“Two sides that are not used to losing”: Why Barcelona against Lyon will be a “special” Champions League final – tactical preview
This weekend sees the 2021/2022 Women’s Champions League come to an end, with two giants of the women’s game going up against each other for the biggest prize in European women’s football. Lyon Féminin have undoubtedly been the dominant side in the last decade, having won seven Champions League finals between 2010 and 2020, but there is a new powerhouse emerging in Barcelona Femení, who are now seen as the team to beat around the continent and who are the current holders, having comfortably beaten Chelsea Women last year.
This tactical analysis will provide an insight into what tactics can be expected from each side during the final, breaking down each side’s attacking, defensive and transitional play in turn. The preview will also give a prediction of how Saturday’s game might end up, trying to answer the seemingly impossible question.
Barcelona Femení will be happy to have Nigeria captain Asisat Oshoala available, with the striker having recovered in the last few weeks from the knee injury sustained whilst training on international duty, and she is likely to be in the matchday squad in some way. Left-back Melanie Serrano may also get on the pitch at some point during the 90 minutes, given that it will be her final outing in a Barcelona shirt before retiring. Otherwise, head coach Jonatan Giráldez has no major concerns and will be able to pick a strong starting XI and bench as he looks to seal a second successive Champions League title for the club.
Lyon Féminin also have no major issues in their squad, with head coach Sonia Bompastor opting to rest key players in recent weeks even though the Division 1 Féminine title is not yet mathematically in their hands, so it is clear that she has been planning ahead for this game for some time. The likes of USA midfielder Catarina Macario and France centre-back Wendie Renard will be essential to their hopes of silencing Barcelona’s biggest threats and will need to be at the top of their game, whilst left-back Selma Bacha could be an unsung hero if she is able to get on the front foot. One of the main questions surrounding Lyon’s selection is whether to start Ada Hegerberg or Melvine Malard at the top, or both.
Barcelona Femení’s attack
Barcelona Femení’s attacking play revolves around getting numbers into the final third and giving the opposition as little time to prepare defensively as possible, and this is a big reason for teams finding it difficult to keep them out over the last couple of campaigns.
What makes this work well is that the full-backs are constantly encouraged to move up the field and into spaces behind the opposing defenders, with Marta Torrejón demonstrating here against Wolfsburg Frauen how this gives the team extra passing options and enables them to keep the ball moving forwards when they have the momentum.
What is notable in this situation is that Barcelona’s attacking movements are made almost without the opposition realising that they are happening, which is the key point to make here because it means that defenders don’t notice until it is too late for them to react. In this game, Wolfsburg were undone plenty of times because they kept leaving gaps open, and Lyon Féminin will need to be aware of not advancing too high up the pitch and allowing Barcelona to exploit them in the same way.
When identifying key players in Barcelona’s attack that will have a major say on who controls the tempo of Saturday’s final, 2021 Ballon d’Or Féminin winner Alexia Putellas is undoubtedly the standout name. Whilst she is known for her goals and clever movements, it is her playmaking ability that will be key against Lyon, especially if they choose to sit back in the same way that Hoffenheim Frauen did in this game.
However, Putellas is just as effective when in these areas she is from inside the goal area, and she constantly looked for passes and tried to find ways to break Hoffenheim down, with her pass into Leila Ouahabi here allowing the left-back to cross the ball into the box. Whilst Barcelona did have a frustrating night in Germany with chances not being taken, Putellas was still the central player in their final third play, and Lyon will need to limit her threat as much as possible in order to have any chance of winning this year’s final.
Barcelona Femení in transition
In transitions, Barcelona Femení tend to prefer keeping the ball on the ground and playing through the thirds at speed, normally with each player taking no more than two or three touches with the ball before moving it onwards to another player.
Something that has increased Barcelona’s threat over the last few seasons is the different types of strikers that they have in their squad, meaning that they can adapt to different match situations. The aforementioned Oshoala is an out-and-out centre forward who will apply pressure on opponents when needed and look to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, whilst Clàudia Pina gets into the right areas at the right time to convert opportunities and has been one of their more clinical finishers this season.
However, the most interesting forward in their squad is Jennifer Hermoso, because her key characteristic is to drift back into the midfield during games and receive the ball in deeper areas of the pitch, as is shown here. The reason that this is so effective is that it draws opposing defenders out of line and creates spaces that her opponents can run into and exploit, as Marta Torrejón was doing in the previous section, and it also caught Chelsea out in last year’s final, proving to be a key reason for Barcelona’s comfortable win.
