Brilliant Barcelona: How Spanish champions “suffocated” Man City in Champions League crunch
The Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage, with some mouth-watering ties taking place, including Chelsea Women against German giants Wolfsburg, whilst Paris Saint-Germain Feminines are facing domestic rivals and defending champions Lyon Feminin. However, one of the ones that caught the eye was Barcelona Femeni against Manchester City Women. Both sides have been in great form recently, so it was likely that the game, held in Monza, Italy, for COVID reasons, would give us some high quality football to enjoy. With that in mind, this tactical analysis will look at the tactics Barcelona used to win the game, whilst we will also look in this analysis at how Manchester City struggled to get into it, as well as the alterations they made in the second half.
Barcelona Femeni named a strong side for this first leg, with many international players featuring. Club captain Vicky Losada was on the bench, so influential midfielder Alexia Putellas had the armband. She was joined in the midfield by fellow Spain international Patri Guijarro, whilst Norway forward Caroline Graham Hansen and Mariona Caldentey played on the wings. Jennifer Hermoso was on the bench, with Nigeria’s former Liverpool Women and Arsenal Women striker Asisat Oshoala leading the line. As well as Hermoso, their bench also included 2017 UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Lieke Martens, with the Netherlands international a key player for the side over the last few seasons.
Manchester City Women, meanwhile, made just one change from their last game, a 3-0 win against struggling Bristol City Women last week in the WSL. England right-back Lucy Bronze returned from injury to replace Georgia Stanway, who dropped to the bench. Alex Greenwood continued as a centre-back, with captain Steph Houghton still out with an Achilles injury, and young star Esme Morgan kept her place at left-back. In-form USA international Sam Mewis played alongside England’s Keira Walsh and Scotland’s Caroline Weir, whilst the now familiar forward trio of former Everton Women striker Chloe Kelly, Ellen White and Lauren Hemp started together once again. Left-back Demi Stokes also made a return from a long-term injury, being named on the bench.
Barcelona Femeni’s clever tactics
It is no secret that Barcelona Femeni have plenty of talent in their squad, with the ability to switch tactics to suit whichever game they are playing. With Manchester City Women having plenty of pace on the ball, Barcelona knew they would have to control the game to ensure their opponents had few opportunities to attack against them.
They set up in this game with a wide defensive structure, looking to make the pitch as big as possible. With Ellen White playing on her own at the top, Barcelona could then play the ball around Manchester City’s players with ease, going from one player to another, keeping possession until an opportunity arose to transfer it up the field.
The other aspect of this is that Barcelona could push their full-backs, Marta Torrejon and Leila Ouahabi, higher up the pitch, adding extra numbers to their attacks when the ball did get up the pitch. This again made it difficult for Manchester City to win the ball, and helped Barcelona to control the game.
From Manchester City’s point of view, they looked to press the Barcelona defenders with intensity. Their formation constantly changed as a result, with there sometimes being two or three players at the top, before one might drop back into the midfield, and they looked to make it difficult for Barcelona to clear the ball.
When it came to their attack, Barcelona noticed how Manchester City were defending quite narrowly at times, looking to close off any gaps through the middle that could be exploited. However, this left the wings open, and we have already mentioned how the Spanish champions wanted to control those channels. Here, we see how they have positioned their wide attackers in those spaces, isolating the defenders, making it difficult for Manchester City to win the ball.
By having such a wide attacking setup, the midfielders, Putellas, Guijarro and Aitana Bonmati, could then operate in more open space through the middle. We see here how one player has the ball in the red circle, and the options they now have to move the ball to. Again, this makes it hard for Manchester City to defend against them in these situations.
If we now look a little more widely at the role Alexia Putellas played in the game, we will see why she was arguably their most important player. Barcelona gave her a free-roaming role, allowing her to move into any area where she could help her team out.
In this image, we see how she has dropped back to operate almost as a left-back, because Ouahabi has moved higher up to support the attack. Manchester City have all come behind the ball, still looking to press at every opportunity, meaning that Barcelona can’t find a way through. We need to remember that Putellas is an attack-minded midfielder, and so her dropping back to help where needed, even in unfamiliar positions, is why she is a crucial part of Barcelona’s tactics. Here, she offers her side another passing option by coming back, which is important, because it means that Barcelona can retain possession without needing to risk going forward. Therefore, Putellas’ spatial awareness was a crucial reason for her side’s win.
When in more advanced positions, Putellas looked to get behind Manchester City’s defence as often as possible. Here, in the late stages of the game, we can see how Manchester City have played a reasonably high back line, with Putellas receiving the ball behind them. From here, she hits the post with her shot, although the rebound is turned in by second-half substitute Jennifer Hermoso. This again demonstrates how Putellas helped her side get into good areas of the pitch, and her confidence when in these positions, which is why she is such a dangerous opponent. In this game, she was arguably Barcelona’s best player, because she made the runs that created chances for others, and linked up well with her teammates throughout.
