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A dive into the structural deficiencies of Barcelona Femení so far
A few defensive problems have arisen so what's caused the crack in Barça's system?
The philosophy instilled at Barcelona as an institution trickled down to the women’s team as well and we’ve seen a compelling and exquisite style of football being played. Lluís Cortés and Jonatan Giráldez have continued the tradition of success by winning their first UEFA Women’s Champions League trophy and Liga F.
This season has, however, taken a different turn, revealing some structural problems in Barcelona’s system that has seen them falter enough in games to expose an apparent weakness in their tactics. Systemic issues against high-pressing teams in both build-up and defensive transitions have seen them give away chances they normally wouldn’t give up, and offensively they’ve struggled to get into the most optimal positions.
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The 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich on matchday 4 of the UEFA Women’s Champions League was a stunning result for the Bavarians, but it was a result that was inevitable given their relative struggles against Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid earlier. All three teams presented Barcelona with a similar problem to stifle their progression out from the back by pressing them high. This is where I’ll start this analysis and break into the detailed nuances.
Opposition Defensive Structure – High Press
A lot of the issues can be blamed on personnel losses and changes, and this has certainly been a major factor in how Barcelona have played, but one gets the sense that teams are also starting to see Barcelona’s vulnerabilities to the compact central pressing shape. Each of the three aforementioned teams used some form of pressing shape that put two attackers close to the centre-backs with a midfielder pressing in high before the other midfielders step up to close the gap.
Barcelona’s preference is to build out from the central areas with their strength in both progression and ball control coming from their midfielders (Aitana Bonmati, Patri Guijarro, and Keira Walsh). Despite how proficient they are on the ball, even they are still susceptible to being crowded out of space.
As a result, they can either continue their path through the middle and attempt to play out through intricate passing sequences, or they go wide towards the full-backs, in which case said full-backs need to adjust their initial position to be lower, thus limiting their presence in the middle and final thirds.
The first series of images has the initial setup Bayern Munich used when Mapi León gets on the ball, with Sydney Lohmann coming in from the right to combine with Lea Schüller to become a front-two off the ball. The trio of Georgia Stanway, Sarah Zadrazil, and Lina Magull all push up to stop Patri and Aitana from receiving an easy pass. The resulting move sees Mariona Caldentey drop in to help break the press, but she only manages to get it back to Irene Paredes horizontally and Barcelona now have to restart.
The restart is more of the same with a ball towards Aitana directly but is quickly won back by Bayern and they’re again in possession of the ball. In the space of 40 seconds, Bayern thwarted two attacks and commandingly regained the ball. The underlying pressure applied by Bayern’s positioning meant Barcelona had no time or space to progress forward, rather having to go back or sideways instead.
The way teams press Barcelona effectively stops them from stepping out and passing forwards. Both Irene Paredes and Mapi León are excellent at this and denying them the chance to do so without pressure means they’re forced to make a decision more quickly. We saw Lyon and Wolfsburg successfully employ a similar strategy against them last season where Lyon nullified Barcelona and beat them in the UWCL final. In that instance, they effectively used Amandine Henry as an attack dog to stop the initial ball out. This time, Bayern used Sydney Lohmann as their tactical weapon by playing her as a false right-winger, ensuring she drifted inside to create the second striker in their two-striker pressing scheme.
Giráldez’s purpose of ensuring the centre-backs step forward is to manufacture more time on the ball and push the team up a few yards in a matter of seconds. Mapi León in particular is probably the best at doing so. Still, if teams catch the next pass or the player in transition, then Barcelona are effectively left in a 2 or even 3 v 1 situation given how high their full-backs are.
The midfield double-pivot
This leads us nicely onto Barcelona’s midfield structure in build-up. A strength of Barcelona’s system has always been in their shape and the core of their success came from Patri. Meanwhile, Aitana and Alexia would often drop deeper to create an extra passing option as a safety net. However, this season the usual figure of Patri as the lone holding midfielder has changed in the form of Walsh, as her replacement – who is by no means a downgrade, but rather another dazzling ball controller.
