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Catarina Macario - Chelsea's New No. 10
Macario to Chelsea is close to being finalised but what does the American bring to Chelsea?
Sonia Bompastor turned Macario into a mercurial shadow striker from her previous a nominal role centre-forward during her time at Stanford University. A season of transition at Lyon followed by a brilliant display of creativity and goals meant Macario was destined for greatness in a team full of stars, but a serious knee injury curtailed what would have otherwise been a brilliant individual season for the American.
At 23 years of age, Macario has already won several major honours including the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the D1 Arkema title, so she could feel that she’s done all that she can with the French champions. Chelsea’s interest in Macario originates from the imminent departure of Pernille Harder and while replacing her becomes a monumental task for the club, bringing in a seemingly younger iteration of her surely makes logical sense, right?
As Macario’s reign with Lyon is now over and a new chapter with Chelsea begins very soon, the question emerges: how will Macario fill the void left by the departing Pernille Harder?
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Catarina Macario at Lyon
Macario’s core focus is her attacking instincts and intelligence off the ball. Being able to identify spaces and, more importantly, time her movements into the box are fundamental parts of her game. A combination of smart movements in possession and knowing where to receive possession with some silky dribbling means that Macario is a keen ball progressor in the final third and knows how to drive past players, not just in tight spaces, but also in areas with the least line of resistance.
She is comfortable playing outside the box and often becomes a primary link-up artist. What this suggests is that she's capable of getting back into goal-scoring positions regularly, regardless of her starting position. As a forward-thinking player, there is the obvious need to constantly identify spaces, but given Macario’s ability to connect with players around her, she has a sense of creating space too. Knowing where and when to move, and recognising the right decision becomes imperative.
The major problem in pinning down Macario’s role at Lyon lies in the fact that she’s been injured practically all season, so it’s difficult to gauge how Macario would have suited Lyon’s 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3. This is why I will instead give an explanation of how she was used prior to her injury and then relate that to how she might be implemented at Chelsea next season.
During the 2021/22 season, Bompastor’s setup at Lyon had been a mix of a 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 formation – this is a system that really unifies and enhances a team’s attacking potential. While there have been a few variations in the forward line, the main attacking idea has remained constant. Bompastor wanted the two of the three forwards to rotate positions and play closer together to create overloads whilst the opposite winger stays wide and provides a wide crossing angle.
This passing network against Bordeaux that season highlighted Delphine Cascarino's (#20), Macario's (#13), and Melvine Malard’s (#28) general positioning. There’s a distinction in their positioning that’s enough to illustrate their aforementioned rotations.
The system relied on structured yet fluid rotations between the forwards. A lot of this has come between both Malard and Macario who play as the left inside forward and striker respectively with Cascarino as the right-winger, offering a crossing option. In this setup, Malard and Macario interchange play and create passing exchanges to pull players out of position.
Inevitably, this created positional overloads as the left-back is now free to make overlapping runs to add an alternative outlet. The other option is the right-sided forward finding opportunities to create balance, but if there’s an opportunity to come inside, then the right full-back will make the run.
There was a time when Macario was used as an attacking central midfielder, playing as a box runner in Lyon’s 4-3-3. This speaks to Macario’s versatility in playing different positions, namely down the spine of the team. We see this a lot now where teams look to play a metamorphic system between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 – similar to the way the Lionesses play. Sarina Wiegman uses Fran Kirby/Ella Toone as a zonal No.8/10 hybrid player that becomes the focal point of the team’s creativity. This is a role that Harder previously occupied at Chelsea but with her exit, this role can now be taken up by Macario.
At her best in a No 10 role just behind the striker, Macario had been given increasing positional freedom by Bompastor, encouraged to drift between the lines and receive the ball on the half-turn before bursting through defences and releasing a pass or shot. It will be interesting to see how Hayes integrates Macario into her team given her use of multiple systems and formations over the last few seasons but considering the turnover of players this summer, we could see a clearer system emerge.
How will she operate at Chelsea?
This season Hayes has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation playing with a semi-dedicated No. 10. Even in a 4-3-3, the system has transformed into having the third midfielder push up in support of the attacking players.
The role of the No. 10 in Chelsea’s side is to complement the forward line and add both firepower and service whilst assisting the midfield pivot in their midfield duties – whether it’s at pressing, ball retention, or facilitating overloads. The settled front three so far has been Reiten, Kerr, and James who’ve played the majority of minutes. James’ inclusion comes in the absence of Fran Kirby and the continuous adaptation of Johanna Rytting Kaneryd brings an alternate profile to the other two options.
Harder’s role was to be a connector between the midfield and attack, to create space for the forwards to operate. Carried out through excellent ball-carrying, Harder was the reference point for the team to play through. In almost every attack the ball went through the Danish midfielder, be it through a pass to feet or a string of interchangeable passes with the forwards. Here, her responsibility becomes that of creating space through her passing and movement which derives from her exceptional tactical ingenuity.
