But ultimately, it was giving a chance to Chelsea in the last few days of the campaign which cost them - as Hayes herself said, in her post-match media conference.

"If we had been in City's position when we lost to Liverpool, in the years gone by, we would definitely have won those next games," she said.

"I think they have had a tremendous season but if you leave that door open for Chelsea? I think the minute that door was left open, was the minute everyone knew we would walk through."

Maybe, with better injury luck, a deeper squad and Hayes safely out of the WSL as United States manager, Taylor and Man City will go one step further next season.

But for now, they must accept this cruellest outcome.