The UEFA Women’s Champions League title is the golden crown in women’s football. A title that grants the winner the bragging rights to be called the best in Europe. A title that secures your place in the pantheon of the women’s game.
Wolfsburg were the first German side to successfully defend their Champions League crown after winning the title in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Since then, however, the She Wolves have finished runners up three times and made a semi-final appearance on two other occasions, but the prestigious crown has evaded them.
Barcelona have firmly established themselves as the perennial UWCL contenders. This is their fourth final in the last five years during which they have lost to Lyon, broken their hegemony in Europe and lost to Lyon again. In the last few seasons, they have become ruthless winning juggernauts who show no mercy on their opponents.
Wolfsburg and Barcelona are familiar foes on the European stage and share some history together. The two teams have met each other at the quarter-final and the semi-final stages of the competition, with Wolfsburg having a 4-1 upper hand in head-to-head battle.
The two have been at each other’s throats in the last few years trying to secure the big prize. Wolfsburg stopped Barcelona in 2020 at the semi-final stage and Barcelona returned the favour last year by denying them a final berth.
Die Wölfinnen are gunning for their first title in almost a decade, and third overall, while the Blaugranas desire a place among the giants of yesteryear with their second UWCL win. The stage is set for a classic in Eindhoven on Saturday, so here, we assess what to look out for from both sides in the final.
Barcelona have evolved with every passing season, adding new tools and quality to their ranks. After losing stars like Lieke Martens and Jenni Hermoso in the transfer window and Alexia Putellas to an ACL injury, they recruited well and have shown an ability to adapt.
The Blaugranas added Women’s Euro 2022 winners Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh to their ranks in the summer alongside shrewd additions of Geyse Ferreira, Salma Paralluelo and Nuria Rábano, who were recruited from within the Spanish league.
This ability to adapt and reinvent to meet different demands each season without dropping in quality is a major reason they had gone 64 games without a defeat in the league over the last two seasons before that incredible run ended on the final day of the season with a 2-1 defeat to Madrid CFF.
In fact, the Catalan side have won all but three of their 94 league games in the last three seasons, losing just twice, and finishing each of the last three seasons with a goal differential of over 100.
Barcelona’s core is full of players in their prime footballing years, with an average age of 26.2 years. The squad is brimming with talent in every department and has a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters. Players like Putellas, Bronze and Irene Paredes are nurturing talents of the future like Vicky López, Salma Paralluelo and Clàudia Pina.
The minutes distribution within the squad is healthy without an overreliance on specific individuals. No player has played more than 80% of the combined minutes in the UWCL and Liga F this season, with 14 players playing more than 40% of the minutes, highlighting the shared load.
Despite the incoming signings, Barcelona largely remain true to their ethos. Jonatan Giráldez continues with a 4-3-3 formation but now has different tools to be able to interpret the same roles in a variety of ways, like the usage of asymmetrical full-backs at times.
This season hasn’t been a tactical revolution at the club but has rather seen them tweak a few details to incorporate the incomings. They still push a lot of bodies forward and leave spaces in the wide areas. However, Barcelona have lacked the ability to control, allowing the game to get transitional on more than one occasion this season, but have a direct incisiveness to them now with the profile of forwards at the club.
The Spanish champions are the top scoring side in the UWCL this season, with 37 goals scored, 10 more than any other side. They have recorded the third most direct attacks in the competition (18) as well.
Against the ball, the Spanish side remains one of the best counter-pressing sides in the world and generates a lot of high turnovers. No side has had more pressed sequences (257) or more high turnovers (226) than Barcelona in the UWCL. The Blaugranas play with a high line to reduce the starting distances after losing the ball, with their open-play sequences starting the furthest away from their own goal (51.7m).
The mechanisms of progression and chance creation have largely remained the same with different players filling up the boots in others’ absence.
In the absence of Putellas, Barcelona turned to their other midfield stars to try and recreate her impact on aggregate, if not replicate it. The new midfield comprising Keira Walsh, Patri Guijarro and Aitana Bonmatí tried to compensate for the progression, control and end product that Putellas brought.
Bonmatí has stepped up big time to fill the void left by Putellas. She is currently the top assist provider in the 2022-23 UWCL (six), while being Barcelona’s top goalscorer alongside Asisat Oshoala at the same time (five).
The 25-year-old has the most open-play attacking sequence involvements (91) and the most open-play chances created in the competition this season, highlighting not just her ability to play the killer ball but her overall involvement in the shot-generation mechanism for Barcelona. She likes to contribute to the progression phase by dropping deep and ranks second for most progressive passes made (90) in the competition.
