Breaking Traditions: How Bompastor can rethink her tactics to beat Barcelona Femení
A deeper look into a theoretical system that could beat Giráldez’s invincible Barcelona (or so we think?).
The European season will come to a close when Barcelona and Lyon battle for supremacy in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final in Turin. Behind the glamour and glitz of two of Europe’s most decorated clubs comes what I believe is the most intriguing aspect of the tie – the tactical battle between managers Jonatan Giráldez and Sonia Bompastor.
The road to the Champions League final was full of interesting tactical nuances and given how these two sides have faced a variety of opponents, there are lessons to be learned from each victory and defeat. There’s no instruction manual on how to beat Barcelona, though Wolfsburg and Real Madrid did offer glimpses of what could be a solution. I want to propose a theoretical tactical solution that could exploit some of the perceived weaknesses in Giráldez’s Barcelona.
Barcelona’s perceived fragility have come up at fleeting points throughout the season. Their major source of irritation derives from the backline but chiefly in two specific areas: the full-backs where Barcelona leave space in behind. This isn’t a hidden weakness, but rather collateral that comes with supplementing their attacking tendencies. Leila Ouahabi, Marta Torrejon, and Fridolina Rolfö are hyper-aggressively situated in the final third quite frequently, taking up attacking spaces where they ensure the overlap is constantly being occupied to act as a passing and final-ball outlet option.
This high positioning constantly occurs due to Barcelona’s high possession and seamless attacking transition from midfield to attack, right from build-up. The full-backs play an important role in how Barcelona carry the ball out from the back and get into the final third as one source of attack. The clip is indicative of where Barcelona full-backs – in this case, Ouahabi and Torrejon – are forward, creating a front-five and dominating the pitch in terms of possession.
Another area of contention has been the central press. Barcelona boasts two of the best defenders in Mapi Leon and Irene Paredes but they can still be subject to the odd misplaced pass or dispossession from the opposition press. Teams have had some success when pressing Barcelona high up the pitch, creating high turnovers to generate chances. The core idea is to simply put pressure on Barcelona’s base to create mistakes. Alternatively, cutting the supply to and from Patri is another important option given how important the No. 6 is to how Barcelona are able to transition both ways. I wrote a piece on how No. 6s are vital to the success of both teams with Damaris Egurrola and Patri as elite examples, which covers the position in more detail.
An example of this can be seen in the semi-final against Wolfsburg. Here, Barcelona play short passes in their defensive third, but the one reverse pass to Patri from Torrejon saw the No. 6 be dispossessed with a perfectly timed press from Jill Roord. Winning the ball back in that area causes Barcelona to go on the back-foot which affords Wolfsburg more space and ultimately an opportunity to shoot.
Having said this, the Catalan side aren’t ones to give up such opportunities regularly, and as such, it’s about creating these chances and capitalising on them. Here are two theories which could create some havoc and tension.
Damaris & Henry – Mid-blocks & midfield rotations
Bompastor’s impact at Lyon cannot be understated. On the verge of reclaiming the league and reaching the final of the Champions League are achievements that most fans would have taken at the start. How she’s used the 4-3-3 to create organisation and mobility is a big factor in producing better results, and it’s these foundational factors that I will use as the crux of my solution.
As a whole, Lyon will rely on basic fundamental midfield principles with the midfield needing to constantly transform from a sole to double-pivot, in and out of possession. Midfield rotations and creating central mid-blocks will be critical in ensuring the rest of the system is coherent and a success.
The basis of this model will come from their standard hybrid 4-3-3 formation with two No. 8s and one No. 6. Damaris and Henry have both played as independent No. 6s and similar to the setup against Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon’s base will need to forge a solid foundation to create a 3-2 defensive structure. At least one full-back should be in a position to track back quickly to create a three, given that one will become an auxiliary winger on the overlap.
In transition, the second defensive midfielder can push up into a No.8 position and attack the half-spaces to create numerical superiority in final third overloads. The makeup of this midfield comes down to the personnel in each proposed system, however, the premise of how to set up to attack and defend should be the same. Damaris is an excellent No. 6 but it comes down to the rotations to create a base to support the press off the ball and protect the central areas, forcing Barcelona wide.
