This past Tuesday, FC Barcelona Femení exited the UEFA Women's Champions League when they lost 1-0 to VfL Wolfsburg. Barcelona played some of their most cohesive football of the year against one of the best squads in the world. They had a better stat line, kept more possession, and controlled most of the game, but at the end of it all, they left the match in tears. What went wrong for Barcelona on Tuesday?
Alexia Putellas consoling Aitana Bonmatí after the match, photo by Juanma for Getty
Barcelona started the match on the front foot and immediately took control in midfield. The first 45 minutes were opportunity after opportunity for Barcelona with no breakthrough. Wolfsburg had limited attempts in the first half because of Barcelona's solid defensive line and well-timed defensive actions from midfield. As the second half began, Wolfsburg kept knocking at the door and needed many fewer opportunities than Barcelona to draw first blood. Barcelona's match chances dwindled after the goal, as they got more and more frustrated, failed to convert one too many times, and eventually left the pitch in tears.
A Wolfsburg win wasn’t any sort of expected or unexpected result- the two teams were nearly identical in strength on paper, so predicting a match outcome was very difficult. However, while this may have been a 50-50 matchup and Wolfsburg may be one of Europe's strongest teams, a loss against them shouldn't go without its critiques, especially if Barcelona want to be the best in Europe.
There were a lot of questions going into the match about what Barcelona's starting XI would be and how they would play. Would Patri Guijarro start at the risk of aggravating an injury or missing the final due to potential yellow card accumulation? Mariona performed well against Atleti, should she get the start or should she be brought on as an impact player along with Asisat Oshoala? Should they play possession-based and controlling like they usually do, or more direct? Because of Wolfsburg's powerful offense, do they line up defensively in a double-pivot or start a full-strength attack with four or more players in forward positions?
One of Barcelona's biggest advantages is how deep their bench is, but this also forces head coach Lluis Cortés to make difficult tactical decisions based on each individual player profile, how each player works in certain tactical setups, and how they perform in the context of their opponent. Cortés did the opposite of what most people were expecting by starting an attacking line-up. Mariona started in the place of Lieke Martens, who was seen with a bandaged leg a day or so before the match. Other than injury risk, this choice was a clear indicator that he wanted a more direct approach that would assist more in midfield than to go wide. Wolfsburg's fullbacks are notoriously one of their weakest points, so while it's understandable why he wanted midfield control, one could easily argue that Barcelona dominating the wings would have worked better.
Lieke and Mariona after the match, photo via Alejandro Rios for Getty
This game plan worked well for about 60 minutes. Barcelona did what they set out to do. They kept midfield control, they applied a lot of pressure to Wolfsburg's backline, and most importantly, Mapi León and Kheira Hamraoui kept Wolfsburg's most dangerous player Pernille Harder shut down, taking away most of Wolfsburg's scoring avenues. After Rolfö scored, most of that fell apart.
Barcelona's first substitution was Oshoala off, Aitana on. Oshoala was having difficulties with finishing, but when she's given enough opportunities, she's known to pull through eventually. Cortés didn't want to take this risk and eased off on the direct attacking to put in a player who can offer more midfield control. This isn't necessarily an issue considering there were 30 minutes left to calm down and push harder for a goal, but Alexia was taken off in the 77th minute for Patri, removing Barcelona's source of midfield dominance and leadership in a time when they needed it the most. Vicky Losada came on late for Kheira and finally, after 86 minutes, Cortés brought on his first attacking substitution of the night when he took out Leila for Lieke and asked her to make it work in under ten minutes.
Cortés crouching on the pitch before the match, photo via Alex Caparros for Getty
Cortés' substitutions were his biggest failures of the night. Taking off Barcelona's attacking players and replacing them with midfielders reduced Barcelona's goal chances when scoring was the only thing they needed to do. The one offensive substitution he gave was with less than ten minutes remaining after two core attacking contributors, Alexia and Oshoala, were taken off. There's a justification behind most of his decisions, but the way Cortés managed the match especially in the final minutes was less than ideal.
Blaming the referee shouldn't be a go-to in a lot of circumstances, but this match undeniably had issues with refereeing. When the referees were announced, word got around that the head referee was also the head referee of one of the worst-quality, out of control women's football matches in recent memory- Spain vs. USA at the 2019 Women's World Cup. This semifinal saw shades of her faulty refereeing in that match. She rarely called fouls, gave unnecessary cards, and even made yet another match-altering mistake regarding penalties. Her biggest error was a very unnaturally positioned handball from a Wolfsburg player in Barcelona's box early in the game that went right past her eyes.
As easy as it is, one can't place full blame on the referee- instead, it's more worth our time to pivot the responsibility to the governing bodies of the sport. The biggest question- where was VAR? Why does one of the most important matches of the year in women's football not have the resources available to make it a more fair and balanced game? As PSG captain Irene Paredes noted in her post-match interview after her team's semifinal, both stadiums (Anoeta and the San Mames) were already equipped with VAR capabilities, meaning there's no excuse that it wasn't available for these UWCL matches. It is deeply irresponsible of UEFA to not have these changes implemented when all major men's club and country competitions have it and when most major women's international competitions have it.
