As Barça Femení dominated and arguably were the better side in the Women’s Champions League semi-finals, what was missing that led to the Spanish giants losing by 1–0 to VfL Wolfsburg?
This past Tuesday, Barça Femení exited the UEFA Women’s Champions League as they lost 1–0 to VfL Wolfsburg. Barcelona played some of their most cohesive football of the year against one of the best sides in the world. They had a better stat line, kept more possession, and controlled most of the game, but at the end of it all, they left the match in tears. What went wrong for Barcelona on Tuesday?
Barcelona started the match on the front foot and immediately took control in midfield. The first 45 minutes were opportunity after opportunity for the blaugranas with no breakthrough. Wolfsburg had limited attempts in the first half because of Barcelona’s solid defensive line and well-timed defensive actions from midfield. As the second half began, Wolfsburg kept knocking at the door and needed many fewer opportunities than Barça to draw first blood.
Nevertheless, Barcelona’s match chances dwindled after the opener from Wolfsburg, as they grew more and more frustrated, failed to convert one too many times, and eventually left the pitch in tears.
A Wolfsburg win wasn’t any sort of expected or unexpected result – the two teams were nearly identical in strength on paper, so predicting a match outcome was very difficult. However, while this may have been a 50–50 match-up and Wolfsburg may be one of Europe’s strongest sides, a loss against them shouldn’t go without its critiques, especially if Barça want to be the best in Europe.
There were a lot of questions going into the match about what Barcelona’s starting XI would be and how they would play. Would Patri Guijarro start at the risk of aggravating an injury or missing the final due to potential yellow card accumulation? Mariona Caldentey performed well against Atlético de Madrid, so should she get the start or should she be brought on as an impact player along with Asisat Oshoala? Should they play possession-based and controlling like they usually do, or more direct? Because of Wolfsburg’s powerful offence, do they line up defensively in a double pivot or start a full-strength attack with four or more players in forward positions?
One of Barcelona’s biggest advantages is how deep their bench is, but this also forces head coach Lluís Cortés to make difficult tactical decisions based on each individual player profile, how each player works in certain tactical set-ups, and how they perform in the context of their opponent. Cortés did the opposite of what most people were expecting by starting an attacking line-up.
Mariona started in the place of Lieke Martens, who was seen with a bandaged leg a day or so before the match. Other than injury risk, this choice was a clear indicator that he wanted a more direct approach that would assist more in midfield than to go wide. Wolfsburg’s full-backs are notoriously one of their weakest points, so while it’s understandable why he wanted midfield control, one could easily argue that Barcelona dominating the wings would have worked better.
Everything seemed to work on Tuesday, except for an ineffective attack | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
This game plan worked well for about 60 minutes. Barça did what they set out to do. They kept midfield control, they applied a lot of pressure to the Germans’ backline, and most importantly, Mapi León and Kheira Hamraoui kept Wolfsburg’s most dangerous player Pernille Harder shut down, taking away most of VfL’s scoring avenues. After Fridolina Rolfö scored, though, most of that fell apart.
Barcelona’s first substitution was Oshoala off, Aitana Bonmatí on. Oshoala was having difficulties with finishing, but when she is given enough opportunities, she is known to pull through eventually. Lluís Cortés didn’t want to take this risk and eased off on the direct attacking to put in a player who can offer more midfield control.
This isn’t necessarily an issue considering there were 30 minutes left to calm down and push harder for a goal, but Alexia Putellas was taken off in the 77th minute for Patri, removing Barcelona’s source of midfield dominance and leadership in a time when they needed it the most. Vicky Losada came on late for Kheira, and finally, after 86 minutes, Cortés brought on his first attacking substitution of the night when he took out Leila Ouahabi for Martens and asked her to make it work in under ten minutes.
Cortés’ substitutions were his biggest failures of the night. Taking off Barça’s attacking players and replacing them with midfielders reduced their goal chances when scoring was the only thing they needed to do. The one offensive substitution he gave was with less than ten minutes remaining after two core attacking contributors, Alexia and Oshoala, were taken off. There’s a justification behind most of his decisions, but the way Cortés managed the match especially in the final minutes was less than ideal.
Blaming the referee shouldn’t be a go-to in a lot of circumstances, but this match undeniably had issues with refereeing. When the referees were announced, word got around that the head referee – the Hungarian Katalin Kulcsár – was also the head referee of one of the worst-quality, out-of-control women’s football matches in recent memory: Spain vs the USA at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. This semi-final saw shades of her faulty refereeing in that match. She rarely called fouls, gave unnecessary cards, and even made yet another match-altering mistake regarding penalties. Her biggest error was a very unnaturally positioned handball from a Wolfsburg player in Barcelona’s box early in the game that went right past her eyes.