When Hermoso does drop back, it is normally either Putellas or Aitana Bonmatí who go forward and become a makeshift centre forward, with both possessing natural speed, good awareness and an ability to hold up play and bring others into the game, and it is highly likely that we will see a lot of these movements as Barcelona look to disrupt any attempts by Lyon Féminin to organise themselves defensively.
It isn’t only short-range passes through spaces that Barcelona can make either, with this situation showing Bonmatí with the ball in her own half and with her route forward cut off by Wolfsburg players. However, her aforementioned vision means that she can see where the gap is in the German side’s lines, with one player coming too far forward on either side of the pitch and allowing the Spain midfielder to play a well-judged pass into Sweden forward Fridolina Rolfö, who has thrived since joining the Spanish side last summer.
It is notable that there is always width in Barcelona’s attack too, with Rolfö and Norway international Caroline Graham Hansen staying close to the sidelines here. This helps to stretch Wolfsburg out and create the gaps that can be seen in this image, meaning that Lyon will need to be careful about trying to cover central and wide threats at the same time.
Barcelona Femení’s defence
Given the organisation that goes into Barcelona Femení’s offensive play, it is perhaps unsurprising that their defence is equally as well-constructed, with players having specific roles and knowing when to go forwards and when to drop back, and the fact that they only conceded 11 goals in the Primera División and seven so far in the Champions League this season is a testament to their defensive solidity.
Here, we see the two central defenders in a staggered formation, with former PSG Féminine player Irene Paredes just behind Mapi León. The intention with this setup is that Paredes can get back and make last-minute blocks and tackles if an opposing attack finds its way through, whilst León can get forward and win the ball early as well as being dominant in the air, with both of these key aspects of her individual game, and it is also common to see her dribbling the ball forwards from her own third when the team has possession.
By having the right mix of qualities among their central defenders, Barcelona can prepare for any offensive against them, with the rest of the team trusting them to deal with opposing threats whilst they run forward and join attacks. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Lyon Féminin look to overcome this issue in the final.
However, defending is not just left to the back four to do, with the rest of the team dropping back when needed to cover gaps and limit what the opposing side can do when advancing up the pitch. Here, Arsenal Women’s Switzerland right-back Noëlle Maritz has possession but can only pass down the line, as there is no space available in the middle and no teammates in a position to receive it. This is because Paredes has got tight to Vivianne Miedema, ending any chance of her receiving the ball and posing a threat here.
Now that the pass down the line to Nikita Parris is inevitable, Ouahabi can get out and close her down early, whilst Graham Hansen tracks Beth Mead to ensure that she can’t make a run behind either. Therefore, we can see how good anticipation of play and closing down of options helps them to be hard to beat, whilst the teamwork ethic in this situation shows how each player is on board when it comes to fighting for a shared aim.
It is important to note that Barcelona aren’t perfect and have been known to get caught out on occasion. However, they make up for this with their speed and determination, and this is why Lyon will need to take any opportunities they get to put pressure on the Spanish side.
Lyon Féminin’s attack
When it comes to Lyon Féminin, they also have tactical ideas that are worth breaking down, with aspects of their attacking and defensive play likely to test Barcelona Femení and give them something to keep an eye on throughout the match.
What is most notable is their use of the wings, with left-back Selma Bacha delivering the ball into Norway striker Ada Hegerberg here, with her position between the PSG players and ready to run forwards when the ball comes in, ensuring that she is not caught offside.
One reason that Lyon like to use the wings to create chances is because their two main strikers, Hegerberg and Melvine Malard, are both good in the air and can time their movements well, whilst both also like to play on the shoulder of the opposing defenders and open up the spaces behind high back lines for the wingers and full-backs to target. With either or both on the pitch for the final, Lyon will maintain their hopes of scoring and maybe taking Barcelona by surprise, but this rests on their ability to make accurate crosses and get the timings of their central movements right.
However, if no chance presents itself for a cross, Lyon can also keep the ball on the wings and be patient, with players combining with each other to play around any opponents who try to win the ball, just as Juventus Femminile left-back Lisa Boattin did here. Once she was far enough towards the ball, the 2-v-1 created by forward Delphine Cascarino and USA midfielder Lindsey Horan, who joined on loan from Portland Thorns in January, isolated the Italy international and allowed Lyon to play the ball into the space that she originally vacated.
Whilst this doesn’t end in a goal, it shows how Lyon’s patience will be key in not letting chances go to waste, and Barcelona will need to be aware of this so as not to send the likes of Mapi León or Leila Ouahabi towards the ball in these areas, otherwise Lyon will have plenty of chances to move the ball into spaces that they leave open.
