Tactical Preview: 2021 UEFA Women's Champions League Final

Will La Blaugrana's unstoppable plan A overwhelm the endlessly adaptable Blues?

The 2021 UEFA Women’s Champions League final is stocked to the brim with narratives: the end of French and German football’s stranglehold over Europe (Lyon, Wolfsburg, and Frankfurt have combined to win the last ten editions of the competition), the rise of Emma Hayes and her near-decade-long project to push Chelsea to the top, and Barcelona’s real arrival in women’s football after the painful false start of 2019.

But here at Tactical Rant we are interested in one thing and one thing only: you guessed it — tactics! And boy are there still plenty of narratives to unpack on that front.

It is the Cruyffian ideals of (1A) aesthetic and (1B) domination vs. the tactical chameleon whose only goal is winning; it is an indomitable plan A vs. plans B, C, and D; it is Lluis Cortes vs. Emma Hayes and potentially the most schematically intriguing football final we have ever had.


A Delicate Balance Between Fluidity & Structure

As much as I hate comparisons that use the men’s game as a frame of reference for women’s football, the parallels between Cortes’ Barca and Pep Guardiola’s are undeniable.

There is an immense fluidity of movement undergirded by a sense of positional structure that meshes control and creativity to devastating effect. This is only enhanced by the chemistry that has developed within the core of the squad over the years, ensuring a level of interplay that has almost become improvised while somehow staying strictly within Cortes’ tactical vision.

Building from their own box, María (Mapi) León is the ultimate modern center-back, carrying the ball forward without any fear of dispossession and splitting lines like the most reliable deep-lying playmakers. Of course, should she need help, Patri Guijarro — probably the best distributor in Europe — usually sits in the pivot ahead of her, while the ever-underrated Marta Torrejón can dictate when needed from right back.

If you can’t stop those players from progressing, you have to reorganize and face some of the finest attacking talent of all time. Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí are technicians of the highest degree, capable of audacious skill and vision; Jenni Hermoso is the hybrid forward-midfielder who is equally comfortable up top as she is deeper; and Caroline Graham Hansen is the greatest 1v1 dribbler in the world.

But it is the sometimes unsung Mariona Caldentey who is the centerpiece for some of the most devastating attacking mechanisms that Barcelona produce.

Mariona regularly disregards the arbitrary territorial limitations imposed by the title of “left-winger” and roams inwards, creating a series of movements that adjust around her. Should Mariona come deep because Patri has looked to form a back three or needs help, Alexia or striker Asisat Oshoala might move out wide. If it is the latter who does it, Alexia will take up a much more aggressive position closer to the center-backs.

This was on perfect display in the first leg of the UWCL quarter-finals vs. Manchester City. Barcelona tore through a passive mid-high block thanks to Mariona’s wandering, which often saw her pop up on the right-hand side. From there, she would make completely untrackable runs into the channel as Aitana shifted to the vacated spaces towards the left.

The seeming randomness of Barca’s attack is an incredible strength, but it all occurs under the guidance of clear tactical principles. The structural heart of the team is found on the right side of their attacking shape, which is used to hold the defensive line in place, thereby creating space for Cortes’ magicians to operate.

Oshoala’s willingness to stay high is the starting point for this and is complemented by similarly advanced positioning by Aitana. These two pin defenders by threatening runs in-behind, enabling Hansen to isolate the fullback and go to work.

While the back four trains all of their focus on the advanced threats, Mariona can roam and spark various chain reactions, confusing a midfield line incapable of receiving any support from the back. Once this symphony of movement and non-movement allows Barcelona to progress into an opponent’s block, there are any number of runners bolting off-the-shoulder, giving Hansen plenty of targets on the cut-back.

Variations Based on Personnel

Of course, Lluis Cortés has to rotate sometimes (though some Culés might argue that he hardly does), and the insertion of different players creates different attacking looks. Jenni Hermoso has often played in right central midfield in place of Aitana — operating almost like a second striker with her late runs into the box — but, for the purposes of the Champions League, she replaced Oshoala and got two starts up top against PSG in the semi-finals.

This change was paired with Mariona being swapped out for Lieke Martens.