The refereeing, and mostly the absence of VAR, was highly questionable | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
As easy as it is, one can’t place full blame on the referee. Instead, it’s worthier our time to pivot the responsibility to the governing bodies of the sport. The biggest question: where was VAR? Why does one of the most important matches of the year in women’s football not have the resources available to make it a more fair and balanced game?
As PSG captain Irene Paredes noted in her post-match interview after her team’s semi-final, both stadiums – Anoeta and the San Mamés – were already equipped with VAR capabilities, meaning there’s no excuse that it wasn’t available for these Women’s Champions League clashes. It is deeply irresponsible of UEFA to not have these changes implemented when all major men’s club and country competitions have it and when most major women’s international competitions have it.
“That there is no VAR is discrimination and I am not going to hide”Irene Paredes, PSG captain
The issue of refereeing in the women’s game is a much broader issue to be touched on. After decades of fighting for the bare minimum treatment, it is shameful that in the year 2020, professional athletes still have to go into some of the biggest matches of their life and worry about whether or not the outcome will be severely influenced by poor refereeing. Regardless of what team you support, women’s football desperately needs changes that make it so match refereeing prioritizes fairness, balance, and the overall well-being of the players, because the way things are right now, that clearly is not the case.
In general, Barcelona has plenty of strong leadership personalities. Vicky Losada, the official first captain, is one of the most appreciated members of this Barcelona side – it’s clear through her words and her demeanour that she is a figurehead of guidance and respect at the club. Alexia Putellas, who usually starts as captain nowadays, is one of the best leaders in women’s football. Everything about her attitude, words and actions on and off the pitch exudes leadership.
They aren’t the only ones either who have these qualities: Sandra Paños, Mapi León, Patri and Marta Torrejón are all established, vocal, mentally strong players who are capable of motivating their team to victory. Even the younger players like Aitana and Laia Codina are future captain material. They want to win. They deeply care for the club. They are willing to push until their last breath for the greater good of the team and are destroyed if they don’t succeed.
The Barça players knew of their chances and most left the pitch in tears | Photo by Sergio Pérez / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
So what gives? If Barça has so many players with a positive, driven mentality, why couldn’t anyone spur their forwards to score? How were there 13 shots, only two being on target and zero goals? How did the world’s best group of forwards manage to fumble so many opportunities?
Of the players listed as leaders, the trend is that none of them are forwards. Barcelona’s world-class forward pool of Lieke Martens, Caroline Graham Hansen, Asisat Oshoala and Jennifer Hermoso are some of the most dominant, technical, clinical attackers in the world. On paper, their intelligence and elite reading of the game make them arguably the most fearful group of attacking players in Europe…That is, seemingly, until you put them all in a starting XI together and expect one of them to step up and score. Each of these players is very mentally strong in their own respect – you have to be to perform at this level – but it’s questionable if any of them has a leader’s mentality. Barcelona is in need of a player who can step up and fulfil that role for the forwards.
The very few issues with Barcelona’s forward line were exposed when they first started to attack and got worse as the match evolved. Oshoala’s issues with finishing chances came to the forefront. Graham Hansen’s tendency to over-dribble when pressured was exposed against Wolfsburg’s defence. Jenni Hermoso had a great passing game and was actually one of Barcelona’s best performers, but was too slow and took too long to make decisions, something Wolfsburg’s midfield was more than happy to take advantage of.
Communication was lacking. Quality decision making was lacking. Direction was lacking. They pressed and pressed but ultimately all of them bar Martens – because she hardly played 10 minutes – looked lost at sea. As the game neared the 90th minute, the passes got sloppier and the chances were wasted, and wasted, and then wasted some more.
The Barcelona forwards didn’t have their shooting boots on | Photo by Sergio Pérez / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
Barça isn’t the type of club that can take a handful of elite players, slap them into a starting XI and expect them to make it work. If the Catalans are truly a Champions League title contender, they need to find a functioning balance between team cohesiveness, mentality and talent. Over the next few weeks and months, some players, especially those in attack, will need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and figure it out. Based on the stats, on the quality of chances, on the quality of players, on so many things, it’s nearly unacceptable that Barcelona lost the way they did.
On the brighter side for Barça, this match proved that their issues are not ones of quality. They showed they can perform and thrive against multiple different types of opposition in different tactical setups. Against Atleti the midfield understandably had some issues, but against Wolfsburg, Barcelona dominated the entire middle of the pitch and kept their strongest creators, Pernille and Ingrid Engen, completely shut down.
