World-class Walsh exceeding expectations for title-chasing Man City

Keira Walsh Manchester City Women 2020-21
The midfielder's job is not to score goals, but with a match-winning strike against Everton on Sunday, her attacking contributions are only increasing

When World Cup winner Sam Mewis joined Manchester City, there was one player in particular she was looking forward to playing with.

“Keira Walsh is one I have a lot of respect for,” she told BBC Sport. “If she's anything like Julie Ertz, it will be great to be on her team rather than playing against her.”

Such a comparison should not be taken lightly. Ertz, Mewis’ international team-mate, is widely considered one of the best - if not the best - deep-lying midfielders in the world.

But Mewis was not comparing the two blindly. She was fully aware of how good Walsh was before this move, having engaged in a fierce midfield battle with the 23-year-old in the U.S. women’s national team’s 2-1 win over England in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals.

Since the two become team-mates, Mewis has regularly been a match-winner while Walsh played a quietly instrumental role behind her.

On Sunday, it was Walsh’s turn to grab the headlines.

With 80 minutes on the clock, the deadlock was yet to be broken between City and an Everton team that set out to frustrate Gareth Taylor's side. Such a result would have left the hosts four points behind leaders Chelsea in a Women’s Super League title race that has little room for slip-ups.

In the 81st minute though, Walsh arrowed a first-time effort into the bottom corner to spark wild celebrations among the home side. Mewis, in particular, will certainly have appreciated it, after an unbelievable miss from close range in the first half.

“I think she was getting a bit sick of everyone else missing chances and she thought, ‘I'm going to have a go here!’,” City head coach Taylor joked after the game. “Great technique, brilliant execution.”

Playing in a role that often gets overlooked, such a vital goal served to remind everyone of Walsh’s quality. She is certainly not underrated, but she can often be an unsung hero.

“Within [the club], the people that are working with her, we know how important that position is,” Taylor added.

“We understand how big a job Keira does for the team. That holding position in midfield is vital for the way we play.”

The comparison to Ertz is not perfect. The American is a centre-back turned defensive midfielder who protects the defence of the world champions brilliantly, especially when the full-backs bomb on.

Walsh acts more like a deep-lying playmaker for City, helping them control games but also sparking attacks, be it directly or by providing a crucial earlier pass that does not go down as an assist.

No one created more opportunities on the pitch on Sunday, in fact, with her carving out four chances in City’s 1-0 win.

For England, her role is more forward-thinking. “I sit a little bit deeper at City,” she explained earlier this season. “With England, there is no reason I can’t be getting in the box and adding more goals to my game.”

But in terms of the quality she has, Walsh is putting her name in the conversation with the likes of Ertz when it comes to discussing the best midfielders in the game.

Just under two years ago, Lyon, who have won five Champions League titles on the bounce, and Atletico Madrid, then the champions of Spain, both wanted Walsh. She has only got better since.

With a World Cup tournament under her belt, she has established a reputation that has players like Mewis in awe and her numbers in the final third are going up too.

The number of chances she is creating per 90 minutes in the WSL is at an all-time high, having increased every year since her debut in 2014. The same goes for the number of goals she is scoring. Best of all, she is not expected to chip in with those attacking contributions.

“When she produces it, fantastic,” Taylor said. “[But] we don't compare that role within the team with the likes of Sam, Laura Coombs, Rose [Lavelle] or Caroline Weir.”

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That Walsh is coming up with those moments, while maintaining the highest level in the areas of her game that are most important to City, is excellent.

That her super strike on Sunday keeps her team hot on Chelsea’s heels, two points behind with a clash between those two on the horizon in April, is exciting.

That it puts the spotlight on a player who does not get it as often as she should is the icing on the cake.