As next Friday’s quarter-final clash against Atlético de Madrid approaches, we analyse whether Barça Femení can win the next three games to be claimed Women’s Champions League winners.
The night of 18 May 2019, was a night of both joy and agony for the fans of FC Barcelona Femení. On this day, the team played their first-ever UEFA Women’s Champions League final that ended in a bittersweet 4–1 defeat in the hands of European powerhouses Olympique Lyonnais. This result was rough to handle, but no one would have thought or dreamt of Barça Femení reaching the finals of the Champions League when they were relegated to the Segunda just 13 years prior. Reaching this milestone made the club and players believe in the project, and the team continued to set new standards for women’s football in Spain.
In the months that followed the final, the club saw major reinforcements in their attack with the arrival of Caroline Graham Hansen from VfL Wolfsburg and the returns of both Jenni Hermoso and Andrea Falcón from Atlético de Madrid. Barcelona went on to impose themselves against their opponents in their unbeaten 2019/20 league season, in-progress Copa de la Reina run, and Supercopa Femenina win, displaying dominance and breaking records along the way.
“From failures you learn. Reaching the Women’s Champions League final was a success, but the game didn’t go well and we had to reflect and learn from these small failures. This says a lot about the players, who, instead of making up excuses, were conscious that we had to be better”
Barça Femení manager
One of the only question marks that remain on this season is if Barça Femení have what it takes to finally lift the Champions League trophy. Will they pose a challenge to the potential opponents in Lyon and VfL Wolfsburg? All things considered, do they have a realistic chance of winning the title? With the European quarter-finals against Atlético fast approaching, it’s time to evaluate the chances of Barcelona winning the European trophy that eluded them last year.
One of the most distinct characteristics about this FCB Femení side is their unshakeable “never say die” attitude that’s been put on display in a way that we haven’t seen in any recent year. After a trophyless 2018/19 season, it was evident that the team had the talent to succeed but were lacking the right mindset. Something clicked in the summer of 2019 that caused Barcelona to completely shift mentally, as they now train with more focus, play with more confidence and reflect this mental strength more effectively during a match. This shift helped them maintain their motivation, resilience, emotional control, and overall well-being as a team.
How they have dealt with their various injury woes throughout the season is one of the biggest examples of this newfound mental resilience. There have been a lot of injuries to the players during the 2019/20 campaign, especially in late January when Jenni Hermoso, Mariona Caldentey, Caroline Graham Hansen, Kheira Hamraoui, Stefanie van der Gragt, Aitana Bonmatí, Vicky Losada and Andrea Falcón were all injured at the same time. Instead of throwing in the towel like most teams would when half their starting XI is out, the team quickly bounced back and weeks later won the first edition of the Supercopa Femenina.
Another example of this is how they have dealt with poor results. Considering that this is a lossless season for Barcelona, their two worst results of the season were two draws- the first of which was against Rayo Vallecano in September. After this match, the players stayed persistent in their drive to finally succeed in the league again and went on to win 17 matches in a row.
Later in the season, just before the March international break, they managed to pull through with a huge win against Dépor after 120 stressful minutes of constant attacking and no goals. Kheira Hamraoui sent in a header seconds before the match was supposed to go to penalties. They advanced to the semifinals of the Copa de la Reina and in doing that, the team proved to the fans and to themselves that they were done with crumbling under the pressure.
Barça’s fearful attacking play is their greatest weapon | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images
Positional fluidity has been the key to Barcelona Femení’s success this term. This means that each player is able to play effectively in different spaces and take different roles, with the ultimate goal of penetrating the opponent’s backline. For example, If you analyse the role of Alexia Putellas, one of Barça’s best players this season, she knows exactly what a game is demanding at any given moment and adjusts her role according to those demands. She has the ability to play defensively, to create, and to get up top to assist and score.
