While Lieke Martens is many times seen as an overpublicised figure off the pitch, her contribution to FC Barcelona is actually undervalued.
Whether you follow women’s football or not, you have most likely come across the name Lieke Martens, one of the biggest female figures at FC Barcelona and the Netherlands national football team. Her claim to fame came three years ago when she became one of FCB Femení’s most highly-publicised signings as the team started to professionalise after a long period of domestic success.
The month after signing for Barça Femení, she was named the best player at the 2017 Women’s Euro for being a pivotal part of the Dutch side that won their first international trophy by defeating Denmark 4–2 in the final. Since officially joining the club, she earned the Best Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2017, helped Barcelona reach their first Champions League final, and was a major factor in the Netherlands reaching their first World Cup final last year.
Lieke has been at the forefront of all of her team’s accomplishments for the majority of her career, and yet she faces endless criticism regarding her productivity, output, and overall ability as a player. Some argue that Lieke Martens is an overrated player and that it is her marketability that makes her so highly-rated, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lieke is a player whose skill, talent and success is considered first when she is rightfully and often deemed one of the best players in the world.
This constant criticism towards her is not something that started recently. Some of the best women’s footballers have had a hard time facing similar situations in the past. Lieke, specifically, is often given the label of “overrated”. This clearly isn’t true – she has accomplished enough in her career to prove otherwise. Aside from her team performances, she’s one of the best forwards on the planet who can score and assist and dribble and create chances better and more beautifully than almost anyone else.
Lieke Martens, an international superstar | Photo by Gerrit van Keulen via Imago
Of course, any player thrust into the spotlight as abruptly and massively as Lieke was in 2017 is going to be subject to widespread criticism and be picked apart at every angle. However, in cases like her’s and Alex Morgan, for example, there’s a strange theme behind this criticism. Women in football who are more feminine presenting and highly marketed are taken less seriously.
Even in sports environments deemed more progressive than others, there’s still an aching tone of sexism that comes from overrated shouts that are so often directed towards conventionally attractive, feminine-presenting players. No matter how talented or how accomplished a player like Lieke may be, her ability will always be put into question because of the way she presents herself.
It plays into the pervasive idea that feminine women can’t be as talented or skilled at “masculine” activities unless they behave and dress in a masculine way. It perpetuates the same sexism that so many female footballers and fans speak out against daily. Instead of advocating for acceptance for all types of self-expression, some fans and players would rather make negative, belittling comments about how these players are trying to compensate for lack of talent by wearing makeup on the pitch or modeling for magazine covers.
These types of sentiments distract from the quality of so many players and instead focuses the conversation on their looks, the exact opposite of what needs to happen in women’s football.
Aside from the bouts of sexist comments that come from a lot of her critics, her role and her full career at Barcelona is often misunderstood as well. When Lieke arrived at Barca, she was a part of a small group of prolific players who knew signing up that they’d be a part of a major transitional phase at the club. The decision by the club to professionalize meant that they were going to focus on UWCL success equally or even more than domestic success.
Martens joined when many players were coming in and out, being moved around and being experimented with to see what stuck. At points, her support in front was below-par and at others she was injured or played out of position. It is worth asking what Lieke’s numbers would have been in terms of goal contribution if Jennifer Hermoso didn’t leave in 2017, or if Barcelona had better depth in forward positions. For her first two seasons, Barça weren’t nearly the same Barça they are today in terms of quality and stability.
Martens was an impactful signing for Barça Femení | Photo by Imago
Comparing Lieke’s productivity to that of the Norwegian international Carlione Graham Hansen from this season seems unfair too. Graham Hansen has better strikers and players around her with Jennifer Hermoso, Asisat Oshoala, and the full-back Marta Torrejón, who had her best season at the club to date. Particularly, Jenni and Asisat were the top scorers in Spanish Iberdrola this season.
Adding to this, Lieke partnered with left-back Leila, who isn’t much creative and supportive in the final third in the same way that Marta Torrejón is. Lieke didn’t have the chance to play more with the attack-minded Andrea Falcón as one of them was injured while the other was fit during this season. Despite all of these challenges and comparisons, Lieke has shined in many different team setups and positions, and her numbers at the club reflect that.
Numbers at Barcelona
Lieke Martens managed to rack up 20+ goal contributions in both the 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns. She scored 14 goals and assisted another 13 from 34 matches, or 2324 minutes, in all competitions in the 2017/18 term. The following season, she repeated the same numbers with 13 goals and 9 assists in fewer matches – 31 – and fewer minutes played – 1714.
Martens has the best dribbling success rate ( 63% ) among players in all competitions including the Spanish top-flight, the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and the Copa de la Reina. She attempts 12.67 dribbles every 90 minutes and successfully completes 7.9 dribbles out of them according to FutFem stats. These numbers validate how good and important she is to this Barcelona side.
Lieke Martens is one of the most complete technical wingers in women’s football. Having Lieke in the team gives a tactical superiority in the final third. She stays wide on the left side pulling defenders out of position thus giving the much-needed width for Barca’s attack and she has the ability to drift inside and go for the goal.
Lieke loses possession only 12.9% in the final third and has one of the best recoveries in the opposite half at 4.47 every 90 minutes ( almost 76% success ) according to the Wyscout stats engine. Her successful crosses stand at 37.7% and long passes at 61%, which is good when considering she plays mostly in the attacking third of the pitch.
The most important factor among all these stats, is how they translate to her success in important matches. She was one of the key players in deciding the outcome against Bayern Munich in the Champions League return leg which Barça won 1–0. She was brought down in the penalty area giving the much-needed penalty to settle down the nerves in the dugout. Her playmaking skills and technical astuteness played an important role in Barcelona reaching the final of the UEFA Champions League for the first time.
Despite being injured for most of the 2019/20 season, Lieke Martens was only behind Alexia Putellas and Caroline Graham Hansen when it comes to the number of assists. She amassed a total of 2 goals and 8 assists in all competitions for Barcelona this season after only being at full strength for one or two months. She was getting better and better after each game until the COVID–19 break.
Specifically, her recent performance against Atlético de Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final is an example of what she has to offer when she’s linking up with her teammates in the right position at full strength. She still has time to deliver the goods in the UWCL knock-stages which restarts on August 21 and prove why she is the vital cog of this team.
Yes, Lieke Martens has her own clothing brand and she is the female face of most Barcelona advertisements and kit drops, but her marketing power shouldn’t take away from her performances and her ability as a player. These criticisms aren’t going to stop Lieke from performing at her best. With a much-improved front three, healthy legs, and better finishers in front of her, this coming UWCL campaign and domestic season are going to see the best version of Lieke Martens to date. If everything goes as expected, Lieke Martens is soon going to prove to her doubters and naysayers that she is still the best in business.
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.