In 2021, I wrote a detailed analysis of what Macario brought to Lyon and you can read my in-depth article on my Substack, but the idea here is to give you a glimpse of how Hayes can use Macario in the future, which of her strengths are well-suited to Chelsea’s style, and where it can be improved.
Tactical intelligence is the source of what makes Macario such a mercurial talent. What I mean by this is that she is a player that shows her greatest attributes, sometimes in a single move combining her intelligent on- and off-ball movements, close control, and powerful bursts of acceleration. She can turn from creator to goal scorer in an instant.
Playing as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1, Macario looks to occupy the lines and become an outlet for any surrounding players, looking for passing options. Often with Chelsea, Reiten and James will drive into the interior spaces and create overlapping chances or look to combine with the team’s attacking midfielder. With Macario, there is now an opportunity to find a box threat making deep runs.
Suddenly, Chelsea will have two powerful box runners in Kerr and Macario occupying spaces in the box with smart movement patterns. These runs can act as both a decoy to move opposing defenders away and so create gaps between the defence, or as an opportunity to play line-breaking passes into Macario’s path.
So why is Macario such an in-demand player? The data points us in the right direction to tell us what type of profile the American fits into. At first glance, it’s easy to think of her as a pure goal-scoring threat given the high percentile figures in her goal and shot-related sector. She outperforms her non-penalty expected goals by 3, which makes her a valuable attacking threat given these numbers are all in the mid to high 90s. The way she moves around the box to manoeuvre herself into a goal-scoring position is a major reason for this output.
In this passage of play, we see her receiving the ball outside the box and playing a quick interchange of passes with Malard, she then quickly drives towards the middle. From here she quickly restarts the move with another one-two exchange with Daniëlle van de Donk before ghosting past the Montpellier central defender to finish.
Against a deeper, more compact Dijon side, Macario manages to take advantage of the vacant central space as the team focuses their build-up and counter-press down the right-hand side. Macario manages to drive forward quickly enough before opposing players can press her and she drives home a shot. Despite the centre-back to contend with, she’s able to get her shot away without too much pressure on her.
Chelsea have faced many situations where they have come up against deep, compact blocks that have become hard to break down. The injuries to Kirby and Harder this season have meant Chelsea lost their two most creative and direct players to break these walls. Macario’s ability to make these direct runs as we’ve seen her do against similar teams when playing for Lyon will no doubt be hugely beneficial for Chelsea.
After reading all this, one may ask whether the forward has any flaws and the answer to that would be “yes”. At 23, Macario still has room to develop and improve upon her undeniably impressive foundations. Though this isn’t a significant part of Hayes’ tactics (at least not yet), it has to be said that Macario’s link-up play needs some work.
At Lyon, there were a lot more interchangeable passages of play with Dzenfier Marozsan, Ada Hegerberg, and Amandine Henry all playing quick, incisive football in the final third to create opportunities, and though they used Delphine Cascarino and Selma Bacha as creative, crossing outlets, there was nonetheless a need to focus some play through the central areas.
It’s here where Macario has somewhat struggled at times with her first touch to go into a dribble or pass not being quite as polished as some other players. Give her space to take a touch and drive or make a pass, and then you’re in business, whereas if she’s under pressure, then there is sometimes the feeling that Macario can be less assured.
There actually isn’t a whole lot wrong with this sequence of play, but the issue really comes down to the lack of scanning. If you take a closer look, Macario doesn’t actually turn to see what’s going on behind her, and though she can see Lindsey Horan make the run from midfield, the first-time pass seems to be intended for Hegerberg.
The metrics also tell a similar tale with Macario ranking in the 49th percentile for short and medium passes and 78th in smart passes. You can attribute this to her young age but also to the fact that she was used as a goal-scorer more than as a playmaking forward, so there is still room to evolve.
There are positive moments in her passing and interchanging play. Take this move against Paris FC, which provides a snapshot of her talents. The move starts with Lyon building out from the right flank before they switch play to the left. Macario in space is faced with a more difficult challenge to quickly create a goal-scoring situation. She takes a touch and plays a deft pass into a back post run by fellow American Lindsey Horan. The lofted pass bypassed the Parisian defence and gave Lyon a clear-cut chance.
Another example from the same game sees Macario play a grounded pass after playing a give-and-go with Cascarino, showing the more creative side of her game.
Taking a line from my previous article on Lyon’s attacking system:
“This is the underlying principle of the situation which hasn’t been an exact formula, rather an interpretation for the players to follow and execute.”
This closely resembles Chelsea’s attacking structure through their own play. The interpretation of space and movement from Kerr, Harder, Reiten, Kanneryd, and James are mainly from situations on the pitch, by trying to move the opposition's defensive line. This sort of interchangeability suits Macario’s desire to play in between the lines, making late bursts into the box.
Simply put, Macario is a slightly different proposition from Pernille Harder in all phases of play. The former is not exactly a better passer or more dynamic in her movement – she’s instead a player that will only improve as the years go on. In Macario, Chelsea get guaranteed production of goals and another threat to throw at defences, and her arrival signals the start of a new generation at Chelsea.
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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