As can be seen in the video above, Hermoso as the striker across from Martens caused a very different tactical environment, though I don’t know if “across” is the right word to describe where Jenni was located, as she was keen to receive to feet unlike Oshoala. This urge pushed the Spaniard deep very often, sometimes leaving the center-backs completely unoccupied, as Lieke was less enthusiastic about abandoning her position a la Mariona and Alexia didn’t always rotate forward.

Even when Jenni did stay high she was not regularly thinking about darting in behind, creating a more plodding style of build-up that lacked some of the structure described previously.

It was a trade-off between incisiveness and control and it certainly had its benefits in allowing Barcelona to circulate very securely, bar one uncharacteristic giveaway from Hermoso in the first leg.

In the second encounter, we saw what a more traditional left-sided attacker gave Barca when PSG’s 4-4-2 mid-block was punished by a well-timed run into space by Martens.

We also witnessed how the increased fluidity induced by Jenni completely flummoxed Man City back in the first leg (Hermoso came on for Oshoala as a substitute).

Press & Possess

No positional play monster is complete without a bold defensive strategy that tries to win the ball back quickly — and Barcelona are no different.

One central midfielder steps up alongside the striker to create a 4-4-2 structure intent on initially denying the pass to the pivot.

As soon as the press is triggered, one of the front two harasses the center-back on the ball while the other pinches inwards to negate the 3v2 in build-up. Body positioning and the angling of runs are essential to ensuring that teams cannot pass back into the center or switch play, allowing Barcelona to create a vicious trap on the sideline.

Of course, the regular press is always complemented by the counterpress, which allowed Cortes’ women to score and secure passage to the next round in a second leg that saw a less efficient Barcelona on-ball than the last time they played City.

Beyond contributing to scoring opportunities, this aggressive defensive style allows Barca to maintain possession and control games on their terms — never needing to deviate from their own brand of football.


If You Thought Barcelona were Fluid…

Following the signings of Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg and Melanie Leupolz from Bayern Munich, Emma Hayes had the difficult task of trying to build a balanced system out of a glut of brilliant — yet not necessarily complementary — parts. Hayes’ conundrum was only further complicated by the full return of winger Fran Kirby, who suffered from pericarditis for most of last season, and the need to integrate a Sam Kerr who struggled after arriving in January of 2020.

The early goings were rough and the results seemed to be dependent on individual talent more than anything, but Hayes struck gold with a “4-3-3" that saw Kerr, Harder, and Kirby playing together in attack. Ji So-yun, the advanced creative force behind Chelsea’s 2020 domestic double, was withdrawn into a deeper role alongside defensive midfielder Sophie Ingle and interior Leupolz.

Except, I’m not really sure you can call the formation a 4-3-3. In fact, I’m uncertain whether it even makes sense to describe Chelsea’s nominal attacking shape with an arbitrary collection of numbers.

The unorthodox use of a classic center forward in Kerr as a “left-winger” and a #10 in Harder as a “striker” led to stuff that looked more like a Christmas tree (two attacking midfielders behind a CF) or a diamond. The constant shape-shifting and lack of width thanks to Kerr’s inverted role also necessitated some alterations in midfield positioning, creating some situational double pivots when Ji drifted out wide to aid her left back.

Just look at this goal that Chelsea scored vs. Reading in their title-sealing game in the Women’s Super League:

How exactly are you supposed to defend that?

Probably not how Reading tried to, but stronger teams have attempted to do better and failed.

RIP Wolfsburg:

I’m trying to think of how many coaches in world football would choose to deploy Kerr, Harder, and Kirby in this manner and not many names are popping into my head. What looks like a bizarre and possibly dysfunctional lineup on paper works beautifully because Emma Hayes has a genius understanding of how individual tendencies and stylistic attributes play off of each other to create beneficial movement and interplay.

Hayes knows that Kerr will naturally gravitate to the center, making constant runs off-the-shoulder, which will, in turn, free up Harder to do what she does best and link play. And, because Kirby is such a mercurial talent with such an expansive skillset, Hayes realizes that Super Fran is also bound to drift inwards in order to receive between the lines.

