The narrative of the past three Champions League finals has been similar, with one team really coming out, dominating and profiting from their goalscoring opportunities early on. It is the chance to gain momentum and give the opponents a game they maybe hadn’t prepared for.
In last year’s final, Barcelona were on the receiving end of a fast start from Lyon. In Saturday’s final, between Barcelona and Wolfsburg, we will probably see both teams attempt to start aggressively.
Jonatan Giráldez’s Barcelona will want to keep the ball, in keeping with their style, but they also press aggressively and will try to pen Wolfsburg back into their half. Wolfsburg, who knocked out my team, Arsenal, in the semi-finals, will do the opposite. They don’t like building and will try to frame the game around counterattacking moments and profit from those.
If they lose the ball deep, they’re going to be very aggressive in their defensive man-marking and counterpressing to try to win it back. The first 15 minutes may be very, very intense.
In terms of focal points, there are tons of tactical details you could pick out. A potentially gamechanging one is how Barcelona’s right-back, maybe Lucy Bronze if she is fit, manages the Iceland forward Sveindís Jónsdóttir. Barcelona do not have as much explosiveness and speed up front as Wolfsburg offer through Jónsdóttir and Ewa Pajor, and they are not as direct, but it is so difficult to win the ball off them. When they do lose the ball, they are so well positioned to counterpress, win it back quickly and keep the ball in the area they lost it in, making your exertions fruitless.
When you win the ball against Barcelona there is always space to go out diagonally – if you can be good enough and quick enough to pass or dribble out there. But that’s easy to say and a lot harder to take advantage of. When you watch games back against them, you pause the footage and point out the space or free player, but in doing that you remove the pace of the game, and that opening is usually there for a fraction of a second.
When Barcelona build from the back, they often keep their right-back with the central defenders, who are usually Irene Paredes and Mapi León, to form a back three. They push their left-back really high and wide and that’s why they almost play a forward there, such as Fridolina Rolfö. That allows the actual forward on the left to drop inside and become another 10, basically forming a four-player central midfield, with the 10 and the two 6s.
On the right they keep their wide forward high and wide. This is usually Caroline Graham Hansen, because they want her in one-v-one situations. When the left-back goes up for Barcelona, Wolfsburg will need to track that run. They will essentially become a back five because they track the run with their wide forward.
Last season, when Barcelona beat Wolfsburg 5-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, Wolfsburg played Jónsdóttir as the right wide forward. She was constantly tracking back with the Barcelona left-back and Jónsdóttir is a lot of things but she’s not a great defender. On the other hand, she is one of the world’s best counterattacking players.
Jónsdóttir has changed sides this season. In Wolfsburg’s German cup semi-final last month at Bayern Munich they were able to exploit that because Bayern also pushed their left-back up but didn’t attack much with their right-back. Jónsdóttir stayed high with Bayern right-back and when Wolfsburg won possession they played a ball into central midfield and from there got it out to Jónsdóttir.
I think they scored three of their goals in a 5-0 win with that pattern, using that pace and getting Jónsdóttir available as that counterattacking option. I’m really interested to see how Barcelona plan for that because if you don’t attack with your right-back, Jónsdóttir is going to stay high and pose a big threat.
In our semi-final, we tried as much as possible to involve our full-back in attacks to force Jónsdóttir to be a little bit deeper and take away that counterattacking threat. But the way Barcelona build and the way they are positioned is deeply ingrained. They don’t want the right-back to come up and take Graham Hansen’s space because then she can’t exploit her one-v-one’s from the wing. So that’s a real tactical battle.
In terms of stopping Barcelona, if you want to press them you have to press really, really high and aggressively and go almost player for player. Ideally, you want to restrict them to one side but you can’t do that half-heartedly. Bayern tried to press aggressively in the group stage at home to them, but didn’t really go all in and Barcelona played through their pressure and scored. In the return game in Munich Bayern punished them by being in a low block and counterattacking when Barcelona lost possession in central areas. Bayern went 3-0 up and won 3-1.
You can go into a lower block but Barcelona want to play passes within your organisation. Last season, they had Patri, Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí in the middle and Mariona Caldentey came inside as the fourth midfielder. When my team played away against them last season, we knew what we wanted to do when they were playing inside our organisation but Barcelona never made a mistake. For a whole half they didn’t make one. It was incredible to see, painful at the time, but still an incredible experience to see those four play together.
Barça have missed Alexia Putellas. She is their space manipulator
For 45 minutes they picked the right pass every time. Even when we were trying really hard to put pressure on them, they constantly found the free player and played out. It’s not been the same this season because they haven’t had Putellas until her recent substitute appearances and that has weakened relationships. You could see that in both their semi-final games against Chelsea and at Bayern.
Often when teams go into lower blocks, Barcelona try to go through the middle and, as we saw in Munich, without Putellas they can lose the ball more than usual and be very exposed to counterattacks. Against Chelsea, they just went wide and tried crosses. That is not their strength but maybe they did it because they were afraid of losing the ball centrally.
Barcelona have really missed Putellas’s runs because whenever an opposition central defender stepped out of line to assist a full-back with a wide threat, Putellas moved into that space. And if you didn’t step up, she would receive between the lines. She was the space manipulator. If you left space behind, she would be the one running; if you left space in front of your defensive line she would be there picking up a really good position to receive the ball. It’s a unique game intelligence.
Bonmatí can make those runs but she hasn’t been as effective. She’s an astonishing player, an elegant mover in midfield who is really good at dealing with very little time and space and still finding excellent solutions. But when the moment comes to go in behind when Wolfsburg start stepping out with a central defender to cope with the threat of Graham Hansen in particular, can she have that impact? What she does is going to be really important.
If Barcelona can master a way to play without Putellas it is potentially going to take them to another level because they can combine the two experiences and have an even greater cohesion.
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