Lyon Féminin in transition
Lyon Féminin’s transitional play is not too dissimilar to Barcelona Femení’s, in that both like to use a playmaker as a focal point to build through and both also like to play quick passes to create options in advanced areas.
Lyon’s playmaker tends mostly to be USA midfielder Catarina Macario, who has been one of their key threats throughout this season and is likely to carry a huge influence on Saturday. Much like Putellas, she can operate as a false nine and play in gaps when needed, but what we have seen a lot of from her this season is an ability to get between opposing ranks and provide a link between her side’s midfield and attack, as is the case here. This creates the effect of a 2-1-2 appearance when they are building attacks, with Macario at the heart of it.
In this example, she plays the ball into Malard on the other side of PSG’s defensive line, but then continues her run forwards to see if she can help regather possession should the attack be cut out by PSG, and being ready for the next phase of play is why she has become such an important player for her club. Against Barcelona, her role is likely to be disrupting play and trying to prevent the Spanish side from playing out from the back, although this will be difficult.
The midfield three is also critical to Lyon’s ability to move the ball up the field, with their central structure generally involving one player staying back and the other two going ahead and offering a mixture of shorter and longer passing options, depending on what is called for. Amandine Henry has generally been used as the deeper player, but she was in a centre-back role during this match against Benfica. Therefore, it was Netherlands international Damaris Egurrola who came in to take the role instead, whilst Macario and fellow Dutch international Daniëlle van de Donk got forward and closer to the attackers.
What is critical to note here is that there are always at least two passing options available once each player has the ball, with Egurrola having Macario and van de Donk here, as the white triangle shows. However, once the ex-Arsenal player receives the ball, her passing options become Macario and Malard, with the yellow triangle indicating these new paths for the ball to travel down. This is one of Lyon’s biggest weapons, and it will need to work well against Barcelona because they are a team who like to control the central third and prevent their opponents from progressing the ball through it, as has been previously highlighted.
Lyon Féminin’s defence
The area of Lyon Féminin’s play that has let them down the most this season is their defending, mostly down to individual mistakes, and this is what could cost them the win on Saturday, given the attacking riches in Barcelona Femení’s squad and their ability to punish mistakes.
We have looked at how Lyon play through the midfielders and build attacks through having passing options available, and that requires the ball to travel at a reasonable speed in order to reach each player without the opposing side having a chance to intercept it.
However, that speed means that there is a greater risk of the ball being given away, with this pass from Henry going loose and only reaching BK Häcken midfielder Johanna Rytting Kaneryd, although her effort on goal was tame and easily saved by Chile goalkeeper Christiane Endler. The point to take from this, though, is that Lyon need to take care of the ball on Saturday, because, whilst Häcken weren’t able to take advantage of this chance, Barcelona will be more clinical.
The other problem with Lyon’s defending is that there can also be a lack of communication between the defenders and the goalkeeper at times, with this situation demonstrating how this almost cost them against Bayern Munich Frauen. Canada defender Kadeisha Buchanan is looking to get a foot on the ball and clear her lines, but hesitates momentarily whilst running backwards when she sees Endler coming out of her goal to also clear the danger. This almost proved costly, with neither player able to gain control of the ball and Bayern attacking midfielder Viviane Asseyi instead being taken out whilst looking to win it for her side.
As a result, it went loose and there was a chance for Germany striker Lea Schüller, in the red circle here, to shoot at goal, with her effort not missing the Lyon goal by much. Therefore, again, Lyon’s defending let them down and they were almost punished, but Barcelona will again be more ruthless with these opportunities and that is what Lyon will need to be wary about.
With this being a clash of two of Europe’s women’s football heavyweights, neither of whom like to lose, it is difficult to predict who will end up with the trophy in their clutches. Barcelona Femení undoubtedly have a squad capable of playing in several different ways and adapting to different situations, but Lyon Féminin know that if they can control the middle third and create plenty of passing options at each stage of the game, they have a good chance of controlling periods of it and maybe going on to win.
However, it is hard to look past Barcelona at the moment, and what might turn the game in their favour is if Lyon were to have any defensive errors, which this analysis has shown that they are prone to making, although it is unlikely that there will be many given that Sonia Bompastor has been preparing for this match for quite some time. Even so, when searching for a chink in either side’s armour, this is perhaps the one that stands out.
The final point to make is arguably the most striking though, and it is that Barcelona have never beaten Lyon before, and this is something that both teams will be thinking about when Saturday comes. The question is whether that will still be the case when the 90 minutes are over.