Furthermore, Hayes is well aware that all three are intelligent enough and possess enough stylistic contrasts to react off of each other seamlessly and without positional overlap. If it ever gets too chaotic, Hayes can always bank on her vocal, micro-managing style on the sideline to ensure that spatial occupation remains balanced.

The result is an attacking trident that renders marking useless and manages to put immense pressure on defenses’ vertical compactness while always possessing a threat over-the-top. This gives the time and space for the ball progression machine that is Ji-Ingle to pick out the right pass.

Hayes’ experiment created the best attack in the league based on both actual goals scored and expected goals (xG). Individually, Sam Kerr claimed the golden boot with 21 goals in 22 appearances off of a scarcely believable 1.05 non-penalty xG p90; Fran Kirby scored 16 goals, ranking third, and led the league in total assists and expected assists p90.

Harder was the one who had to sacrifice for the good of the team, seeing a major drop in production from 27 goals in the Bundesliga to 9 in the WSL.

A Tactical Chameleon

However, Hayes’ turn to the “4-3-3” is only half the story, for she is not wedded to any one shape or mode of play. If Barcelona and Cortes care deeply about operating based on a particular style and philosophy, Hayes only cares about whatever will get the job done.

Chelsea’s Champions League campaign was a tremendous example of their tactical flexibility and Hayes’ ability to make critical adjustments in second legs.

Against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals, Hayes arguably dropped a dud, going with a diamond press in an attempt to shut off access to the center and create a 3v3 against the German side’s build-up.

The strategy did help lead to a goal, but the emphasis on a narrow defensive shape and Kerr’s unwillingness to track back in deeper defensive stances (or utilization as a counter-attacking outlet) put a ton of stress on Chelsea’s fullbacks. Wolfsburg happily pummeled balls into the channels and played combinations to get free in wide areas, targetting left back Jonna Andersson, in particular, though right back Niamh Charles didn’t look that solid, either.

It should’ve been a massacre. Instead, Wolfsburg forgot how to finish and could only manage one goal, giving Emma Hayes another shot to get it right. Big mistake.

Hayes switched to a 4-4-2 defensive structure, using the positioning of the two up top to negate the 3v2 advantage in build-up, similar to what I discussed with Barcelona. The hard-working Erin Cuthbert played on the left and helped Chelsea contain the center while being able to double up on the flanks. The new approach also allowed pressing access to Wolfsburg’s fullbacks without requiring Jonna or Jessica Carter (in for Charles) to step up.

The game wasn’t all smooth sailing, but the difference in the performance was dramatic. In the first leg, Chelsea conceded 15 total shots and 7 on target; in the second leg, they allowed 7 total shots and 4 on target.

Hayes needed a second take vs. Bayern Munich in the semi-finals as well, though this had more to do with how good the Bavarians were in the first leg rather than any specific mistake the Chelsea manager made.

Coach Jens Scheuer set up his side in a 5-3-2 block that sought to direct Chelsea wide and stifle them on the wings. In the below video, you can hear Scheuer go berserk when Chelsea play the ball to Jonna, indicating that he had a specific scheme to counter the ball-playing weaknesses of Chelsea’s fullbacks.

In the same sequence, Hayes instructs Ji to move into the halfspace to counter this. It was a pattern that became only more common in the second half, as Hayes tried to make up for the deficiencies in progression out wide by dragging her central midfielders laterally. It wasn’t a bad idea, but Hayes had chosen to play in a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, starting Guro Reiten on the left. Hence, the Blues’ double pivot was stretched thin and was unable to efficiently rotate possession to the opposite side once they got stuck on one wing.

Hayes went back to her usual “4-3-3” in the second leg, probably anticipating that Bayern would use the same system that secured them a 2-1 victory. She likely wanted an extra player in midfield to better execute her original solution and make switching easier. For whatever reason, Scheuer deviated from before and chose a 4-2-3-1. Hayes was ecstatic upon seeing this, telling the Guardian:

Once I saw they lined up with four at the back I thought: ‘Happy days. I’m going to get Fran [Kirby] into those spaces and they are not going to see her coming.’

