Caroline Graham Hansen growing into the leadership role among the attackers
After the loss against VFL Wolfsburg, FC Barcelona Femení learned that they needed to improve upon a lot of things if they wanted to be the best team in Europe. Many of Barcelona’s unresolved issues were exposed that night, such as poor match management, questionable team selection, and lack of clinical attacking. However, the most standout thing that went wrong for Barcelona was their season-long issues with finishing, which came to a head at the worst possible time. Upon reflection, it was clear that Barcelona lacked both a positive mentality and a commanding leadership personality up top. That role is still desperately needed if Barcelona wants to be champions of Europe, and of all Barcelona's current forwards, Caroline Graham-Hansen may be the player best suited to pick up that role.
Ahead of the Barcelona-Wolfsburg game, it was difficult to predict who the winner was going to be. Both teams were very similar in that they were renowned for the same thing- their outstanding attacking strength. For Wolfsburg, it was Pernille Harder, Fridolina Rolfo, Ewa Pajor, Alexandra Popp, and Svenja Huth. For Barcelona, it was Lieke Martens, Mariona Caldentey, Jenni Hermoso, Asisat Oshoala, and Caroline Graham-Hansen. Understandably, one of the most popular predictions about the game was that it was going to be a goal-fest. It didn’t quite work out that way though, as both team’s forwards struggled to find the back of the net.
Barcelona in particular had a shocking night in terms of finishing. 14 shots with 1 on target gave them a 9% shot accuracy. Something was clearly off about them, especially considering that everyone knows these players were capable. At that point, their front four was arguably Europe’s most strong overall attacking threat. It’s for this reason that this loss and their lack of clinical finishing was 100% mental.
Barcelona’s captains and other leadership personalities are all midfielders, defenders, or keepers. Consider Vicky Losada, Alexia Putellas, Marta Torrejón, Sandra Paños, Patri, and some of the younger players like Laia Codina and Aitana Bonmatí. These players in particular have captaincy qualities in multiple aspects. They command play on the pitch, they aren't afraid to give orders to anyone regardless of talent or superiority, they perform at a high level for 90+ minutes, they aren't afraid to step up publicly and take responsibility with the media, and they're deeply dedicated to the club. What do they all have in common? None of them are forwards.
This isn't to say Barcelona's forwards aren't mentally strong, you have to be to play at this level, but at this moment there is no outstanding player in attack who shows the traits of a captain. Which of the starting forwards can be the answer to this problem?
The two players that can already be eliminated from the conversation are Asisat Oshoala and Lieke Martens. These are two of the most accomplished players for their respective countries and have been at the top of the world for a while, but they don't display many leadership qualities. Neither of them are very vocal or commanding, they aren't too keen on giving directions, and most importantly, their mentality in a game typically depends on the players around them. There's nothing wrong with either of these players not being leaders, but these two just won't be the ones to do it.
Jenni Hermoso is unlike Asisat and Lieke in this regard. She's a record-breaking veteran for both club and country and she even holds captaincy for Spain. Her presence and reputation as one of Spain's greatest ever players command respect on its own. However, she is a player who prefers to lead by example and move in silence. This is a perfectly valid leadership style in itself, but it doesn't suit the needs of Barcelona. Jenni was one of Barcelona's best performers against Wolfsburg, but her top-notch performance clearly wasn't enough. The team needed more, and despite her leadership qualities and veteran status, she couldn't provide it.
Additionally, cules understandably don't want to think about it, but Jenni isn't getting any younger. She isn't the team's future, and it wouldn't make much sense for the forward line to structure themselves around her leadership.
This only leaves one other established player amongst the four starting forwards- enter Caroline Graham-Hansen.
CGH is still just 25 years old but has gone through a lot in her career. She's had two heartbreaks in two UWCL finals and was injured during both of them. Her international career has been similar- she missed the 2015 Women's World Cup due to injury and suffered three straight losses in the group stages of the 2017 Euros as Norway's FA was dealing with deep dysfunction. Like Rory Smith put it, her career has long been a "question mark" in the eyes of many. The way she has overcome her own doubts since then is unlike most players in this sport.
CGH has become a different animal as she's gotten older. No Wolfsburg fan can forget how she kneeled down and pumped her fists after scoring the decisive penalty kick against Bayern Munich in the 2018 DFB Pokal Final. No Norwegian (or Australian) can forget how in the 2019 Women's World Cup, she kept a stone-cold face, looked Lydia Williams dead in the eyes, and slotted Norway's first penalty of the shootout straight past her, raising her arms in celebration and commanding Norway to the quarterfinals. When she's needed to step up, when she's needed to be a commanding force, when she's needed to be a leader, she's done it in some of the biggest matches of her recent career.
Norway's captain Maren Mjelde echoed this exact thought in an interview to FIFA.com from September 2019:
"In the last two years she’s grown an awful lot, in two ways that complement each other: she’s a great leader and a great team player at the same time. All her energies go into helping the team to play better and win. She was crucial for us at the World Cup and I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of her. She’s got the quality to change games, and when it comes to one-on-one situations, she’s the best in the world... She’s become a natural leader."
This display of mentality didn't stop when she got to Spain either. In her first season with Barcelona, she was a pivotal part of the attack and had no fear approaching any defender. With 24 direct goal involvements in all competitions, it's clear she's already comfortable with her role in the team.
CGH also has a clear love for Barcelona and has since she was a child. Despite only being present in Catalonia for a season, Caroline Graham-Hansen is one of the most vocally committed players in this current group at FC Barcelona. Her words after the Wolfsburg semifinal loss reflect this in two different ways.
In a post-match interview, it's clear she understands that there's work to be done and seemed more than motivated to come back stronger.
Caroline Graham Hansen via UEFA TV: "I would say today we were better which proves that what Barça have been doing in recent years has been good, we are here to be reckoned with next year. We will go home and keep on training and improving because we want to avenge this defeat next year"
But on her Instagram, she chose a softer tone, expressing her love and dedication to the club, calling it "her home" and using the hashtag #soyculé.
CGH via instagram:
“I’m so proud to be a part of this team. This club. This family. Football isn’t always fair. That’s the sport. I accept that. We will come back. I know. We know. This is my home now❤️ Thanks for having my back #soyculé”
CGH admittedly has had some growing pains in this very new environment, but with this loss she's only shown a drive to improve. She has everything at her disposal to be a leader in the attacking third. It's her dedication, hunger, and ever-improving mentality that makes her the most likely player to become a leader for Barcelona's forwards.