I’m not pointing the finger at Walsh here, you could instead attribute this to the loss of Putellas more than anything else, yet it’s noticeable that Barcelona are noticeably less proficient and composed in the defensive third of the pitch due to the loss of the dribbling ball progressor. Their losses of possession have exponentially increased year on year from 99.35 p90 (across the 2021/22 season) to 105.5 p90 so far. There’s the obvious caveat of the smaller sample size for this season, but you can still extract some level of cause from this stat. Even looking at their loss and duels maps, you’ll notice a significant chunk of their possession-battling activity is happening deeper.
Teams are starting to realise that Barcelona are vulnerable to the high press now, and closing out the forward passing options limits the way Barcelona can play out. Ingrid Engen, Patri, and Walsh are much more comfortable at ball progression through passing so denying them the space to pass out gives them fewer ways out. You might say that Aitana excels at the Putellas role and she proved as much at the Euros, but she is much more effective in finding pockets of space through defences off-the-ball when possession is in the final third.
The Putellas injury has pushed Patri to a central midfield position alongside Aitana as the No. 8 and it’s also impacted the rotating cast of Engen and Walsh as the No. 6s. Their main build-up structure is composed of deploying two holding midfielders to encourage their central build-up and keep numerical superiority, however, it’s mainly about getting the ball towards them. In a normal situation, the double-pivot is easily able to play themselves out between them and progress the ball forward.
What’s changed is the speed in which teams are pressing them. Teams are increasingly pushing an extra player into midfield to press Barcelona’s double-pivot, knowing they have one midfielder isolated further forward who can be accounted for. The player-to-player marking is much more accessible because of the lack of a midfield runner going forward, leaving Barcelona’s final third lacking in numbers. Whether Giráldez plays Mariona or Geyse on the left, the opposition team isn’t as worried about the runs in behind given the more predictable movement patterns. Mariona dropping into the central areas usually meant Putellas would be making late counterbalancing runs but that’s missing now. That made marking a much more complex task then but now it’s a lot easier for teams to adjust.
In my mind, it’s very clear that the loss of Alexia Putellas is the crux of the problem. The talismanic Spaniard wasn’t just a high-octane offensive figure, but a decisive transition player as well. Putellas’ ability to drop into the deeper midfield regions to pick up possession and drive forward with intensity gave Barcelona the ability to play out of high-pressure situations. She brought balanced spatial occupation which essentially translates to players needing to be in a position for teammates to access them as well as simultaneously threaten and occupy defences, which creates structural advantages. So while Patri is an excellent ball player, she doesn’t have the necessary movement and acceleration that Putellas has on the ball.
The risk-reward ratio of Barcelona’s full-backs and attacking players pushed forward is worth the gamble if they can win the ball back in a higher midfield area. Stopping Barcelona’s 2-2 or 3-2 structure means they’re able to transition when Barcelona are vulnerable; León and Paredes are much less comfortable when backpedalling and having to defend their box alone. The clip above shows Real Sociedad’s quick press into counter-attacking transition, creating a 3 v 2 situation with someone just in behind.
As a result of Barcelona’s positioning, opposition teams are taking advantage of the full-backs’ higher position by using their pacy wingers and attacking midfielders to drive into the wide spaces and force the centre-backs into 1 v 1 positions. Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad did this effectively by opting to go wide first before coming inside.
Both examples highlight Barcelona’s disorganised shape out of possession which meant they were very easily carved open on the counter-attack. The way Synne Jensen turns inside and creates a passing opportunity before the left-back can get back into position is worrying, but ultimately it’s also why Barcelona are such a high-risk, high-reward team.
Creating high-value attacking situations comes from vacating defensive spaces and in the past, they were excellent at controlling the situation and possession whilst managing to have enough defensive cover. The addition of Lucy Bronze and using Fridolina Rolfo as a full-back supports this notion and it has increased their attacking cohesion, but it was at the cost of defensive stability. The current situation is a mix of personnel issues, defensive system exploits, and some overall poor transition play that has caused them to look more susceptible than normal. Giráldez’s side should resume normality after the break, but these vulnerabilities are a caution that Barcelona are indeed not invincible.
Photo by Alex Caparros - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
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