The shift stops the opposition from easily playing through the middle and forcing teams into the wide areas. Barcelona have some of the best wingers in Caroline Graham Hansen, Mariona Caldentey, and Lieke Martens but the idea is to delay them enough to create a stronger central base. Lyon will rely on the aerial prowess of Wendie Renard and Griedge M’Bock to clear the danger.
Building a central block out of possession will ensure Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmati are cover-shadowed and are not afforded extra space which creates an overreliance on the wingers and full-backs. Using a measured man-marking system with certain triggers can create counter-attacking transitions to exploit given the pace out wide. Delphine Cascarino and Macario will need to track back and provide extra cover for their full-backs but also transition behind the Catalan full-backs in the event of this turnover.
Here, the counter-attack from Barcelona will see them try to go central but are limited by the rotations of the No. 6 and No. 8 to close off the central space where the two No. 8s would normally occupy. The eventual move forces them to go wide, giving time for the Lyon full-back to track back and cover the wide space. In theory, this could work but stopping or slowing down Graham Hansen or Martens will likely require the centre-back to come across till the full-back comes back.
Macario & Hegerberg – Second strikers and positional rotations
Further forward, if Lyon are to have any chance of winning the final, they’ll need to utilise Catarina Macario’s strengths. The American has been one of their top performers, going from potential to proven in as little time as a season. Her spatial awareness and deep-lying runs into the box have been a source of chance creation for Lyon. Bompastor’s preference to turn Macario from a No. 10 to a deep-lying, all-action, attacking No. 8 has been successful with her back-to-goal play, balancing her innate need to make forward runs.
So far, Macario has been a conduit, bringing Lyon’s midfield and attack together to create a seamless transition alongside another No. 8. The number of attacking overloads courtesy of Macario’s left central midfield position has subsequently increased the volume of Lyon’s attacks. In April, I wrote an in-depth analysis of Lyon’s structure which discusses the intricacies of how their central midfielders work, including Macario’s role. The 22-year-old’s transformation into an attacking No. 8 can be used in other ways to overcome Barcelona, particularly in her movement.
The basic concept of the first system is to use pace in behind Barcelona’s defensive line. Playing high up the pitch, Barcelona are often in control of where the opposition attackers are positioned and are in a position to have the forwards in front of them, rather than in line or in behind. This is where Macario steps in. While we’ll touch on Ada Hegerberg momentarily, it’s worth noting the American plays an important role in creating organisation and occupying her area of the pitch. The above clip shows Macario’s ability to take up space in a counter-attacking situation before finding the right final movement to score.
The initial clip comes more from a slip by Mapi Leon but still requires Madrid CFF to take advantage. The striker manages to drive into the vacant space and score. The second clip comes from a good spell of pressure and pressing sequence by Real Madrid courtesy of Claudia Zornoza (#21). Though the transition was slightly slower, the space afforded to Olga down the left is where Lyon will want to exploit.
Bompastor could move Macario to a left wing position to play in a narrower position, effectively taking up a position nearer to Hegerberg and exposing the flank for the left-winger. The inside-forward position can create a system where Lyon effectively plays with two centre-forwards, giving Leon and Paredes a different proposition to handle.
The #7 (Macario) would occupy the attention of at least one central defender, but she also casts doubt in the mind of the full-back to either help cover the space in behind and follow Macario, or to mark the full-back (#3). The #10 is now afforded space to drive forward between the lines if she can bypass the #6. There is a chance the #6 can be dragged towards the #9. Hegerberg’s positioning and style of play demand some doubling-up, which ultimately helps open the space for the others to threaten the back line.
Hegerberg’s role becomes more significant than just her goalscoring – rather more importantly as a focal point at the point of the attack. Hegerberg as a mobile target man warrants at least two players to cover shadow and mark the Norwegian. Her movement around the box is dynamic enough to force defenders to move positions with a good back-to-goal game. Hegerberg can be used to receive passes to feet and occupy one defender while other players make runs in and around her.
