Culés are already familiar with seeing stellar partnerships in the right wing, but Barça Femení, with Caroline Graham Hansen and Marta Torrejón, is looking to relive past glories.
The evolution of football has seen the ever-increasing development of different positions and tactics. With strategies at the micro-level becoming remodelled, and philosophies like Positional Play and Gegenpressing – pressing in advanced positions and active closing of space – introduced, positions have also now been modified and updated. Now, nearly every third of the pitch has been reinvented.
Focusing on the defensive end, full-backs are expected to give much more than ever before. Requiring finesse and athleticism, these players are expected to surge forward and join in on the attack. And their combination play with the attackers is becoming a vital part of unlocking strong defensive lines. With women’s football evolving every day, it’s time to review how the right flank partnership of Caroline Graham Hansen and Marta Torrejón becomes a decisive factor for Barça Femení this season.
The iconic right side partnership that culés remember: Dani Alves and Lionel Messi
The legendary understanding between Barcelona’s duo Dani Alves and Lionel Messi went far beyond the numbers. They shared a deeper connection, an even psychic connection. Messi knew where Alves was on the pitch at all times, and Alves knew where Messi was. They knew what the other was doing. Their link-up play and ability to read the other person’s game was a thing of beauty. An unprecedented supernatural partnership that made them one of the most prolific and iconic duos to have ever existed.
Their understanding was something else, whenever Dani Alves drove through the right flank, he knew when Leo wanted the ball and when he didn’t. The two worked together to destroy many oppositions and interestingly, the Brazilian is Messi’s best creator for goals.
“Playing with someone as unique as Leo is the most incredible thing that can happen to you, but there’s always that doubt in your mind if it’s you that really has the quality or if it’s him”Dani Alves
In fact, Dani Alves had assisted Messi a staggering 42 times when he left Barcelona. Alves had no problems in admitting that he was a secondary player. But still just like Alves says: “The future will remember Messi as a great player. Did he score goals? They would ask. Yes. Who passed him the ball? Dani Alves. My name is there, like it or not”.
Dani Alves and Lionel Messi have won three Champions League titles together and their right-wing combinations are a huge part of it. They would play neat one-twos, show a clean player of heels, and pull the strings for creating mesmerising plays.
Caroline Graham Hansen and Marta Torrejón for Barça Femení
It is foolish to compare the likes of Messi and Dani Alves with that of Graham Hansen and Marta because of what Barcelona men’s duo achieved together all the years and the consistency with which they did it. But giving a shout for Barça Femení’s right-flank partners won’t be bad either with them nonchalantly dominating the right side of the attack.
Dani Alves and Leo Messi had a telepathic connection on the field | Photo by Jose Jordan / AFP via Getty Images
The goals contributed from the right side of the attack stands at a combined total of 42 goals in all competitions – Barça Femení has scored a total of 111 goals in all competitions. Contribution from the right flank amounts to 37.83% of the total goals scored by the team until the COVID–19 break. They have hit the bar on 6 occasions combined.
Caroline Graham Hansen’s transfer from Wolfsburg to Barcelona was one of the most highly rated transfers of the season. The blaugranas managed to snatch up one of the best dribblers of the women’s football. I would easily rate the transfer as the best in the transfer window.
Whenever she is on the ball, you can’t just take your eyes off her. It’s no easy feat to put a single defender to contain her. We often see the opposition forwards asked to do the defensive duties when Hansen is on the ball. You can clearly see in the picture how she is taking defenders out of their position making space for others to feed on. We see something quite similar to this when Messi is on the ball. She can change the tone of the match in seconds and blow off opposition confidence. She has formed a formidable partnership with Marta Torrejón. They combine well and cause a lot of damage on the right side of the attack.
Marta Torrejón connects well with Hansen as an attack-minded full-back. She understands how the midfielders in front of her like to play. If she is playing with Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí in the middle, she bombs in the attack constantly because they work hard and leaving her space to exploit. If she is playing with Mariona Caldentey, she knows that Mariona likes to dribble, so she can use the wing more while backing her up. Having said that, if there is space for her to exploit, she will bombard forward, and Hansen usually finds her with precision.
