Reaching the Champions League final and winning the league, among other achievements, coach Lluís Cortés is taking Barça Femení to new heights.
FC Barcelona Femení has gone under a radical transformation within the past year and a half. Upon the sacking of Fran Sánchez in January 2019, the team grew from being an inconsistent side that was the second best in Spain, to European title contenders. This past month, it was made official that Barcelona would be given their first league title in half a decade, giving end to an unbeaten, completely dominant league campaign.
These newfound milestones and a return to dominance bear the name of one man: Barcelona manager Lluís Cortés. With just over a year and a half on the sidelines as head coach, Lluís Cortés has turned FC Barcelona Femení into a side that champions the long-held philosophy of the club he loves. At a rapid pace, playing to the purest positional play, the manager from Lleida emerges clearly with shades of glory.
After receiving a degree in physical education and sports sciences from the University of Lleida, Cortés began his managerial career with the UD Lleida women’s team. For years, he was an assistant to Natalia Arroyo and eventually became a full coach of the Catalan women’s national teams at the youth level ( U12, U16, and U18 ) and at the senior level. In 2017, he made a name for himself within the club when he found himself as an analyst and assistant for first team manager Fran Sánchez.
Manager Fran Sánchez was sacked in January 2019, before being replaced by assistant Lluís Cortés | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
The summer of 2017 was a major transitional period at the club. Fran Sánchez was appointed following the stepping down of Xavi Llorens after 11 years in charge and in the middle of a total squad overhaul. During his tenure, he won a Copa de la Reina title but found his side slipping in the league behind Atlético de Madrid. The doubts about Sánchez’s coaching abilities came to a boiling point in January of 2019, when Barcelona recorded their third draw of the season against Espanyol, putting them even further behind Atleti. Baffled by the irregularity and with the bitter taste of stumbling in the Catalan derby, the Barça leadership did not trust Fran Sánchez to give the command and announced Lluís Cortés as the successor not soon after.
In Cortés’s first season in charge, he guided the team to the Champions League final in Budapest. In the following campaign the team has won the league title, the Spanish Super Cup and the Copa Catalunya. “You have to try to be Barça – not only play well, but also win”, highlighted the Catalan coach on the day of his presentation. Cortés did not disappoint. Convinced and energetic, Lluís’s ideology managed to prevail to become a worldwide reference today.
Losing the Champions League final paved the path to success
Given the difficulty of the challenge by the middle of the season, Barça Femení showed flashes of light on the horizon. Despite not being able to win the league, which fell to the hands of Atlético de Madrid for the third consecutive time, the final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League was the turning point of Cortés’s appointment. The feat of becoming the first Spanish team to reach a final in the highest European competition was the beginning of a story with many pages yet to be written.
The loss at the hands of Olympique de Lyon by 4–1 in Budapest was painful, but the club took it seriously as something to learn from. The match against the French giants filled the team with the belief that they could build a machine designed to dominate. In addition to their dominance, the attractive football executed by Cortés’s side was a showcase for what Barcelona had to offer and entertained fans around the world.
Despite the blank half-season, the actions of the coach were essential in recovering the faith of the players. Lluís was the missing piece of a team with a long-awaited thirst for glory.
Keeping Barcelona’s identity intact
Without there being a clear favorite at the European level, the determination and constant struggle of the team in the fight for all trophies is the new norm for FC Barcelona. There are no limits, so the team’s metamorphosis and the brilliant start to the year established a trend where they kill off the opponents from the start. Unbeatable in the recently released Estadi Johan Cruyff, the blaugranas gathered an higher amount of fans than normal for the women’s section.
Taking full advantage of his players, Lluís Cortés is able to find a sense of calm in each match. Never obsessing over mistakes, recovering the ball with great ease, the rapid transitions, and the ability to dominate matches from the beginning are all traits that set this Barcelona apart from their competition. Lluís Cortés’s abilities as a manager stand out from the crowd, as he is determined to guide the team towards the European elite.
The outcome of staying true to Barcelona ideology
Backed by a club that does not cut corners on investing in women’s football, the curtain on the 2019/2020 season ended with the deserved renewal of Lluís Cortés until June 2021. The commitment from the club endorsed the idea of a non-negotiable Barcelona style.
Appointing Lluís in command of the first team revitalized an approach with very clear beliefs: one-touch and win the ball back quickly. Thus, the start of the new course endorsed the clear commitment to controlling the ball and the suffocating pressure after losing the ball. To the beat of a brilliant game, capable of standing out above the exquisite individualities that the squad has, Barça Femení started in a steamroller mode ready to reclaim the throne that belongs to them.
From signings to title aspirations, Barça Femení has become a much more ambitious team in all senses | Photo by Vegard Wivestad Grott / Bildbyrån Imago
In his first full season in the first team, Lluís’s team destroyed all the records in search of conquering the domestic treble and repeating, at least, the successes enjoyed in Europe the previous season. With the title of Supercampeonas of Spain after overwhelming Real Sociedad in the final of the first Supercopa by 1–10, Lluís Cortés seeks to reestablish domestic dominance again in Barcelona. Positioned with an immaculate posture on the table and a nine-point advantage over Atleti, Barcelona won the league after the decision of RFEF.
In addition, the numbers from his time so far support the effectiveness of the Catalan coach’s methodology. Under Cortés, the women’s team have played 52 matches, winning 46, drawing two and losing four, scoring 181 goals and conceding just 27. These are immaculate figures for a coach that was brought in as a quick, mid-season replacement.
What’s left for the season
Lluís has managed to find the perfect harmony between the quality of the team and a nearly perfect deployment as a collective unit. Improving defensively, and with notable growth in the game, Barça Femení faces the most decisive part of the season going into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the semi-finals of the Copa de la Reina.
❛ I am really happy to be sharing this magnificent news that we will continue leading this project. It has been an unusual year, a little strange but packed with success. We have managed to win the three competitions we have taken part in and we hope to continue the success next season ❜
after Barça executed the automatic renewal of the manager’s contract until 2021
This summer, FC Barcelona triggered the extension clause in the tactician’s contract which prolongs his tenure for another season until 30 June 2021. Culés hope Lluís stays for a long time and he continues to bring joy to Barça fans with some of the most breathtaking and scintillating football ever seen in Spanish women’s football.
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.