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Carla Ward reflects on strong start

25 September 2019

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Sheffield United Women manager Carla Ward says her team executed their game plan "brilliantly" during Sunday's dramatic 3-2 Continental Cup victory at Liverpool.

Two goals in the final minutes from Maddy Cusack and Jade Pennock saw the Blades walk away from the encounter with the FA Women's Super League side with three points and Ward says she's delighted with the performance now she's had time to analyse the game.

"I think for 80 minutes we were the better team. When you're emotionally involved at the time you don't really look at statistics but we had more possession, more corners, more free-kicks, we got on the ball more.

"We set up with a specific game plan. We knew we would have time without the ball so it was about nullifying what they did with the ball and making sure when we did regain it we could get at them quickly. The girls executed the game plan brilliantly and that's probably the best I've seen them execute a game plan."

The victory was made all the more impressive due to the nature of the comeback. Against a full-time professional team, United could have been expected to tire in the final minutes of the game, but if anything the side looked fresher than their top division opponents and Ward credits both her staff and her players for their ever improving fitness levels.

"It's interesting because in all the games this season, I think we've looked the better team in the last 15-20 minutes in all of them, even against Aston Villa where we lost.

"A few people have told us how much fitter we looked and that's a credit to our performance staff, our off-field coaching and I do think we look fitter. We look sharper and stronger and that's also a credit to the girls for the work they're doing too."

Ward can also call upon a much stronger squad this season. New signings in the summer has ensured both extra quality and extra depth, with the likes of Ali Johnson, Keri Matthews and player of the month nominee Veatriki Sarri available off the bench against Liverpool.

Sarri has already played several positions this season while Chloe Dixon put in a solid performance at left-back after starting up front against Blackburn Rovers, and the extra depth and versatility is giving Ward more options than ever.

"It's about understanding we can use players in various positions. They understand their roles and I think all of them have been absolutely exceptional.

"We weren't at our best against Villa but against Leicester, Blackburn and Liverpool we've played some really good stuff and I think we're starting to see a bit of rhythm now and hopefully we can kick on from that."

It's also keeping even her very best players on their toes. After three goals in her first two Blades games, Katie Wilkinson was on the bench in the club's last league game against Blackburn, as was influential midfielder Sam Tierney, while last season's top scorer Jade Pennock was a substitute against Leicester.

With several first team players also set to return from injury, Ward admits nobody can be guaranteed of a starting spot with such a strong squad at her disposal.

"It's a credit to everyone for the work they're putting in but the one thing I'll be saying to them in training is that right now everybody is performing and if they think it's going to be a consistent starting eleven every week then they're wrong.

"We've got players now where we can freshen things up, we can change things for each game plan. We didn't have that luxury last year but we do now. We will have some good players on the bench every single week now and they won't like it, I wouldn't have liked it, but it's making sure we keep everyone fresh, happy and give everyone an opportunity."

The win at Liverpool leaves the Blades with three wins from four games so far this season and two from three in the FA Women's Championship.

The team has scored an impressive 15 goals in those four games and have certainly hit the ground running, something they struggled to do as a brand new team to the division 12 months ago.

Looking back at the start of the season as a whole, Ward is particularly pleased with how regularly her team are finding the back of the net.

"When I first came in two and a half years ago I said 'I was an attacking player, I want to score more than we concede', so I'm very much focused on us scoring goals and I'm pleased with the amount we've scored so far.

"When I looked at bringing Wilko in I spoke to her about how many chances we created last season without really having that end product, she's come in and made a real difference. But the biggest thing now is we've got seven or eight goal scorers in the team, everybody is contributing and that is massive. In the last 20 minutes at Liverpool we changed things probably six or seven times because we wanted to push forward and we knew we had the players to take those chances."

While Sunday's superb win is still lingering in the air, attentions now have to return to Sunday's game at Olympic Legacy Park against newly-promoted Coventry United.

It's just the team's second home game of the season and Ward will be ensuring none of her players are getting complacent despite a brilliant result last time out.

"Our staff have been talking the last few days about Coventry. They might have just come up but they've got good players, good staff and we know we can't take them lightly. We've got to be bang at it and get everything right because if we don't then there's a chance we drop points."

With a strong squad already available to Ward, the manager could be boosted further by the return of three long-term absentees in Hollie Barker, Alethea Paul and new signing Kasia Lipka.

While the latter is still a few weeks away from first team action, Barker and Paul are set to compete for a squad place after getting game time for the development side.

"Hollie and Thea have got good minutes under their belts. They're ready to return and it's a case now of waiting for an opportunity, but they're very much back in the mix.

"Kasia is back in training which has been an absolute delight. We're looking at getting her minutes with the development team in a couple of weeks, so I'd like to think in four to six weeks she'll be back in the first team and giving me even more of a headache."

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