While the rest of the trio don’t actively take part in chance creation always, they are involved in the lead up to generating a shooting opportunity. Patri (18) and Walsh (14) rank second and third respectively for most secondary chances created in the UWCL this season. The duo rank fifth and sixth for most involvements in build-up sequences that led to a shot, with 37 and 33 respectively, further highlighting their importance to the team.
Mapi León’s Excellence
If sides manage to keep a lid on Barcelona’s attacking and midfield options, the Spanish sides have one more trick up their sleeve.
Mapi León is arguably one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the world. The 27-year-old is a ball progression machine and Barcelona’s primary set-piece taker. She has great control on her deliveries and venom in her strikes, making her a threat if given space and time.
No player has played more passes into the final third than the Spaniard (152) or made more progressive passes (109). She loves to drive forward from the back, with no player having more progressive carries (179) than the Spaniard. Her long carries pin opponents back and gain territory, with only Dominique Janssen (60) recording more carries of 10+ metres than Mapi (55) in the 2022-23 UWCL.
Mapi has the most build-up involvements that led to a shot (56) in the UWCL this season, highlighting her heavy involvement for Barcelona in possession without being the creator or player to attempt the shot.
The Rolfö Derby
This game could probably be labelled the ‘Rolfö Derby’. The Swede switched to Barcelona from Wolfsburg after eliminating them from the UWCL semi-finals in 2020. She is in her third final in as many years but has been on the losing side every time so far. She’ll be hoping the script has a different ending this time.
The Swedish international has undergone a positional change since moving. The once winger is now a marauding full-back who still threatens on the carry and has a venomous left foot to match. The former Bayern Munich player is an outlet for Barcelona on the flanks, receiving the most progressive passes (116) in the competition while offering good progression herself on the carry.
Only Delphine Cascarino (36) has recorded more progressive carries (34) than Rolfö in the UWCL this season. Her carries are purposeful, often ending in the penalty area. No player has recorded more chance-creating carries than the Swede (12), while the former Wolfsburg star has made the most crosses into the penalty box (16) while also playing the third-most passes into the area (22).
Wolfsburg started the season in fiery form, but they simmered down towards the end of the season, culminating in a 4-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Bundesliga. The She-Wolves finished their domestic season with a cup and missed out on the league title on the final matchday.
Tommy Stroot’s 4-2-3-1 with a back three in build-up has brought a mixed bag of success and Wolfsburg’s attacking prowess has kept them afloat this season. Despite not keeping a clean sheet in any of their last seven games, Wolfsburg have bettered their opponents’ tallies for both (real life) goals and expected goals in all but one of those games. In fact, their opponents have managed to create more xG than they have on just two occasions this season.
In attack, the side has a fairly direct approach owing to the squad build. They’ve scored just once from build-up attacks and have converted four times (the most) from their 18 direct attacks in the competition.
The team has shown clear deficiencies during the build-up and progression phase with an overreliance on a certain 21-year-old Lena Oberdorf to compensate for them.
An inability to play through Oberdorf has often seen them resort to long balls and fail to retain and control possession. Only Chelsea averaged more long balls (83.2) than Wolfsburg (82) in the UWCL this season, while Wolfsburg also boast the second-best success rate (61.9%) on these passes.
Against the ball Wolfsburg do like to employ a high press and try to force turnovers, but have had mixed success against better sides. Against Arsenal in the semi-final, for example, they managed to grab the winning goal via a pressing sequence but their opponents played through them with ease a few times as well.
The German side have the lowest PPDA in the competition (7.7), and they have generated 158 high turnovers from their 250 pressed sequences, highlighting the intensity of their press.
Wolfsburg’s squad composition is very healthy with a good chunk of the players in their peak years or about to hit peak years. The young core of Oberdorf, Sveindis Jonsdottir and Jule Brand gives the side a solid foundation to build upon for years to come while retaining the ability to peak in the short-term thanks to the group of players in their mid-20s.
The squad lacks depth in defensive positions and heavily relies on a set defensive unit, with four players from their defensive line playing more than 80% of available minutes. German goalkeeper Merle Frohms and central defender Kathrin Hendrich have played over 90% of time, while veteran members of the squad like Alex Popp and Svenja Huth are still key players, playing the fifth and sixth most minutes.
Ewa Pajor and Youthful Wings
Ewa Pajor is currently the top goalscorer in the UEFA Women’s Champions League this season with eight goals, while she also leads the chart for direct goal contributions for Wolfsburg in all competitions this season (20 goals and eight assists). The Polish striker has enjoyed an injury-free season, playing more minutes in all competitions than any of her last five seasons.
