Budapest 2.0: Barcelona and Lyon Have a Score to Settle
It’s May 28 2019, Lyon lead Barcelona 4-0 inside 20 minutes in the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, thanks to a hat-trick from the future UWCL top scorer and goalscoring behemoth, Ada Hegerberg. Barcelona are down and out before we reach the half-hour mark.
When the two sides met in Budapest that day, Lyon were reigning and defending champions of the last three years, the team to beat. Barcelona, on the other hand, were the pretenders, the wannabes, with a dream to sit atop the European throne.
Fast forward to 2022, the scene is similar, the stage is similar, the faces are familiar, the stakes are similar and still, everything has changed as the two teams meet again in the final.
Barcelona have tasted European glory, inflicting the same wounds on Chelsea that Lyon gave them three years back, running away with the game inside 30 minutes. In the process, they became the first side not named Lyon to win the UWCL since 2015, and did so in a comprehensive manner.
They are now the team to beat in Europe, finishing the 2021-22 season with a perfect domestic record of 30 wins in 30 games and an earth-shattering goal difference of +148. On their route to the final, they have scored the most goals (37) while giving up joint fewest (7). Their defeat to Wolfsburg in the semi-final – a dead-rubber tie considering they’d won the first leg 5-1 – was their first in 45 games.
They are showcasing unrivalled dominance, much akin to Lyon not that long ago.
Lyon are a side transitioning from veterans and legends of the game to young blood with a ceiling that breaks the roof. Players like Ellie Carpenter, Selma Bacha, Damaris Egurrola, Delphine Cascarino, Catarina Macário and Melvine Malard are all under 25 and integral parts of the squad, playing significant minutes in the competition. The old guard like Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry add much-needed experience to the locker room.
Lyon might not be a winning juggernaut right now but they are stocking up to be one in the near future with their signings, all the while remaining incredibly competitive in the short term. Sonia Bompastor has managed to utilize her squad really well, with at least 20 players playing 90 minutes or more.
Barcelona’s depth is arguably the best in the world. Not only is their starting XI littered with talent but the options off the bench are excellent as well. The different profiles in the squad allows Jonatan Giráldez to tweak his set-up to counter the opposition’s game plan. This has allowed for a better spread of minutes in the squad this season compared to last, and has allowed Barcelona to navigate injuries to key players fairly well.
The squad’s average age of 27.9 years sits perfectly in the bracket where footballers peak, highlighting the ingredients for sustained dominance.
Giráldez, who was the assistant under previous manager Lluís Cortés, has stuck with the basic principles of his predecessor but has added his own spice to the team. Barcelona utilize a typical 4-3-3 formation on paper that resembles a 2-3-5 in possession which allows them to push as many as five bodies inside the penalty box for a cross when they reach the final third.
Barcelona try to position multiple players in between the lines, occupying zone 14 – the area just outside the penalty box– and the half-spaces. This facilitates quick combinations at the edge of the area to get the ball into the box and disrupts opposition defensive blocks.
The 2-3 shape at the back gives Barcelona security if the ball is lost. The assurance of a good defensive structure allows Giráldez’s side to hound their opponents high up the pitch to win back possession. No side has made more high turnovers in the UWCL than Barcelona’s 196, and their average of 19.6 per game is also a competition high. They are also the masters at converting these opportunities into shots, averaging 4.5 shot-ending turnovers per game.
The Spanish giants look to assert their dominance by monopolising the ball, and have an average possession of 69.7% throughout the competition. Unsurprisingly, that dominance sees them spend a lot of time in the opposition’s third. Their field tilt, a measure of the share of possession a team has in the attacking third, sits at 89.2%, which is the highest in the competition. To put that into context, if you added up all the completed passes and touches in the final third for both teams in their matches, Barca’s opponents make up just over 10% of that total tally.
