UWCL Final 2023: Why Barcelona’s tactical changes helped them recover from “a disastrous start” to defeat Wolfsburg – tactical analysis
For all of their attacking quality, 2022/23 has not been one of Barcelona Femení’s strongest seasons, with there being a number of games in which they have struggled compared to usual and some have ended in surprise results.
Despite those setbacks though, this is still Barcelona, and they were down in many people’s books as the favourites to win this year’s Champions League final, which was being hosted by PSV Eindhoven’s Philips Stadion. This was mostly down to their undoubted quality around the field, but also because their opponents, Wolfsburg Frauen, had also had a disappointing campaign by their standards, with them limping to second place in the Frauen-Bundesliga and suffering losses against champions Bayern Munich Frauen and the other two sides fighting for places in next season’s Champions League, Hoffenheim Frauen and Eintracht Frankfurt Frauen.
As it turned out, what decided the outcome of the final was clever tactical changes and mental resilience, with Barcelona players and manager Jonatan Giráldez talking afterwards about how their defeat to Lyon Féminin in last year’s final had made them psychologically tougher as they tried to recover from setbacks that they might encounter this year. The first half will certainly be added to that list of obstacles that they have needed to navigate, with them going in at the break 2-0 down and needing to alter things on the field, and this tactical analysis will detail first what was going wrong and then where they improved in the second half.
Barcelona Femení had been rotating their starting lineups during the final matches of the season, with the intention of keeping key players as fresh as possible ahead of this encounter, and that had been made possible by the wrapping up of their eighth league title with four games to spare.
There were four changes from their final match of the campaign, a defeat to Madrid CFF, with Norway winger Caroline Graham Hansen and Sweden forward Fridolina Rolfö both returning to the starting 11 against their former club (Rolfö in the left-back position that she has tended to operate in for the team) after undergoing their periods of rest. Salma Paralluelo also started, following Nigeria striker Asisat Oshoala’s injury during the build-up to the final and Brazil forward Geyse Ferreira only being named among the substitutes, whilst the final alteration saw England right-back Lucy Bronze return after her own injury absence as Marta Torrejón also dropped to the bench.
Unlike the Spanish side, Wolfsburg Frauen had not been able to rest ahead of the final, with the destination of the Bundesliga title only being decided on the last day. Head coach Tommy Stroot, therefore, made just one change from that game, a victory against Freiburg Frauen, with Lena Oberdorf coming into central midfield and fellow Germany international Tabea Waßmuth moving to the bench. Alex Popp, who had started in a deeper position against Freiburg, moved back to her regular attacking role, allowing Oberdorf to slot into her favoured deep-lying midfield position.
First half problems
It was obvious to anyone watching on Saturday afternoon that Barcelona Femení were far from their best in the first half, with them looking nervy and fragile and unable to exert themselves into the game in the way that fans have come to expect from them, and there were a number of reasons for that being the case.
One of the main ones was their team structure because they had opted to start with no recognised striker at the top of the field and that meant that they didn’t seem to have their usual balance in the final third.
Instead, situations like this were really common, with the ball being played through to the areas behind Wolfsburg Frauen’s defensive line, but there being no way to set up a shot on goal due to no one making a run into the goal area. In this case, Paralluelo actually stepped backwards at the point that Patri Guijarro played Rolfö through, and she never looked comfortable in her new central role.
From Wolfsburg’s point of view, it was perfect, as they were never under any pressure and simply needed to remain calm and composed whenever the ball entered their goal area, and they didn’t take risks and just put the ball out of play whenever it travelled into their vicinity.
However, Paralluelo’s lack of attacking threat was only the tip of the iceberg for Barcelona in the first half, because the simple fact is that too many of their key players were having days to forget. Centre-back Mapi León, normally so reliable when playing out from the back, was sending passes astray, whilst Graham Hansen was not being brought into the game as much as normal and was instead left isolated on the right of the pitch, but Aitana Bonmatí was perhaps the player who stood out most as having an off day, with her lacking the precision and creative threat that she normally thrives at.
Here, for example, she has got into a really promising position and has the opportunity to send the ball through for Paralluelo to run onto, but instead gives the ball straight to Wolfsburg’s Netherlands right-back Lynn Wilms and allows the German team to clear their lines. These moments would have been frustrating on and off the field, not least because it was rare that Bonmatí had space like this due to Wolfsburg constantly closing her down, and so she needed to make the most of her chances to influence the game when they did come.
So many times this season, she has been the one that has made the difference when her side have needed someone to spark them into life, but she was far from her best in this game and it was another reason that Barcelona looked blunt before the break.