Manchester City Women’s problems
We have become used to seeing Manchester City Women play rapid attacking football this season, looking to move the ball from one end of the pitch to the other as quickly as possible. However, in this game, they looked a little off the pace in all areas.
A key part of their tactics is control of the wings. However, Barcelona Femeni forced them to play in narrow sections of the pitch, causing them to make mistakes that Barcelona could profit from. Here, Lucy Bronze is looking to pass the ball forwards, but two Barcelona players have moved to close down her options, as the red line shows. Now, Bronze’s only pass is to Sam Mewis, as indicated by the blue arrow. However, this is a risky pass, because Mewis is very near the side line, and so Barcelona can get tight to her and force the error. This clever tactics meant that Barcelona were effectively suffocating Manchester City, giving them no space to operate in and little time to make decisions. In this particular situation, the ball was lost after this pass, allowing Barcelona to claim it and attack forwards.
When they did get the ball up the pitch, they couldn’t then release their key attackers as often as they wanted to. Normally, we expect that Ellen White will be on the shoulder of the opposing defenders, looking to move forwards whenever there is an opportunity to score. This gives her teammates all over the pitch a target to find, which is why Manchester City have been such a creative and potent side in the final third this season.
However, here, we see how Mewis has the ball, looking to play it between two Barcelona defenders. Barcelona’s organised defending means that Manchester City can’t get on the end of her pass, ending the threat. Therefore, even when there was an opportunity to attack, Manchester City couldn’t get behind the defence to make anything of it.
The reason they were struggling in this was because Lucy Bronze hadn’t been able to support them, as she was being kept back by Barcelona’s attack, as we saw earlier in this section. However, she did eventually find a way through, running up the wing to support the attackers, and is in the blue circle here. This now gives Manchester City a three-player formation, allowing them to get the ball and players behind Barcelona’s defence. The ball is with Chloe Kelly here, and the yellow arrow shows how, like Mewis in the previous image, she looks to make the pass inside the field. Mewis, who is the furthest inside of these three players, runs onto the end of the pass, and can then set up a teammate in the box from that position.
However, even though they had now addressed these issues, Manchester City still had problems when shooting at goal. Throughout the game, they lacked quality with the final pass or shot, which either evaded all players in the middle and went out of play, or was hit too tamely, and they wasted several good opportunities to score because of this.
This image shows one example of a wasted chance in the second half. Kelly has the ball on the far side of the pitch, looking to put it into the space for White, in the blue circle, to run onto and shoot. Whilst the pass was good, and White got to the ball, the shot was poor, and was saved easily by goalkeeper Sandra Panos. This is the type of chance that White would normally put away, so it highlighted how this was not Manchester City’s game, even though they were making the same runs and passes as normal. It is possible that their nine-game winning streak caught up with them, especially as the majority of this team had played in the majority of those games.
Manchester City Women’s second half changes
In the second half, Manchester City Women did try and change their fortune in attack and defence, with a couple of noticeable tactical alterations.
Esme Morgan was withdrawn at half-time, with the returning Demi Stokes, who is a left-back by trade, coming on in her place. This gave Manchester City a little more balance in the second half, and more experience at the back. What Stokes brought that had been missing was a desire to close down Barcelona’s attackers and win the ball back at close quarters. In this image, we see how Stokes has got tight to her opponent, making a tackle and winning the ball. Therefore, her presence made it harder for Barcelona to get into the space behind them.
The other change saw the two wide attackers, Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp, playing even wider than they had done in the first half. This stretched Barcelona out, allowing Manchester City to play through the gaps between them, as Hemp is doing here. We mentioned in the first section how Barcelona set up with a wide structure, but that was in possession. Now, without the ball, they were forced to leave gaps open again, enabling Hemp in particular to make inward diagonal runs, continually setting up opportunities for her teammates, increasing Manchester City’s attacking threat. Hemp was arguably Manchester City’s best player in the second half because of this, and this image shows how she asked plenty of questions of Barcelona’s defenders in the second half.
In conclusion, this was an enjoyable game to watch for the neutral, with some excellent play from both sides at times. However, what was obvious was that Barcelona Femeni’s squad looked much more comfortable than Manchester City Women’s, moving the ball around and creating space with more ease. What will frustrate Manchester City is that they had some really good opportunities to score, but lacked the final pass or shot that would have made them count, and so couldn’t get the crucial away goal that they were looking for.
The tie is only halfway through, though, which is what they need to remember. Barcelona’s next game is away at Sevilla Femenino in the Primera Division, whilst Manchester City host Reading Women in the WSL. Both sides will then reconvene at Academy Stadium next Wednesday for what will be an interesting second leg of this Champions League round.