The striker’s form has mimicked Wolfsburg’s season, starting off in red-hot form but simmering down a little as the season went on. Despite that, the 26-year-old averages 0.92 goals per 90 – exactly in line with her underlying numbers of 0.93 expected goals per 90.
No player has had more direct shot involvements – defined as occasions when the player’s only involvement in a sequence is them taking the shot – than Pajor (39) in the UWCL this season, highlighting how she is the one finishing the moves for Wolfsburg. The Polish captain is a menace with her pace and movement, and she often plays off the last line of defence and drifts out wide to stretch the opposition laterally.
Another key aspect of Wolfsburg’s play is how important their wingers are. They have often deployed a combination of Jonsdottir, Brand and Svenja Huth on the flanks with varying degrees of success. Huth, who plays on the right, is heavily involved in Wolfsburg’s chance creation – the seven-time German champions have created 42.8% of their chances in the league from the right flank.
The youthful exuberance of Jonsdottir and Brand adds another dimension to their attack. The duo are quick and excellent direct threats and are capable of driving with the ball while taking on players.
Wolfsburg’s pace on the wings and up front could be key against Barcelona as the front three are all capable of stretching the opposition and being direct. With space behind the full-backs, Wolfsburg will be trying to exploit that.
When things go south for Wolfsburg, they turn to Alex Popp. The experienced German finished the season as the top scorer in the Frauen Bundesliga with 16 goals. The ‘Plan B’ for Wolfsburg looks very similar to the good ol’ hoof-it-up-to-the-big-one-up-front tactic – but this does actually works at times, and she was the difference-maker in the semi-final against Arsenal through that similar strategy.
Among players with more than five full 90s played in the UWCL this season, Wolfsburg have two players in the top seven for attempted crosses per 90 – Felicitas Rauch and Huth average 7.7 and 7.0 crosses per 90 respectively, with Popp being the target for the majority of them.
Despite not being a tall player at just 5-foot-9, Popp is a force of nature in the air. The German veteran has won more aerial duels (37) than any other player in the UWCL with a win rate (82.7%) only bettered by a certain 6-foot-2 Wendie Renard.
This threat in the air isn’t specific to Popp – Wolfsburg, overall, have a palpable aerial presence. The Germans have the third best aerial success rate in the UWCL season (54.5%), winning 108 aerial duels.
Popp is an infectious presence. Her tenacity off the ball, fighting for every single loose ball provides that extra bit of physicality in defensive situations and her aerial presence is Wolfsburg’s not-so-secret weapon.
Oberdorf is the standard against which every young player in the world is measured. The 21-year-old is a fulcrum of Tommy Stroot’s tactics. Everything flows through her, from progression to defensive stability – she masks a lot of Wolfsburg’s shortcomings.
The young midfielder is a monster in midfield, covering the entire field and winning her duels. A look at her defensive action map confirms her screening presence. Her physical robustness and reading of the game allow her to disrupt opposition plays.
Only Erin Cuthbert (54) and Alex Popp (42) have made more tackles and interceptions combined than the German starlet (41), while Oberdorf has regained possession 46 times for Wolfsburg in the UWCL this season, which is only behind Georgia Stanway and Cuthbert (51). She wins the ball back and lays the groundwork for Wolfsburg’s direct approach.
A key element in the game will be how Wolfsburg match Barcelona in midfield. The Blaugranas often aim to establish numerical superiority in the middle of the park with a box midfield which could leave Oberdorf to chase a lot of bodies alone if not provided with support.
How Oberdorf takes on her responsibilities in nullifying Barca’s midfield will be decisive in which way the title goes.
Barcelona vs Wolfsburg Prediction
All the roads have led to Eindhoven, where the lights are the brightest and the pressure highest. The stars of today and tomorrow will bask in the limelight.
When the dust settles after the final on 3 June, we will have our 2022-23 UEFA Women’s Champions League winners. Once again one of these teams will deny the other of experiencing that which they desire the most.
The Opta supercomputer is heavily leaning towards Barcelona winning this UWCL final, with a 67.5% chance of success. This would see them pick up their second UWCL title in three years, sandwiched either side of the defeat in the 2021-22 final to Lyon.
Wolfsburg’s chances of winning their first UEFA Women’s Champions League title since 2014 stands at just 13.5% according to the Opta supercomputer, with there being more chance (18.9%) of the game ending level and going to extra-time and potentially penalties.