These same characteristics can be found in players like Jenni, who can transition in and out of playing as a striker or a 10. Torrejón and Graham Hansen regularly switch positions and roles depending on the defensive or offensive needs of the team. Almost every midfielder is capable of playing in offensive or defensive roles and can regularly be seen adjusting to that in matches. This fluidity helps the blaugranas open up spaces against opponents, who will quickly have to respond and react, inevitably making errors. This intricate reading of the game is inherent to the Barcelona system and plays a major role in their dominance.
A fluid system in which no outfield player is fixed in their set role has proved to be a tactical success for Barcelona this course. Going into the knockout stages, this well accustomed tactical set-up is essential if Lluís Cortés’ Barça Femení are to win the Champions League.
FCB Femeni’s constant and unaddressed weakness throughout this season has been their defence, but more specifically their full-backs. Since Barcelona adopted a style that imposes tactical fluidity, the full-back positions have been far from perfect. They often get into 2v1 or 3v2 situations when countered, which they have mostly managed to nullify with Mapi León at the heart of the defence.
But against top-quality attacking teams likes VfL Wolfsburg and Lyon, Mapi wouldn’t fully able to save them from disasters. There has been an improvement from the full-backs when the team is attacking, but they look lethargic and out of position when wingers with pace and dribbling ability run at them. We have seen quite a few matches this year when Leila looked fatigued and unaware on the left side of the pitch, frequently getting out of position and losing the defensive shape. If Barça wants to lift the trophy, they need to make sure Leila is more defensively solid and license Lieke Martens with more attacking responsibility.
“There’s always something to improve. We must be self-critical. There’s room for improvement. But I hope that people keep enjoying with the team, and attending the Estadi Johan Cruyff, which we have made our fortress. That’s my objective”
on the new season
Adding to that, Barcelona players have a mental block that they need to overcome when they play against teams like Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon, and Wolfsburg. We have seen quite a few interviews in recent times where the players downplay their abilities against the top competitors. Full disclosure, Barça’s track record against big clubs in knockout ties isn’t the greatest. The team has never won in the Women’s Champions League in 7 total matches against French opposition and lost the one tie they had against Wolfsburg in 2013/14.
It’s imperative they don’t allow their history to be a mental hurdle if and when they face them again. Barcelona are more than capable to break away from the history and move one step forward when they face off against the big dogs in a potential semifinal and/or final.
After the tactical and structural analysis of Barça Femení, let’s take a look into the potential matches and analyse their possible outcomes in the new-look Women’s Champions League.
Quarter-finals against Atlético de Madrid Femenino
Barcelona’s first opponent returning to the tournament is their Primera División rival Atlético de Madrid Femenino. This is all prefaced by saying that it’s unclear whether or not Atleti will be able to play this match at all. This past week, Atleti released a statement that they were halting training after five players tested positive for the coronavirus.
UEFA laid out rules some months ago regarding COVID positives for this exact scenario. Atleti must be able to play with 13 healthy players –– 11 starters and at least two on the bench. If there is no healthy keeper, the match can be rescheduled, and if the match can’t be rescheduled, the rojiblancas will be forced to forfeit. Due to the domestic season intending to restart in early September, it’s difficult to see any knockout match being postponed if need be. This is an unrealistic scenario, but still possible nonetheless.
Assuming everything goes to plan and the match continues as normal, Barcelona will still be playing at an advantage. The Catalans have had a more extensive preseason that allowed the current squad to regain form after five long months of being away from football. Atlético, on the other hand, have only played one friendly after a major squad overhaul this summer that saw multiple departures of starting players and arrivals who were meant to replace those starters. Regardless, Atleti should not be underestimated. They have been a pain in Barça’s neck for years and are surely still aching to be a nuisance by exacting revenge for their trophyless season.
Despite the big difference between Barça and Atlético in the league, both teams start from scratch now | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
It’s going to be difficult for any team to contain Barcelona’s attacking quadruple of Lieke Martens, Caroline Graham Hansen, Asisat Oshoala and Jennifer Hermoso. Dealing with Barcelona’s won’t be an easy task either, their midfield looks to be well-drilled and compact which could prove detrimental when considering Atleti’s chances.