The personnel at Barcelona allows a level of tactical flexibility that is hard to prepare for. They can play with traditional wingers like Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen who can stay wide and take on their full-backs. The duo can wreak havoc in one-vs-one situations, with the former preferring to cut inside to shoot while the latter has a proclivity to attack the byline for cutbacks.
In such instances, Barcelona try to create situations that isolate their wide players against the opposition full-backs via long diagonals, allowing them to showcase their one-vs-one prowess.
In other cases, Giráldez tweaks this by playing a nominal winger on the left, usually Mariona Caldentey or Claudia Pina, who inverts more centrally. In doing so, Barcelona gain an extra body in the middle of the park, with both Pina and Mariona’s natural tendency to invert inside and get on the ball as much as possible. Aitana has been used in this role as well, providing similar qualities. This adds a level of fluidity and fits well their usage of full-backs.
The touch maps below of Aitana against Hoffenheim and Mariona against Arsenal – both of who were named the left-sided player of a front free on the teamsheet – show just how much they like to drift inside.
As is the trend in modern football, full-backs have turned into more than just defenders. They can be anything from a team’s primary chance creator to an auxiliary midfielder in the buildup phases.
Barcelona utilizes theirs depending on the personnel. Giráldez opts for asymmetrical full-backs in his system. Summer signing Fridolina Rolfo, naturally a left winger, has been recast as a full-back this season. This change has added a new dimension to Barcelona’s attack as it allows her space to bomb forwards with her runs.
Rolfo is heavily involved in Barcelona’s shot creation ranking fifth in the competition for her contribution to shots.
But while someone like Mapi Leon is heavily involved in the buildup to shots, Rolfo is in the business of shooting herself. Of her 27 shots above, 24 of them are direct shot involvements (where her involvement in a sequence was solely getting a shot away) which is the second-highest in the competition. This emphasises her advanced positioning and ability to get on the end of long moves.
Rolfo is not only about end product though, she’s also a creator. Her expected assists total of 2.4 is the fourth-highest xA in the competition. She is blessed with a wicked left foot, which can rip a hole in the net when allowed time and space to shoot, while simultaneously cultured enough to create chances.
While their full-backs are an attacking pillar, they have often been a spot of worry when Barcelona defend. Pushing their full-backs high up the pitch leaves a lot of space on the flanks for the opposition to target. The full-backs aren’t particularly strong in one-vs-one defensive duels either, with neither Rolfo or Marta Torrejon natural defenders.
Luckily for Barcelona, they have got two of the world’s best central defenders guarding this space. Mapi León and Irene Paredes are both excellent at covering ground and in their individual defensive duels, with Mapi boasting of a success rate of 71.4% on her duels. This provides coverage for the full-backs to attack. The defensive action maps of both centre-halves below shows they are adept at sweeping up danger down the channels.
The Spanish centre-half duo is a perfect blend of complementary profiles, with Paredes particularly adept at putting out fires before they begin. She uses a good mix of denying the opponent time and cramping them for space by stepping out or showing them away from the goal using her body shape.
Beyond being excellent defenders both are an indispensable part of Barcelona’s buildup, and are extremely comfortable on the ball. Both help bring the ball out of their own third via their ball carrying, pushing opponents back and breaking lines. No player has recorded more progressive carries (124) and 10+ metre progressive carries (56) than Mapi in the UWCL. This obviously comes with a caveat that she finds herself with a lot of space ahead of her to carry the ball over longer distances before being challenged.
Apart from her ball carrying, Mapi’s range and accuracy on the ball allows for a direct route into the attacking third for Barcelona, enabling Giráldez’s side to switch the point of attack with ease. Only Caroline Graham Hansen has been responsible for starting more open-play sequences ending in a shot (18) than Mapi León (16).
Ahead of the defensive line sits a world-class trio of midfielders. The two interiors, Alexia and Aitana sit ahead of Patri Guijarro as the pivot and are both extremely dynamic players who offer a level of fluidity that makes them unpredictable. Their collective understanding of space manipulation is world class and they are blessed with an unrivalled vision on the ball to create opportunities. Ballon D’or winner, Alexia Putellas, has created the most open-play chances (32) in the competition this season.