This sequence against Paris FC highlights a glimpse of Hegerberg’s deep-lying play where she drops into the vacant midfield space, pulling a centre-back with her exposing a gap between the defensive line. Hegerberg’s next pass goes to Cascarino who drives into the space and is able to push forward.
The sequence here against PSG almost typifies the concept I’m talking about here. The pass into Hegerberg in midfield comes from a more direct move. The chested ball to Macario, who then plays a sublime pass onto Melvine Malard on the shoulder of the centre-back, is precisely the outcome Lyon should try to achieve. Though Hegerberg is regularly seen as a bulldozing centre-forward playing the channels, her role could be tweaked to provide more of a mobile target-man role than her conventional one.
Alternatively, Hegerberg offers another source of attack if Lyon need to go towards a more direct route with her excellent aerial ability. You have her ability to collect crosses and outmuscle defenders just like she did against Paris Saint-Germain’s Sakina Karchouai from a Bacha cross.
In an ideal situation, this can be an effective counter-attacking strategy due to the fact that Barcelona will need to be wary of Macario’s constant movement and positioning in the final third. Any time Lyon win back possession in midfield, they’ll effectively force Barcelona’s back line to stand back a couple of yards rather than push up. This is essentially how Barcelona have operated with Asisat Oshoala at centre-forward. The striker has been a similar threat.
The graphic shows the #6 and #8 creating a double-pivot but as the attacking move progresses, the #8 should push into the space behind the opposition #8 and force the #6 and #5 to make a decision. This relies on quick transitions in midfield and winning the ball back through a team press.
Bacha & Carpenter – Overlaps & interior rotations
The wings are going to become a very important and critical area of the pitch that will require some attention. While I’ve surrounded the theory based on the principle of giving Barcelona more space in the wide areas, Lyon’s full-backs will remain a core factor in its success.
In Selma Bacha and Ellie Carpenter, Lyon have two skilful full-backs. Both Bacha and Carpenter have contributed to Lyon’s defensive and attacking tactics in key tactical roles. Bacha is currently tied for the highest number of assists in the Champions League while Carpenter has gone a long way to replicating Lucy Bronze’s form with her development.
Given the makeup of the team from the earlier sections, the two full-backs will be used in a complementary fashion. Bacha will be responsible for providing width whilst Carpenter will push more infield to provide sufficient cover and interior drives to create overloads. One of the earlier graphics touched upon the positioning of the two full-backs – one as an overlapping winger whilst the other retains a deeper position to create a 3-2 structure. While that should remain the priority, there will be opportunities for both to interchange positions and create numerical advantages in other positions.
Carpenter’s and Bacha’s ability to play further infield in transition is a key tactical element that both full-backs distinguish from their counterparts. Bacha can play as a left-sided central midfielder whilst Carpenter frequently takes up central positions in defensive transitions, making them very interchangeable. Taking the above graphic example, if Bacha (#3) overlaps and plays next to Macario (#7), one option Carpenter (#2) has is to take up a slightly higher position inside to create a right-sided overload which puts Barcelona’s defensive midfielder and/or full-back on alert. A switch of play from the left to right could prove to be a dangerous move.
Alternatively, Carpenter taking a midfield role akin to Bronze’s role at Manchester City now or at Lyon previously can provide extra security and defence in midfield, coupled with another overload opportunity. Her pace is an insurance policy against the slightly vacant spaces to make up ground if she needs to double-up or plug holes.
Both teams are wedded to the ethos of their style of play, deviating only slightly when required. Barcelona have always been faithful to its famous tiki-taka play style, capturing the hearts and minds of managers and fans alike.
Lyon have primarily adopted the same rule until the second leg against Paris Saint-Germain where Bompastor tweaked her setup to outwit their domestic rivals. Changing to a more counter-attacking approach and adjusting the midfield setup was key to victory, though they weren’t at their optimal best. Barcelona will be a different proposition altogether and Lyon will need to play at their absolute best to have any chance of beating the Spanish giants.
Photo by Tnani Badreddine/DeFodi Images via Getty Images