Barcelona’s tactics against Atlético de Madrid have been well documented. The two teams met three times this past season with the culés creating most of their chances using the wing. It should be anticipated that Barça will dominate Atlético by utilising the two best winger-dribblers in women’s football. Barcelona’s directness of play and fluidity remain a thorn in the side for the first time quarter-finalists. On paper, the latest Spanish champions looks to be the team qualifying for the semi-finals.
Potential semi-final against VfL Wolfsburg Frauen
A match-up between Wolfsburg and Barcelona, if it occurs, would be the most highly anticipated match for the rest of the tournament. Barça will be coming into this match with a slight underdog tag, as the one time they met in Europe ended in the favour of Wolfsburg.
Barcelona’s chances of winning the tie are going to be largely determined by how well they defend against Wolfsburg’s attack, namely Pernille Harder, Fridolina Rolfö, Alexandra Popp and Ewa Pajor. Wolfsburg is one of the only teams whose forwards can compare to the azulgranas‘ in terms of overall quality. Pernille Harder specifically has had a career-defining season and took top scorer honors with a Europe-high 27 league goals. She’s more than ready to take on the challenge of winning her first Champions League title.
“The level is set by Lyon, Wolfsburg…And Barça’s objective is to reach this level”
Barcelona’s trump card should be the transition from midfield to wings against Wolfsburg’s weak defence. Wolfsburg’s defence is likely to get caught out when faced against the overwhelming attacking superiority that Barça has in their main four forwards. A major advantage Barcelona have over Wolfsburg is that they have former Wolfsburg player Caroline Graham Hansen in their ranks. Graham Hansen played for five seasons with the club and she would be very familiar with the set-up, tactical approach and weaknesses of the German side. This won’t prove to be the deciding factor for Barcelona, but it could be an added fortune going into the tie considering she may have something to prove against her former club.
Speaking of Wolfsburg’s vulnerabilities, they haven’t made much of any defensive improvements over the summer and in fact lost defensive midfielder Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir to Lyon. Her absence was evident during the DFB Pokal final against SGS Essen where they won on penalties but managed to concede three. This match was an example of Wolfsburg’s drive and desire to win, but still encapsulated many of the issues they have yet to sort out. Wolfsburg look hungry, but Barcelona have shown that they have an equal drive to win. This match, if it happens, could easily be the best match of the tournament regardless of the outcome.
Potential final against title favourites Olympique Lyon
If Lyon make it to the final as they are expected to, there could possibly be a repeat of the Final from last season’s Champions League campaign. Barça Femení has learned a lot from last year’s Champions League final debacle and are looking much more prepared in every sense to fight for the European title. Barcelona’s squad looked particularly thin last year when comparing full-strength line-ups between then and now.
Of the players in attack, only Lieke Martens still remains a starter. The summer following the final saw the departure of starting striker Toni Duggan who left to Atleti, which prompted the return of forwards Hermoso and Andre Falcón. Winger Graham Hansen also joined and throughout the season Asisat Oshoala established herself as a regular starter in the striker position. Additionally, starting defensive midfielder Patri Guijarro fully healed from her extensive foot injury. In comparison to last year, a full-strength Barcelona XI would have three or four major changes and a wholly different tactical approach.
“Not having won the league in four years made us hungry for titles. Then, after the final in Budapest, it was clear that Lyon had been superior. Thus, in the return trip, we spoke with the captains and decided that we had to make a step forward. That we had to train more, train better, and that’s what we did”
When you look into last year’s final, Barcelona had an extremely poor first thirty minutes where they conceded four goals. It seems that since then, they have corrected a lot of the mistakes that contributed to lack of conversion and defensive errors. This season, Barça conceded most of their goals between 60 and 75 minutes, when the outcome of the match was usually already decided. Despite their defence being one of their bigger concerns this year, they have improved overall on their defensive solidity and aren’t likely to let the level drop like they did in last year’s final.