Their best quality: anticipating overlapping runs
Marta Torrejón often anticipates what Hansen is going to do. The connection between each other means Marta knows if Hansen is going to thread the ball between the defender or if she is going to cross the ball across the face of goal. She understands that there’s no point in getting forward and not receiving the ball.
When the ball arrives at Hansen’s feet she knows that she can have a touch and immediately move it on. When the ball is going to Hansen, Torrejón usually starts her run, as she knows that Caro is too quick. With some other players, she can check her run, but with Hansen, they have that telepathic understanding to get the ball into the box leading to goals or goalscoring opportunities.
One of the main examples of this aspect of the connection was the December 2019 league match against UGD Tenerife. There were plenty of instances where their partnership helped alleviate defensive pressure as well as create better options for an attack.
Here you can see Torrejón, in red, is under pressure on the wing. She has two Tenerife players on either side advancing towards her with a third next to the referee making a sprint towards her as well. You can just barely see Graham Hansen near the bottom of the frame, watching and waiting.
Marta goes to the ground and Tenerife regains possession from the error, but the ball goes loose after an interception from Patri Guijarro, and Hansen, in blue, swoops in to take the ball away from the pressure with a bit of skill. She safely passes it back to Sandra Paños while Torrejón temporarily takes her place in that advanced role. They return to their original positions once possession is secured back in the midfield.
Minutes later, Patri sends a pass to Torrejón, who is now at right-back advancing up the wing. Hansen sees space where she can create an immediate goalscoring opportunity and points for Torrejón to send it through to the wing, but she instead passes a through ball towards Hansen, closer towards the middle.
Hansen dribbles away from pressure towards the middle as Marta sprints up to overtake Hansen’s position in the box. The two of them opt to attack up through the centre of the pitch instead of staying towards the sideline and putting one of them in a vulnerable one-versus-three position against the Tenerife defenders tightly marking them.
Graham Hansen quickly dribbles clear of the pressure away from the wing and then immediately turns her body to find Torrejón, as expected, in the advanced position. From here, she sends the ball right back to Torrejón.
From that pass, Torrejón draws three defenders out towards the wing when she anticipates Hansen’s forward run and passes the ball back to her, allowing Hansen to shake off Tenerife’s number 19. You can see in the photo that there is now plenty of space in the centre of the pitch for Graham Hansen to make a progressive play now, as she could pass it to Aitana behind her who also has plenty of space, Alexia to the left, also with plenty of space, send in a through ball to Jenni Hermoso or even play out the wing through Torrejón, who is still in an advanced position.
Within the span of ten seconds, they created a much better situation for a goal to be created than simply passing up the wing and sending in a cross where Hermoso would have been the only player that could get on top of the header – implying they didn’t lose the ball in a 1v3.
Unfortunately, this sequence didn’t result in a goal, as Hansen then passes the ball back to Aitana, who switches the play to the opposite wing to Mariona and the play dies from there with a cross gone awry. The pairing has otherwise been directly successful many other times, most memorably Torrejón’s second goal in the now-iconic Spanish Super Cup final. Hansen and Torrejón switched positions constantly throughout the match, meaning Torrejón had an advanced role for a lot of it, explaining her uncharacteristic four goals.
In Torrejón’s second goal, we see both her and Caroline Graham Hansen countering up the wing. They are in their respective positions of right-wing and right-back and Hansen has the ball when she dribbles up into the box.
Hansen stalls with the ball at her feet as Torrejón continues to make her run into the box. A short pass to Torrejón’s feet and an easy strike to the bottom left corner and Barcelona is 3–0 up. Simple as that.
This partnership works so well because Hansen and Torrejón are constantly aware of their own positioning and each other’s positioning. They are also aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and consistently provide support to each other on the right-wing in both offensive and defensive scenarios.
In women’s football, usually, there isn’t much talk about micro-analytics like wing-back combinations, but considering the number of goals scored and the chances created, Barça Femení are making football look simple with their vertical passing and the combination play in their final third. We hope they don’t lose the connection and deliver the goods going to the final third of the season with important knockout matches coming up.
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.