Our Guest Author: Kelsie Smith
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.
Barcelona Femení still have not learned from their mistakes
Our Guest Author: Kelsie Smith
Another day, another avoidable loss for a team that’s supposed to be one of the best in the world.
FCB Femení lost on penalties to Atlético Madrid in the Supercopa Femenina semifinal yesterday, their first competitive loss against their Rojiblanco rivals in nearly two years. On the surface, this match means little in the greater context of Barcelona’s season. So far, they have won every match in the Spanish league by scoring 62 goals and conceding just two in 11 matches.
They likely will have an easy Round of 16 Champions League draw, and are still probable to complete a domestic treble for the 2019-20 season, pending the Final of last season’s Copa de la Reina. With all this in mind, this Supercopa loss should be just a blip in what is supposed to be a very exciting 2021, but the outcome of this match is representative of some much more pressing issues within the club that have gone on for far longer than necessary.
So, all these glaring issues that came to light against the Germans… were they ever resolved?
Did they address their vulnerability in defense? Did they ever find a pure striker who could consistently score goals without having to be handed 20 opportunities? Have their managerial decisions gotten any better? Has their big-game mentality improved any since then? Has the club brought in any significant reinforcements in their problem areas? Has FCB Femení done anything meaningful to remedy the many mistakes that they made against Wolfsburg?
After having two transfer windows and almost six months to fix their issues, the answer for all of those questions remains a flat no. Specifically, Barcelona’s forwards have not addressed their inability to convert, the backline have not addressed their defensive shortcomings, and the coaching staff’s managerial decisions have not gotten any better. As a collective, they have not improved their mentality in big games and they have not improved their squad since the Champions League semifinal.
Barcelona may have only conceded 2 goals in the league and they may regularly win their league matches by 5 or more goals, but that speaks more to an ever-increasing disparity in the quality of Primera Iberdrola teams than it does to the overall quality of Barcelona. The defensive issues are still there- they’re just less evident when Barcelona is in the opposition’s half 90% of the time. The inability to convert is still there- it’s just less evident if the opposition’s backline is discouraged from the starting whistle when it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll be letting in 5+ goals. Recording dominant wins like these every matchweek makes it easy to ignore the problems that still exist within the team, which could very well lead to complacency farther down the line.
These problems need to be acknowledged and addressed if they have any chance of winning it all in Europe. This starts with their key issues on the pitch. Barcelona have no reliable, consistent strikers. Jenni Hermoso might be Barcelona’s all-time top scorer, but she is not a pure 9, she is too slow to play as a 9, and she should not be in Barcelona’s long-term plans considering her age. Barcelona’s other option at striker, Asisat Oshoala, is also less than ideal. Her resolve in front of goal has taken a downturn since returning from the pandemic hiatus, and she has shown herself time and time again since then to be ineffective under pressure. Her shooting against Atléti in last year’s Champions League was poor, her shooting against Wolfsburg in the Champion’s League was a disaster, and aside from one or two moments of quality inside the box against Atléti in the Supercopa yesterday, her performance was nothing to write home about. This also includes her poor performances in the league that often go under the radar because she ends up on the scoresheet anyway. Her signing in 2019 seemed extremely promising, but this summer should be time for her to hang up her boots in Barcelona so the club can make room for a proven, world-class striker, whomever that may be.
Barcelona’s other biggest area of weakness can be found in left-back Leila Ouahabi. Leila offers little to the team in terms of providing width, giving defensive stability, creating chances, or really any other quality that a fullback might want to have. Her positioning is often so poor that Mapi León spends a significant part of any given match covering for her, to the point where she regularly plays as both a left-back and a center-back at the same time. Too many times has this thrown off Barcelona’s formation and made the team lose its balance, causing them to suffer from avoidable counter-attacks through the left-wing and the centre. Cortés either needs to shift his focus towards Melanie, who is a significant improvement in almost every area except pace or go shopping for a world-class left-back. The club outgrew Leila’s level a long time ago, and they simply do not have time to waste being held back by players who are not at the level that they need to be.
Speaking of Cortés, he has yet again demonstrated himself to be a weak coach in big matches, something culés have seen on more than a handful of occasions now. This time around, he fielded an extremely predictable starting XI- no formation changes, no surprises. When he does this, he gives his opponents an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. On the other hand, he seems content and even adamant in repeating his mistakes, and then doing nothing to fix them. He also seems apprehensive to own up to his shortcomings as a coach. Poor substitution choices, inadequate reading of the team’s needs and extreme predictability are all things he does that lower the level of Barcelona when it counts the most. As time has passed, Lluís has shown himself to be a more and more limited coach. If this trend continues, Barcelona will have to search elsewhere for a manager who can rise to the occasion, especially given the level of talent at their disposal.
Finally, it goes without saying that the refereeing in the women’s game is a disaster. VAR in major competitions should be one of the top priorities of women’s football, because the two penalties not called in Barcelona’s favor could have easily had a significant impact on the outcome of this match. Alexia practically being tackled in the box by Silvia Meseguer and a handball from Merel van Dongen were not called, despite the fact that van Dongen clearly extended her arm to prevent a cross into the area. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch, a handball was called against Andrea Pereira which gave Atléti the upper hand and nearly sent them through to the semifinals in regular time. Decisions like this are immensely frustrating, but at this point, poor refereeing is not a valid excuse when it’s pretty much a staple of Spanish football. The players should know by now that they need to expect major refereeing mistakes in big games. What really prevented them from winning was their shooting, which, similar to the Wolfsburg match, was absolutely unacceptable. Barcelona recorded 31 shots with 17 on target and had 5.4 expected goals but shockingly scored zero goals from open play. Atleti’s keeper Hedvig Lindahl is one of the greatest keepers to ever do it, but she has not played a match since August of last year. Their only goal came through a miracle free kick from Alexia Putellas, who yet again had to save Barcelona from crumbling.
The possible penalty on Alexia Putellas by Silvia Meseguer
The possible penalty from Merel van Dongen after a cross into the box hits her outstretched arm
It’s difficult to look at this match and not feel discouraged by a loss like this that was completely preventable. It felt exactly the way Wolfsburg did- all the team’s issues came to the forefront at the worst possible time, causing them to crash out of a tournament once again.
The club simply cannot afford to overlook this loss. The Supercopa is a relatively meaningless trophy, but it’s extremely telling that the first time Barcelona was legitimately challenged in a win-or-go-home match this season, they failed to put up any sort of fight. Until these problems are fixed to the point of near perfection, they are not serious about European success. It is not possible to put up a challenge to Lyon with so many glaring weaknesses in a team, let alone the likes of PSG, Chelsea, or Bayern.
Atléti let them off with a warning. The next time they face a bigger and better team, it will be a test whether or not they’re truly prepared to join the ranks of Europe’s top clubs, or whether they’ll continue to settle for being second, third, or fourth-best.