Arguably Barcelona’s single biggest weakness last year was the team’s morale. Lyon are a massive club and have won the Champions League for years in a row, but the Spanish giants could never figure out how to shake the image that Lyon were invincible. This is another thing that’s seemed to have changed between this year and the last, and their level of competitiveness has drastically improved.
Lyon are the team to beat in the Champions League | Photo by Fred Tanneau / AFP via Getty Images
Barcelona proved this year in the domestic season that they can win titles again, they can have an invincible run, and that they can completely and utterly dominate. Last year, it was evident that Barça approached the final hoping that the loss wouldn’t be too embarrassing. This year, they approach it like they actually want the win and are willing to fight for it. That’s the core difference.
For a long time, there were claims that Spanish sides simply weren’t good enough to match the heavyweights, but it looks like the Primera Iberdrola is finally starting to prove themselves to be a major European force. Like usual, Barcelona’s women are at the forefront of this crusade, with this tournament being their best shot so far at establishing that reputation. In a way unlike any other season in the club’s history, Barça Femení have a legitimate shot at winning the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
Caroline Graham Hansen growing into the leadership role among Barça’s attackers
As shown in the Champions League semi-final loss against VfL Wolfsburg, Barça Femení may be short of leadership qualities upfront, but 25-year-old Caroline Graham Hansen is starting to provide just that.
After the loss against VFL Wolfsburg, FC Barcelona Femení learned that they needed to improve upon a lot of things if they wanted to be the best team in Europe. Many of Barcelona’s unresolved issues were exposed that night, such as poor match management, questionable team selection, and lack of clinical attacking.
However, the most standout thing that went wrong for Barcelona was their season-long issues with finishing, which came to a head at the worst possible time. Upon reflection, it was clear that Barcelona lacked both a positive mentality and a commanding leadership personality up top. That role is still desperately needed if Barcelona wants to be champions of Europe, and of all their current forwards, Caroline Graham Hansen may be the player best suited to pick up that role.
Ahead of the Barcelona v Wolfsburg, it was difficult to predict who the winner was going to be. Both teams were very similar in that they were renowned for the same matter: their outstanding attacking strength. For Wolfsburg, it was Pernille Harder, Fridolina Rolfo, Ewa Pajor, Alexandra Popp and Svenja Huth. For Barcelona, it was Lieke Martens, Mariona Caldentey, Jenni Hermoso, Asisat Oshoala and Caroline Graham Hansen.
Understandably, one of the most popular predictions about the game was that it was going to be a goal-fest. It didn’t quite work out that way though, as both teams’ forwards struggled to find the back of the net.
Barcelona in particular had a shocking night in terms of finishing. 14 shots with only one on target gave them a 9% shot accuracy. Something was clearly off about them, especially considering that everyone knows what these players are capable of. At that point, their front four was arguably Europe’s strongest overall attacking threat. It is for this reason that this loss and their lack of clinical finishing was 100% mental.
Barcelona’s captains and other leadership personalities are all midfielders, defenders or keepers. Consider Vicky Losada, Alexia Putellas, Marta Torrejón, Sandra Paños, Patri Guijarro and some of the younger players like Laia Codina and Aitana Bonmatí. These footballers in particular have captaincy qualities in multiple aspects. They command the play on the pitch, they aren’t afraid to give orders to anyone regardless of talent or superiority, they perform at a high level for 90+ minutes, they aren’t afraid to step up publicly and take responsibility with the media, and they are deeply dedicated to the club. What else do they all have in common? None of them are forwards.
This isn’t to say Barcelona’s attackers aren’t mentally strong. You have to be to play at this level. But at this moment, there is no outstanding player in attack who shows the traits of a captain. Which of the starting forwards can be the answer to this problem?
The two players that can already be eliminated from the conversation are Asisat Oshoala and Lieke Martens. These are two of the most accomplished players for their respective countries and have been at the top of the world for a while, but they don’t display many leadership qualities. Neither of them is very vocal or commanding, they aren’t too keen on giving directions, and, most importantly, their mentality in a game typically depends on those around them. There is nothing wrong with either of them not being leaders, but these two just won’t be the ones to do it.