However, whilst players not being at their best was certainly an issue, the main problem that Barcelona faced in the first half was that they simply had no way to deal with their opponents, who came out and took the game by storm in the first 45 minutes as they demonstrated that they were not there to simply make up the numbers.
This is where Wolfsburg and their head coach Stroot deserve a lot of credit because it was clear from the first minute that they had a game plan and knew how they wanted to play, with them looking to both disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm and get their key players into the match as often as possible. The basics of that game plan were to soak up pressure and then use the passing range of Oberdorf to find either Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir, Ewa Pajor or Popp, trying to catch Barcelona out with their counterattacks, and, for large parts of the first half, it proved to be really effective.
Out of those three though, the one who had arguably the most decisive role was Pajor, who has shown throughout her career that she is one of the deadliest finishers in the women’s game (she ended as this season’s Champions League top scorer, with nine goals to her name, as well as finding the net 12 times in the Bundesliga).
However, the Poland international has also developed other aspects of her game and has become just as effective as a 10 or as a winger, with her at her best when allowed to roam in different channels. The fact that she was given that freedom was what led to Wolfsburg taking such a commanding lead, with Pajor picking the pocket of Bronze here before scoring the first, and she then sent in an accurate delivery for Popp to head home the second after she had again been given too much time to impact the match.
Quite simply, Barcelona had no way of keeping her quiet in the first half, and every time she got on the ball, Wolfsburg looked like asking serious questions of their opponents.
As a result of all of that, Barcelona Femení knew that they would need to change a few things at the break, although it should be noted, and was by Giráldez afterwards, that it hadn’t been a bad performance from them overall in the first half. It just hadn’t been anywhere near their usual high standards.
One of the main aspects of Barcelona’s tactics under Giráldez is a reliance on passing the ball around, very much in keeping with the basic principles of the traditional Spanish style of play. Yet, in the first half, they had not been able to put this into practice, largely because their midfield three, which facilitates so much of their passing-orientated tactics, had lacked shape and quality on the ball. In many ways, it was actually quite reminiscent of their performance against Sevilla late in the domestic season, their first game after securing the league title, when they changed things around in the central third and looked like a completely different team as a result.
At the break, it was obvious that they had spoken about going back to what they do best, which is constantly moving around and making the ball do the work, because their second-half display was much closer to a normal Barcelona performance, with free-flowing passes and positional rotations clear to see in so many of their transitions, and everything about them just looked smoother and more natural and more like the Barcelona that fans have come to expect over the years.
Whilst it benefitted all three of the midfielders to have this confidence restored, Keira Walsh was the one who noticed a big difference, with the England international largely kept out of the game in the first half due to her usual long-range passing options not being available to find, and so allowing the former Manchester City Women player to both drop back and push forwards and to rotate with Bonmatí and Guijarro in the second half gave her more influence over the game and allowed her to make passes and start attacks that had previously not been possible to envision.
The increased emphasis on positional rotations also meant that Barcelona could remedy some of the problems that they had encountered in the first half, such as their inability to use the wings due to Wolfsburg pulling Oberdorf back and using their centre-backs and full-backs to create extra protection in the wide channels.
To get around this, Barcelona looked to bring their central players into those areas to either match or outnumber the Wolfsburg players, and the fact that Guijarro made a run around the outside of Jónsdóttir here shows how the rotations were key in enabling this to happen. Guijarro’s run gives Rolfö a passing option and allows her to break through the defensive line, and only a good tackle by Svenja Huth prevented this from really troubling the German team.
The other thing that really improved this was the decision by Giráldez at half-time to swap the roles of Mariona Caldentey and Paralluelo, with the former playing through the middle and the latter moving to the wing. This seemed to suit both much better, with Paralluelo known for her ability to cut inside and test goalkeepers as well as to send in good deliveries, whilst Caldentey is constantly viewed as an extra midfielder when her team has possession, such is her tendency to float around all three channels as necessary.
The change, therefore, gave Barcelona greater clarity on the field, with players understanding their roles much more and knowing when to make runs and when to pass the ball, and that was another reason that Stroot’s side found them harder to contain in the second half.
Out of possession, Barcelona also tweaked their setup and tended to sit in a back five at times, with Graham Hansen dropping back and Bronze moving into a more central position. With this in place, Wolfsburg now couldn’t send balls up the field in the same way as they had been doing previously, with Popp now surrounded by more defenders and Pajor and Jónsdóttir not having as many gaps to exploit with their pace.
