Intelligent spark: Macario's brilliance off the ball and on the pitch
Catarina Macario has shown growth in the first half of the season which bodes well for Lyon.
Lyon are back, or at least they seemingly look like a rejuvenated outfit under the impressive Sonia Bompastor. The team needed a lifeline and a fresh start, both of which came when the former player was appointed last season.
She was faced with an unmotivated and confused squad consisting of senior figures seriously out of form and young players that needed more guidance. For all her challenges, Bompastor now seems to have everything under control but one I want to focus on has been the way she’s handled Catarina Macario’s rise from the ashes.
Signed 1 year ago this month, the American’s growth has been substantial after settling into life in France. What we’ve witnessed is a realisation of the potential Lyon saw in Macario that made her one of the most sought-after players last year. There have been a few factors to her prominent rise in performances.
A change in coach and coaching staff has been the biggest factor in Macario’s improvement. The previous regime wasn’t as clear-cut in its style of play and getting the best out of the current squad. In contrast, Sonia Bompastor has brought a clear identity to a side that is now properly performing to its level and potential. Among them, there have been a couple of players that have improved their performances drastically, including Selma Bacha and Melvine Malard, but it is Macario who has really thrived in this new setup.
The start to life at the club wasn’t easy and Macario needed some time to adjust. She would have expected to have played more with Ada Hegerberg but due to the striker’s long-term injury, that wasn’t to be a reality any time soon. We started to wonder if Macario was even really suited to European football, but Bompastor’s changes have made it evidently clear that she is.
To better understand how this new position has improved Macario’s game, we will look at the style of play in her natural centre-forward/attacking midfield position and see how those attributes translate to her new central midfield position.
Macario’s fundamental potency is her attacking instincts and intelligence off the ball. Being able to identify spaces and, more importantly, the timing of movement into the box has always been a big part of her game. A combination of smart movement in possession and knowing where to receive possession with some silky dribbling means that Macario is a keen progressor and knows how to glide past players not just in tight spaces but also in areas with the least line of resistance.
She is comfortable in playing outside the box and often comes out to link-up play. 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 a need to identify spaces but given Macario’s ability to connect with players around her, she has a sense of creating space too. Knowing where to move, when to move, and recognising the right decision becomes imperative.
This heat map is from her first half-season at Lyon in the 2020–21 season and her most common activity areas coincide with her role as a deep-lying forward that interlinks play with the midfielders. A lot of movements vertically and horizontally in the final third means Macario is an active and mobile centre-forward who uses smaller spaces to her advantage. This comes down to a strong creative mind and vision to anticipate the next few moves.
Now, just as Bacha was moved to a new position in Bompastor’s 4-3-3, Macario too has enjoyed success in being deployed in a different position. Derived from the structure itself, Bompastor has clearly established a set of key principles for the team to abide by. There’s a more in-depth article on Lyon’s forward system written here, but the core fundamental idea is to overload the half-spaces with interior players coming in to make the numbers before it goes wide to the full-back. Her role as a central midfielder with a license to push up and attack the box includes this responsibility, as well as hovering near the box to pounce on the eventual crosses.
Admittedly, this might not be a permanent position given Macario is a naturally attacking midfielder/forward, but this could prove to be a pivotal moment in her development.
Starting predominantly on the left, Macario has been tasked with creating overloads with the left-winger and left-back and play quick, interchangeable passes to create quick transitions and penetrative gaps between defences. A lot of Macario’s best moments and games this season have come when Lyon have played with a lot more urgency and moved the ball quicker. Damaris Egurrola and Amandine Henry have helped with the pace of the game but it’s by having a free roaming midfielder of sorts that allows Lyon to be more of an attacking threat.
Having two more natural central midfielders ensures Macario has the freedom to influence the final third – it’s her movement that helps goal creation in Lyon’s system, especially on the left where she combines with Bacha. Macario’s role also involves a certain level of positional freedom given she is allowed to find goal-scoring positions which doubles both her dribbling and off-the-ball movement that is represented in her current heat map activity.
Off the ball, movement can simply be attributed to the player that creates space for 1 v 1s or overlapping runs. Om Arvind’s article on off-the-ball movement has a very detailed explanation of this, where he refers to a range of off-ball movements that classify different forwards, and you can pinpoint some of these different types to the American. What stands out to me is her ability to generate space and movement through facilitating the one-two movements with the wide player.
This goal against Hacken seems simple, but Macario’s central position and ghostly run into the box represent her smart movement to check into the space after the keeper has gone off their line to catch Bacha. This goal-scoring instinct has yielded 7 league goals which rank her second in the league, combined with an even more impressive 6.11 xG which, given the quality of service around her, is on par.
Sometimes Macario will be positioned deeper and make late runs, using both short bursts, and changes of direction to manoeuvre herself in the box. While there is less of a correlation with off-the-ball playmaking here as she’ll prefer to take the shot after a dribble or finish off the opportunity, the principles of the theory can nonetheless be mapped here. The American ranks fifth in D1, averaging 5.31 touches in the box which really does push this notion further over the edge.
Macario’s last 75 shots from this season all correlate and are grouped in a central position. Most of these shots are coming off the left or middle with a lower percentage coming from the right. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about this, but it does further enhance the point on how her volume has increased as well as the number of times she’s been getting into more dangerous positions. So this can be linked both to her getting on the ball and moving into the right positions.
The second graphic is Macario’s shot map from her first 6 months of the 2020–21 season which shows a considerably fewer number of shots. She’s played more minutes in the same time period (6 months), but you can see the peppering of shots that have started coming on the edge of the box.
This example puts part of what I’m saying into perspective. This chance against Montpellier showcases Macario’s off-the-ball movement to get into space and attract defenders, but also has the same effect by pulling them away using exceptional close control, allowing Melvine Malard space in the middle. Though the cross turned into a shot, Macario’s ability to have this sort of effect on the side has become a norm so far.
Macario’s quality has also been seen with her intelligence on the ball that has come both in the form of the right move and in the patience shown in looking for the right pass. There is a higher frequency of smarter passes by the American and though they may not all come off successfully, this has forced Macario to think about the next pass a lot more.
A significant portion of Macario’s improved performances has come as a result of a more intelligent range of passes from outside the box. Granted, many D1 teams aren’t going to press as hard and instead remain in a low-block defensive line which means players like Macario have to be much more selective in their decisions. This pass to see Danielle Van de Donk is sublime, creating a gap between the goalkeeper and the edge of the box for Damaris to find a shot.
In the end, this is only a sample of the American’s potential; with Ada Hegerberg making a full recovery and back to starting games for Lyon again, it’s only a matter of time before Sonia Bompastor toys with the idea of pairing them together on a regular basis. But so far, we know that the promised potential has started to come through and Macario will only be a much more intelligent and exciting player because of it.
Photo by Romain Biard/Icon Sport via Getty Images