Ironically, the culés‘ biggest area of doubt this season, their defence, was one of the strongest overall aspects of the team for the resumption of the Champions League. Positionally they were great, they contributed well to passing, their timing was excellent, and aside from a 10-second sequence of chaos that ended in conceding a goal, they were Barcelona’s best performers over the two matches.
Additionally, unlike last year, Barça issues are no longer one of a low team mentality. Alexia, the co-captain, gave plenty of comments in post-match interviews and pressers, but her most impactful statement was when she was asked by a reporter about Barcelona closing the supposed “gap” in quality between them and Wolfsburg. She very bluntly replied: “No hi ha distància”, meaning “There is no distance / gap”, followed by an uncomfortable few seconds of silence.
“It hurts because we did absolutely everything except scoring. In these games, at this level, things are defined by very slight margins. Tonight it was not our night despite we did many things right”Alexia Putellas
Alexia made it very clear to both the interviewer and the viewers that the team know what they are capable of and no longer underestimate themselves. At the very least, Barça Femení now knows that they are at the same level as Wolfsburg, a club that has been the second biggest force in Europe for the better part of a decade.
Knowing that there’s no longer a gap in quality, it’s imperative that Barcelona doesn’t continue to settle for getting better. They have to be the best in every area of the pitch and in every aspect as players. The time for being good enough is over, and based on their words, they most likely understand that.
Barça has learned a lot since last year’s final. The club’s biggest walls of doubt were finally broken when they met Lyon in Budapest and the team has been on a mission of growth ever since. They’re so much closer than they ever were, and it’s clear that their journey is far from over. Alexia is right, there is no gap. Barcelona is a team that is just as capable as any of the other European superpowers, but if they truly want to be the best, they need the results to prove it. As simple as that.
Barça Femení’s October Player of the Month: Alexia Putellas
Alexia Putellas has been performing as possibly the best midfielder in the world in the past months, but in October she rose to a different level as the best player of the month for Barça Femení.
Upon beginning the 2020/21 season, Barça Femení have started off their campaign flawlessly in both the league and the Copa de la Reina. Aside from all four of their matches being victories, they have completely and utterly dominated their competition with 22 goals scored and zero conceded. Every individual player has done their part in contributing to this dominance, but the team has taken such a commanding lead largely due to the consistent, near-perfect performances from our October Player of the Month, Alexia Putellas.
2020 has already been a huge breakout year on an individual level for the midfielder. The entire year, she has been playing the best football of her life for both club and country. October, in particular, has been her best month of 2020 from a statistics standpoint: she has 3 goals and 3 assists in four games. We will be looking at a match-by-match analysis that breaks down her scoring, passing, movement, and all the other elements that have made this October such a successful month for her.
Alexia bagged 3 goals in 3 Primera Iberdrola games in October for Barça Femení, while also scoring a goal and assisting another for the Spanish National Team last Friday. The Catalan playmaker is completely on fire in every game she plays in and arguably claiming to be the best midfielder in the world right now.
Primera Iberdrola | Real Madrid Femenino (A) (4/10/2020): 0–4
- Minutes: 90
- 1 Goal
- 1 Assist
The defending champions started their new season in style by winning 4–0 against the newly-established Real Madrid Femenino, formerly known as CD Tacón. Similarly to last year’s season opener, Alexia Putellas was once again the protagonist against Los Blancos with both a goal and an assist.
Alexia’s first direct goal involvement of the season was assisting Barça’s first-ever goal in the women’s Clásico. Alexia waited towards the corner of the box to send in a through ball to Patri Guijarro, who then scored on the edge of the box to find the back of the net for the first time in the historic fixture.
In the 20th minute, she pulled the trigger from the edge of the box with a rocket of a shot that would’ve surely lengthened Barcelona’s lead if not for an equally outstanding save from Misa Rodríguez. She then unlocked the defence yet again with a defence-splitting pass to Marta Torrejón in the 22nd minute, but the latter missed scoring from point-blank range. Alexia created all sorts of danger for Real Madrid Femenino. She rounded off her excellent performance with a well-deserved goal in the 75th minute. Alexia preyed around the box and slid the ball past Misa after a pinpoint cross from Caroline Graham Hansen to make it 0–3.
Against Real Madrid, most of Barça’s attacks came through the left (6 shots), which indicates that Alexia was one of the key players in terms of chance creation. In addition to that, she completed 3 successful dribbles along with as many shots on target. Alexia started off her season with an excellent game, setting a precedent for her performances later in the month.