The result was that Wolfsburg’s positive forward play before the break was replaced by sequences of sideways passes, which didn’t gain them any territory and allowed Barcelona to contain them with more success, and it gave them a platform to build on when they did get the ball, allowing them to score the goals that they did and to win the game.
However, it wasn’t only structural aspects of their performance that made the difference for Barcelona Femení, as Giráldez also made alterations to individual roles and introduced key players from the bench that helped to improve their fortunes.
One player who could go away knowing that she gave everything on the day was Guijarro, and she was undoubtedly the most effective operator on the day for the newly crowned European champions. In the first half, she really stood out amongst her side’s struggles, with her continually trying to play the ball forwards and to test Wolfsburg’s resolve, and she was let down a lot of the time by her teammates not being on the same wavelength as her.
However, in the second half, their newfound confidence and belief meant that she was able to have a greater influence on the game, with her getting into similar areas but now having players around her who were more confident in what they were doing and therefore playing with added quality. Nevertheless, Guijarro was the one who connected everything for them, and the fact that she scored both of their early goals was a clear reflection of how Barcelona, for all of their improvements, would have struggled to get back into the game without her being on the field.
The role that she played in her side’s resurgence is clear to see from this touch map, with it being evident just how much of the field Guijarro got into and how many areas of the Barcelona team she was able to link up with.
A lot of this has come down to her new role this season, which has seen her step up from the deep-lying position that she has frequented for the last few years to take over from Putellas as a creative eight, and it has been clear throughout the season just how big an impact this has had on her individual performances, with her playing with more freedom and having the ability to get into advanced areas and offer a greater attacking threat than she has done previously.
Walsh has described her midfield colleague as the best player in the world, and, whilst for some that might be a stretch, it is true that she is someone who constantly impresses.
The benefits of Giráldez’s half-time change regarding Caldentey and Paralluelo have already been mentioned in this analysis, but it was not just those players who reacted well to the newfound energy in the second half. Another who had a much better time of things after the break was Graham Hansen, who was constantly seen making runs into the middle and coming off her wing to link up with those inside her.
This is where she is at her best, and it was clear that both the Norwegian and her teammates had made a concerted effort to get her into the game much more after the break as they had recognised that doing so would give Wolfsburg more problems to deal with. It helped that they had Bronze on the field, as she naturally pushes forward to occupy the wing, so there was less pressure on Graham Hansen to stay wide and stretch the defensive line out. As a result, inverted runs such as this were common in the second half, and it was another reason that Barcelona looked much more dangerous after the break and ended up coming from behind to win.
However, despite their improved second-half endeavour, Giráldez clearly felt that his side were still missing a focal point at the top of the field, so he introduced Geyse for Paralluelo after 70 minutes and tasked her with pressing forward to give the team someone who could really lead from the front.
It had a really positive effect on their play and provided Wolfsburg with new questions to answer, and Jónsdóttir in particular struggled to deal with her threat. The Iceland international had been continually tracking back throughout the game to deal with Rolfö’s advanced positioning and had managed to do a good job of that, but the simple fact is that she is not a defender and so was an easy target for Barcelona once they had Geyse on the field. Here, Jónsdóttir is trying to control a loose pass but has not noticed the Barcelona striker’s run and ends up conceding a free kick inside her own third.
It was moments like this that really showed what Barcelona had been missing in the first half due to her being on the bench and Oshoala, who presses and plays on the shoulder in the same way, being ruled out of the game, and why, had they had a player who could make dangerous runs when they had been inside the final third, things could have been different at the break.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the 2022/23 Champions League final between Barcelona Femení and Wolfsburg Frauen, finding the reasons for Barcelona’s comeback both through tactical changes and through players regaining their belief.
However, whilst Barcelona did make “a disastrous start”, as it has been called in the media, Wolfsburg deserve a lot of credit for the way that they turned up and played, and, aside from the decisive goal, which came as a result of the German side getting into a mess at the back and gifting Rolfö with an easy finish, they didn’t do an awful lot wrong.
Stroot said as much after the game, with him telling the media that he was pleased with his side’s first half display and simply looked to mend a few things that hadn’t been so good, purely because he knew that Barcelona would respond after the break, and they can definitely hold their heads held high as they gave one of the best teams in the world a serious run for their money.
However, ultimately, Barcelona were too good for them, aa they have been for a lot of teams in the last few years, and the fact that they incurred early setbacks and still came out on top shows why why there should never be any doubts over their credentials, despite losing out last season and seeing their 2022/23 season not be as smooth as they would have hoped.