Caroline Graham Hansen, wearing the captain armband with Norway’s national team | Photo by Jorge Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images
Jennifer Hermoso is unlike Asisat and Martens in this regard. She’s a record-breaking veteran for both club and country and she even holds captaincy for Spain. Her presence and reputation as one of Spain’s greatest ever footballers command respect on its own.
However, she is a player who prefers to lead by example and move in silence. This is a perfectly valid leadership style in itself, but it doesn’t suit the needs of Barcelona. Jenni was one of Barcelona’s best performers against Wolfsburg, but her top-notch performance clearly wasn’t enough. The team needed more, and despite her leadership qualities and veteran status, she couldn’t provide it.
Additionally, culés understandably don’t want to think about it, but Jenni isn’t getting any younger. She isn’t the team’s future, and it wouldn’t make much sense for the forward line to structure themselves around her leadership.
This only leaves one other established player amongst the four starting forwards: enter Caroline Graham Hansen.
Graham Hansen is still just 25 years old but has gone through a lot in her career. She has had two heartbreaks in two Women’s Champions League finals and was injured during both of them. Her international career has been similar: she missed the 2015 Women’s World Cup due to injury and suffered three straight losses in the group stages of the 2017 Euros as Norway’s FA was dealing with deep dysfunction. Like Rory Smith put it, her career has long been a “question mark” in the eyes of many. The way she has overcome her own doubts since then is unlike most players in this sport.
Hansen has become a different animal as she has gotten older. No Wolfsburg fan can forget how she kneeled down and pumped her fists after scoring the decisive penalty kick against Bayern Munich in the 2018 DFB Pokal Final. No Norwegian – or Australian – can forget how in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, she kept a stone-cold face, looked Lydia Williams dead in the eyes, and slotted Norway’s first penalty of the shootout straight past her, raising her arms in celebration and commanding Norway to the quarter-finals.
When she is needed to step up, when she is needed to be a commanding force, when she is needed to be a leader, she has done it in some of the biggest matches of her recent career. Norway’s captain Maren Mjelde echoed this exact thought in an interview to FIFA.com from September 2019.
“In the last two years she has grown an awful lot, in two ways that complement each other: she is a great leader and a great team player at the same time. All her energies go into helping the team to play better and win. She was crucial for us at the World Cup and I still don’t think we have seen the best of her. She has got the quality to change games, and when it comes to one-on-one situations, she’s the best in the world…She has become a natural leader”Maren Mjelde, Norway’s captain
This display of mentality didn’t stop when she got to Spain either. In her first season with Barcelona, she was a pivotal part of the attack and had no fear approaching any defender. With 24 direct goal involvements in all competitions, it’s clear she is already comfortable with her role in the team.
Graham Hansen also has a clear love for Barcelona and has since she was a child. Despite only being present in Catalonia for a season, Caroline Graham Hansen is one of the most vocally committed players in this current group at FC Barcelona. Her words after the Wolfsburg semi-final loss reflect this in two different ways.
“I would say today we were better which proves that what Barça have been doing in recent years has been good, we are here to be reckoned with next year. We will go home and keep on training and improving because we want to avenge this defeat next year”Caroline Graham Hansen, via UEFA TV after losing against Wolfsburg
But on her Instagram, she chose a softer tone, expressing her love and dedication to the club, calling it “her home” and using the hashtag #soyculé (I am a culé): “I’m so proud to be a part of this team. This club. This family. Football isn’t always fair. That’s the sport. I accept that. We will come back. I know. We know. This is my home now. Thanks for having my back #soyculé”.
Caroline Graham Hansen admittedly has had some growing pains in this very new environment, but with this loss, she has only shown a drive to improve. She has everything at her disposal to be a leader in the attacking third. It’s her dedication, hunger, and ever-improving mentality that makes her the most likely player to become a leader for Barcelona’s forwards.