Copa de la Reina semi-finals | Sevilla Femenino (H) (8/10/2020): 6–0
- Minutes: 63
- 1 Assist
After playing the full 90 minutes against Madrid, Alexia started the Copa de la Reina semi-final encounter with Sevilla. The Catalan was once again the catalyst for the team and spent her 63 minutes moving forward, breaking lines, and being a constant threat on the pitch.
It didn’t take Alexia long to find herself on the scoresheet yet again when she assisted a Caroline Graham Hansen goal in the 18th minute. After Patri stole the ball back from a Sevilla defender, Alexia moved away from pressure and sent a perfectly weighted, line-breaking diagonal pass to Caroline Graham Hansen who was just outside the box. Graham Hansen performed an elegant dribble move past three defenders and slotted the ball into the back of the net.
Alexia’s vision was again in full effect when she sent a no-look through ball in the way of Caroline Graham Hansen, who rounded up Barça’s second goal. Again, in the 25th minute, when Barça countered Sevilla following a corner, Alexia got into the box as a centre-forward ahead of Asisat Oshoala. However, Caroline Graham Hansen picked out Torrejón, who put the ball wide of the right side of the post. These two plays demonstrate their chemistry with each other. Alexia’s connection with Graham Hasen – arguably Barcelona’s first or second-best player – has been crucial in goal creation and attacking momentum this season.
Along with being pivotal in playmaking, Alexia showed herself to be more prone to getting in the box and looking for scoring opportunities. This match is yet another example of Alexia being an all-around player in build-up, goal creation, and goalscoring.
Primera Iberdrola | EdF Logroño (H) (11/10/2020): 6–0
- Minutes: 24
- 1 Goal
Alexia Putellas was on the bench against Logroño to make way for captain Vicky Losada, who got her first start of the season in this match. Barcelona were cruising past the opponents with a scoreline of 4–0 when Alexia was subbed in for Vicky in the 67th minute. Alexia widened Barca’s lead when she scored their fifth goal out of six, a strike from within the box after a swift buildup sequence.
Barcelona’s fifth goal was a fluid, well-worked goal involving 8 players with 9 passes between them. Alexia was positioned in the midfield leading up to the goal, always keeping herself open for a pass. When the ball advanced upfield thanks to an excellent dribble from Jana Fernández, Alexia started to make a run up the centre. No player marked her entry into the box because the focus stayed on Graham Hansen, and Alexia timed her run perfectly and slotted in neatly between the two centre-backs to find the ball and score.
In addition to Alexia’s goal, Vicky bagged one of her own and Aitana scored a brace. Since the loss against Wolfsburg, the midfielders have been getting into the box to contribute to scoring much more often. It became clear in the Women’s Champions League semi-final that the team had poor effectiveness in front of goal, and thankfully, almost every player seems to be making progress in that regard. Alexia particularly is leading by example with a refined finishing technique and an increased proclivity to get into the box.
Primera Iberdrola | Huelva (A) (18/10/2020): 6–0
- Minutes: 90
- 1 Goal
- 1 Assist
Barça Femení visited a notoriously difficult ground in La Orden to face Huelva on Matchday 3. Alexia started the match and was once again crucial to Barca’s win by scoring a goal and assisting another during her fine display.
Alexia frequently advanced into the box in the first half of the game, switching positions with Lieke Martens on the left side of the pitch. In the photo below, Alexia sends in a perfectly timed through ball, dissecting the defence for Martens. However, Martens’ first touch was a bit heavy and the defence took care of it quickly.
At the 39th minute, Alexia picked the ball on the left of the pitch, dribbled past a player, settled towards the end of the box, and sent a long-range lob shot that chipped the keeper on its way into the net. This goal took serious technical skill to finish off and is probably one of the best goals of her career. Alexia is becoming even more lethal inside the box than she used to be, and given how clinical she’s been from both long and short-range, she could be on track to beat her single-season league goal record of 16.
During the build-up, Alexia’s positioning and link-up play with Mapi León were crucial again in Barcelona’s success. She got herself in between players and constantly asked for the ball to break the defensive structure of the opponent. Alexia once again found her name on the stat sheet with her assist to Bruna Vilamala, who scored her first senior-team goal in the 78th minute. This was another well-worked team goal with 15 touches involving 8 Barça players. The sequence ended when Alexia shook off her defender and sent in the assisting pass straight to Bruna Vilamala’s feet.
In addition to her performances with Barcelona, Alexia put up yet another stellar performance for the Spanish national team with a ridiculous volley goal and an assist to cap off one of the finest months of her career. Alexia has already been having a phenomenal 2020, but consistent, dominating performances like those we saw this month only solidify her reputation as one of the best players in the world with unlimited potential to get even better.