The tendency of their interiors to make bombing runs into the opposition box poses all sorts of problems for the opposition’s defensive organization. These forward runs into the box from a starting midfield position regularly break opposition lines and are difficult for the opposition defenders to track. Midfield pivot Patri Guijarro is a master at finding these runs through chipped balls into space. The cohesion between the midfield trio is almost telepathic.
Lyon have ushered in a new era under former player, Sonia Bompastor. She has shown a fair bit of tactical flexibility in her approach so far, lining up her team usually in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Her side can seamlessly transition between different approaches with and without the ball to accommodate different tactical plans.
Like Barcelona, Lyon’s full-backs Ellie Carpenter and Selma Bacha are crucial to their attacking play. The deepest midfielder is key in freeing up the full-backs to attack, by dropping in the backline and providing cover.
The fundamental idea behind Bacha’s set-up is to stretch the field and attack from wide areas through a combination between the wide players and the No. 10, allowing for crosses into the box. Delphine Cascarino and Selma Bacha have been two primary chance creators for the side, with 20 and 30 chances created respectively. A look at Lyon’s attack broken down by thirds shows just how much they use the flanks going forwards.
A standout feature of Bompastor’s reign has been the establishment of certain young players in the team, most notably Selma Bacha and Catarina Macário.
Macário, playing her first full season, has been one of the most integral figures of this Lyon side. She has multiple facets to her game, from her on-ball ability to her ability in physical duels, and is currently their top scorer in all competitions and has scored seven goals in the UWCL along with two assists. Her goal against Juventus showcased her excellent first touch and awareness in the box. The Brazilian-born American has even got wicked set-pieces in her locker.
Deployed in a No. 10 role, Macário is given the license to roam and provide support wherever required. She is excellent at playing neat one-twos at the edge of the area before attacking the box and getting the shot off. Nobody has taken more shots following a one-two with a team-mate (4) in the UWCL this season.
Selma Bacha’s reinvention under Bompastor has been vital for their campaign. Initially utilized in an advanced role on the wings, she has been moved into her more natural full-back role of late. With space to roam in front of her, she has been able to showcase her impeccable crossing ability, working in tandem with inside forwards like Melvine Malard on the flank.
The Lyon academy graduate is currently the top assist provider for Lyon in the league and the UWCL, with 14 assists in total.
Another weapon in Lyon’s armoury is their set-piece prowess. With players capable of whipping in excellent deliveries, like Bacha, for targets like 6-foot-5 Wendie Renard, it’s a perfect recipe for hurting opponents. Bacha has created the most chances from set-piece situations, 16, in the UWCL this season.
Without the ball is where a lot of interesting things happen for Lyon, as Bompastor’s inclination to set her team up to press high has seen them deploy different pressing systems. They are only behind Barcelona for the number of pressed sequences (265) with 244 in the competition this year, showing their desire to force a turnover high up the pitch. They are intense in their approach too, recording a PPDA value of 9.1 in the competition, which is on par with Barcelona’s 9.2, although they aren’t as able to convert the resulting high turnovers into shots.
Barcelona will likely dominate the ball and the territory but Lyon have been happy to concede possession when required. Their wing-dominant chance creation practice worked wonders in their previous encounter and bodes well with where Barcelona usually concede chances from. But with the quality humming through Barca’s squad and the added experience at this stage, Lyon’s execution this time around will have to be inch-perfect.
Lyon’s success and dominance in this competition is unrivalled, with the French club winning the trophy a record seven times and five consecutive times between 2015 and 2020. They were challenged but never toppled, not until 2021. Barcelona, on the other hand, are looking to successfully defend the title in their first attempt.
While the roles have reversed, this final will be some spectacle. The pretenders are the team to beat while the once juggernauts are the challengers. There is a score to settle between the two on the biggest stage of them all and the world will be watching… again!
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