I’ll leave the rest of the explanation on how Chelsea manipulated Bayern to the excellent @RPftbl:

A pass to the fullbacks attracted immediate pressure from Beerensteyn and Bühl, and the dropping movements from Ji and Kirby — this time as part of a deliberate scheme in a clear 4–3–3 structure — attracted pressure from the double pivot. Unfortunately, this kind of pressure was not accompanied by the defensive line stepping up in concert; instead, they remained anchored in front of their box. This was because Melanie Leupolz, Pernille Harder, and Sam Kerr stalked the space that opened up between the lines, drawing the defense’s attention and putting immense pressure on them in the process.

How Barcelona & Chelsea Match Up

Though the starting eleven might not be crystal clear, we all know how Barcelona are going to go out and play. It is Emma Hayes who will decide whether the game is an open goal-fest or more congested and conservative. However, she won’t have the benefit of a second leg and will need to make the right decision from the off.

In that spirit, analyst Kieran Doyle made a very compelling case for Chelsea to actually go out and press Barcelona:

Based on a video I made about Real Madrid troubling Barcelona from a diamond press, Kieran reasoned that Chelsea could go out and do the same given their familiarity with such a structure. Though Las Blancas ended up getting thoroughly routed, their aggressive defensive approach generated a surprisingly high number of turnovers and Barcelona took a long time to figure out how to beat it. Madrid’s goals conceded had much more to do with other issues, such as Real’s significantly inferior individual talent and overall scheme.

It is possible that Barcelona are vulnerable to pressing despite their immense technical quality simply because they’re not used to facing it. Teams in Spain almost always choose to bunker down and try to survive inside their own box, even if it never really works.

Added incentive to press exists because center-back Andrea Pereira is suspended for the final. Cortes has responded by trialing Patri at center-back and the less press resistant Kheira Hamraoui at pivot. He could choose to play Torrejón in central defense or the more technically gifted Vicky Losada in defensive midfield, but those look like unlikely options based on recent lineups.

Nevertheless, Barcelona theoretically have the tools to trouble Chelsea in a similar way to how Wolfsburg managed to. Not only does Mariona make killer channel runs, but Barcelona can be far more direct than their “tiki-taka” reputation implies. La Blaugrana will often go long from goal kicks, especially when Oshoala is in the side, and the likes of Aitana are very willing to make surprise movements in behind if Mariona hasn’t roamed over to do it herself.

Remember, the presence of Kerr in that “4-3-3” also means a defensive underload on her team’s left, which seems like suicide with Hansen patrolling that side. It is possible that Hayes might choose Cuthbert for her defensive work-rate due to this, though the weaknesses Chelsea’s fullbacks have both on and against the ball seem difficult to mitigate against after a certain point. How two of Charles, Jonna, and Carter deal with Barca’s touchline press will be interesting to watch.

Perhaps there is a middle ground Chelsea can take: one where they press aggressively from a diamond on goal kicks but sit in a deep block in all other open play situations (another Kieran suggestion). They might “suffer” but can bank on something most Primera Iberdrola teams can’t: world-class counter-attacking personnel.

Like any side that seeks to constantly dominate the ball, Barcelona will be occasionally caught out by counters no matter how well-drilled their counterpressing is. The risk for conceding more than the “occasional” transition attack undoubtedly becomes much higher when facing Fran Kirby, Sam Kerr, and Pernille Harder.

Another thing for Chelsea to watch out for is the aggressiveness of Barcelona’s center-backs. Cortes has relied on them to track deep runners from the offensive line and to solve any vertical compactness issue should CM’s be out of position. Mapi León, in particular, is superb at doing this but it’s a difficult skill that is impossible to pull off every time. This could be exploitable through a Kerr run in behind a CB who is stepping up to check Harder’s or Kirby’s movement between the lines.

Finally, the set-piece proficiency of each side should not be overlooked. Barcelona are remarkably creative from corner kicks. I spotted several variations in a league game vs. Rayo Vallecano — and that wasn’t even all of them.

For expert analysis on Chelsea’s offensive corners, check out Marc Lambert’s piece on the subject.

You made it to the end! Congratulations. I hope this was informative and somewhat enjoyable to read. I welcome any feedback as this is my first time using substack and I am still rather new to women’s football!