The issue of refereeing in the women's game is a much broader issue to be touched on. After decades of fighting for the bare minimum treatment, it is shameful that in the year 2020, professional athletes still have to go into some of the biggest matches of their life and worry about whether or not the outcome will be severely influenced by poor refereeing. Regardless of what team you support, women's football desperately needs changes that make it so match refereeing prioritizes fairness, balance, and the overall well-being of the players, because the way things are right now, that clearly is not the case.
In general, Barcelona has plenty of strong leadership personalities. Vicky, the official first captain, is one of the most appreciated members of this Barcelona side- it's clear through her words and her demeanor that she is a figurehead of guidance and respect at the club. Alexia, who usually starts as captain nowadays, is one of the best leaders in women's football. Everything about her attitude, words, and actions on and off the pitch exude leadership. They aren't the only ones either who have these qualities- Paños, Mapi, Patri and Torrejón are all established, vocal, mentally strong players who are capable of motivating their team to victory. Even the younger players like Aitana and Laia Codina are future captain material. They want to win. They deeply care for the club. They're willing to push until their last breath for the greater good of the team and are destroyed if they don't succeed. So what gives? If Barcelona has so many players with a positive, driven mentality, why couldn't anyone spur Barcelona's forwards to score? How were there 13 shots, only two being on target and zero goals? How did the world's best group of forwards manage to fumble so many opportunities?
Of the players listed as leaders, the trend is that none of them are forwards. Barcelona's world-class forward pool of Lieke Martens, Caroline Graham-Hansen, Asisat Oshoala and Jenni Hermoso are some of the most dominant, technical, clinical attackers in the world. On paper, their intelligence and elite reading of the game make them arguably the most fearful group of attacking players in Europe... that is, seemingly, until you put them all in a starting XI together and expect one of them to step up and score. Each of these players are very mentally strong in their own respect (you have to be to perform at this level) but it's questionable if any of them have a leader's mentality. Barcelona is in need of a player who can step up and fulfill that role for the forwards.
The very few issues with Barcelona's forward line were exposed when they first started to attack, and got worse as the match evolved. Oshoala's issues with finishing chances came to the forefront. CGH's tendency to over-dribble when pressured was exposed against Wolfsburg's defense. Jenni had a great passing game and was actually one of Barcelona's best players, but was too slow and took too long to make decisions, something Wolfsburg's midfield were more than happy to take advantage of. Communication was lacking. Quality decision making was lacking. Direction was lacking. They pressed and pressed but ultimately all of them bar Lieke (because she hardly played 10 minutes) looked lost at sea. As the game neared the 90th minute, the passes got sloppier and the chances were wasted, and wasted, and then wasted some more.
Oshoala, Mariona and CGH react after missing a chance, photo via Alejandro Rios for Getty
Barcelona isn't the type of club that can take a handful of elite players, slap them into a starting XI and expect them to make it work. If Barcelona are truly a Champions League title contender, they need to find a functioning balance between team cohesiveness, mentality and talent. Over the next few weeks and months, some players, especially those in attack, will need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and figure it out. Based on the statline, on the quality of chances, on the quality of players, on so many things, it's nearly unacceptable that Barcelona lost the way they did.
On the brighter side for Barcelona, this match proved that their issues are not ones of quality. They showed they can perform and thrive against multiple different types of opposition in different tactical setups. Against Atleti the midfield understandably had some issues, but against Wolfsburg, Barcelona dominated the entire middle of the pitch and kept their strongest creators, Pernille and Ingrid Engen, completely shut down. Ironically, Barcelona's biggest area of doubt this season, their defense, was one of the strongest overall aspects of the team for the resumption of the Champions League. Positionally they were great, they contributed well to passing, their timing was excellent, and aside from a 10-second sequence of chaos that ended in conceding a goal, they were Barcelona's best performers over the two matches.
Additionally, unlike last year, Barcelona's issues are no longer one of low team mentality. Alexia, the team's co-captain, gave plenty of comments in post-match interviews and pressers, but her most impactful statement was when she was asked by a reporter about Barcelona closing the supposed "gap" in quality between them and Wolfsburg. She very bluntly replied "No hi ha distància" (meaning "There is no distance/gap" in English), followed by an uncomfortable few seconds of silence.
Alexia made it very clear to both the interviewer and the viewers that the team know what they're capable of and no longer underestimate themselves. At the very least, FCB Femení now know that they're at the same level as Wolfsburg, a club that has been the second-biggest force in Europe for the better part of a decade.
Knowing that there's no longer a gap in quality, it's imperative that Barcelona don't continue to settle for "getting better." They have to be the best in every area of the pitch and in every aspect as players. The time for being "good enough" is over, and based on their words, they most likely understand that.
Barcelona has learned a lot since last year's final. The club's biggest walls of doubt were finally broken when they met Lyon in Budapest and the team has been on a mission of growth ever since. They're so much closer than they ever were, and it's clear that their journey is far from over. Alexia is right, there is no gap. Barcelona are a team that is just as capable as any of the other European superpowers, but if they truly want to be the best, they need the results to prove it. Simple as that.
Visca el Barça i Visca Catalunya.