Barcelona Femení Enhance Their Tactics by Knowing When to Ignore Them

No one embodies this dynamic more than Mariona Caldentey.

Eidevall’s Bold Approach

[Barcelona are] a very good football team, but they are also beatable. It’s eleven humans against eleven humans tomorrow. In Sweden, we say “a shovel is a shovel.” A football game is a football game.

I’m not scared of anything, basically, and I don’t think my players are either. We understand it’s a challenge. We understand the need to do our best version of ourselves. But that’s just exciting.

These were Arsenal coach Jonas Eidevall’s words prior to taking on Jonatan Giráldez and his FC Barcelona Femení side in the first group stage game of their Champions League campaign. Eidevall spoke with respect for his opponent but with a boldness that hinted that his side would play without fear and with a desire to impose some of their will on the game.

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This was immediately visible in the Gunner’s defensive approach. Instead of forming up in the orthodox 4-1-4-1 (or 4-4-2; one of the central midfielders steps up, Barca style) you’d expect from a nominal 4-3-3 formation, Eidevall had his wingers stationed high and narrow so that they could alternate pressing the center-backs alongside Vivianne Miedema (and later Caitlin Foord).

Perhaps the idea was to shut down Barcelona’s propensity for playing through the middle by ironically ushering them there, where the midfield line was similarly narrow and always consisting of Frida Maanum, Lia Wälti, and Kim Little.

In addition to the far side winger tucking inside, Arsenal theoretically had the midfield congested, denying the lanes into Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí and enabling potential turnovers that could then could be capitalized on by attackers already positioned higher up.

Whatever the reasoning behind the scheme, it didn’t work. There were a lot of complex and beautiful things that Barca did to pull Arsenal apart (which we’ll get into), but the former’s first solution was to simply play it wide.

There is no doubt that Eidevall anticipated this (after all, he deliberately asked his side to cede the flanks), but he probably would’ve wanted Arsenal to handle it better. The distances that the wingers had to travel to press either Mapi León or Irene Paredes were vast and Miedema was unable to block off the lane into defensive midfielder Patri Guijarro.

Barcelona’s center-backs had all the time they needed to receive and assess their options. This is without mentioning the fact that they were skilled enough in 1v1 situations to beat pressure if necessary, voiding the few instances that Arsenal were compact in the way Eidevall probably intended.

Thus, all it took was a switch of play and Arsenal had to retreat. Another, and Barcelona were threatening the final third. One more, and they could cross into the box. For all of Las Blaugranas’ genius and ability to play the difficult way, they can kill you through simple, straightforward actions.

One might think that giving up wide areas to protect the center is the right poison to sip, but there is no lesser of two evils vs. Barcelona, as Eidevall pointed out in his post-match press conference:

Most teams can’t hurt you in so many ways and that is one of Barca’s biggest strengths, they can punish you in different ways, which makes it very difficult to stop them.

Part of that deadly versatility comes from Barcelona’s ability to adapt to any situation in an optimal manner, even if it means working outside the boundaries of the system that underpins their greatness.

Great Sides Elevate Tactical Rules by Identifying When to Break Them

Excuse this detour.

Any good modern coach will emphasize the importance of structure. Managing the ways players position themselves in relation to each other allows teams to create distinct advantages in particular areas of the field, exploit opposition weaknesses, and fashion connections between key personnel. Furthermore, operating off of coherent principles simplifies a fluid, chaotic sport, making it easier for footballers to do what they’re good at without un-balancing the team in the process.

Per Marti Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, Guardiola has a number of rules he makes his teams play by, such as:

There can be no more than three players in any horizontal zone; no more than two players in any vertical zone.

Yet, astute fans who have watched his versions of Barcelona, Bayern, or City (especially Barca) know that there are plenty of times where these rules are not followed. I don’t point this out to disprove the notion that Pep has a strict way of playing, just that his vision is more of a guideline rather than a non-negotiable directive.

Football is far too dynamic for every single sequence to be dictated beforehand. Those on the field have to react to constantly evolving situations and choose how best to move within the context of multiple ever-changing factors, including the structure of the opposition.

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Knowing when to bend and break certain rules set by your coach is a tricky balancing act and getting it wrong could get you yelled at for a prolonged period in training. Hence, good — and even very good — sides generally resort to playing in the same patterns and sets, which can take you far before coming up short against well-prepared defenses.

And then there are teams like Barcelona Femení, whose players have internalized the tactical fundamentals of their system so entirely, that they know exactly when and how they should shatter the structure meant to enhance them, making them unstoppable.

Barcelona’s Rules

Barcelona’s planned method for breaking down Arsenal’s defensive shape is pictured below.

One of Alexia or Aitana would drop off to form a double pivot with Patri, complicating Miedema’s cover shadow and forcing Arsenal’s interiors to push up. This, in conjunction with Mead’s and McCabe’s rather aggressive positioning and the location of Mariona and Alexia/Aitana, often put Wälti in a bind over who to cover.

Through these sets of positional rotations, Barcelona turned what was supposed to be a congested midfield battle into a 2v1 situation between the lines, allowing them to relentlessly test their opposition’s compactness.

To prevent the center-backs from helping out, Asisat Oshoala sat between them and threatened runs in behind. Meanwhile, Ana-Maria Crnogorčević and Caroline Graham Hansen stretched high and wide to keep the fullbacks honest and create a 5v4 overload against the back line.

As a result of this shape, Barcelona secured clean vertical progression and massacred Arsenal in the channels. The Gunners’ back four was consistently put in the impossible position of trying to mark Oshoala and Hansen or attempting to step out to deny the initial line-breaking pass.

If Arsenal did the former, Aitana or Alexia could freely play through balls to Oshoala bursting forward from between the center-backs. If Eidevall’s side executed the latter, an even bigger gap opened in the channel for Oshoala to pounce into.

Barcelona’s second goal arrived in this manner, displaying how their attacking principles can pick an opponent apart. Giráldez probably dreams of his tactics manifesting like this in his sleep.

Rule-Breaking as the Ultimate Expression of Tactical Understanding

From the prior clips, it is clear that Barcelona understand their system to a tee. The movements to occupy the right spaces are instinctive and the passes appear pre-designed, such is the chemistry between all involved.

And it is exactly this that allows Barcelona to successfully break the rules laid out for them. The tactical genius on display when the players function outside their confines is breathtaking. It’s like they’ve solved football, unlocking the secrets of spatial manipulation to maintain advantages and passing angles in virtually any scenario.

The players appreciate the need to form the double pivot, pin the back line, and occupy their zones, but also have the insane processing speeds to recognize when their original plan does not provide the intended superiorities within a particular context.

That is when they act on the base principles that inform the system, creating advantages in localized, relevant areas when it seems like they’ve abandoned the macro objectives. Barcelona’s women understand the building blocks of tactics so well — and how it relates to Giráldez’s system — that they can play to the fundamental nature of the game itself. Although they respect the structures and rules laid out for them, they’ve transcended the need to follow them at all costs.

Mariona’s Anarchism as the Catalyst for Rule-Breaking

There is perhaps no better example of what all this means than Mariona Caldentey — anarchist in chief and rule-breaker savant.

While it can seem like she is playing to the beat of her own drum, Mariona embodies an anarchic sense of individuality and freedom that is inextricably connected to the needs of the larger collective, much like the true essence of anarchism as a political ideology.

It is Mariona’s tactical impact that made her a starter for the majority of minutes over the brilliant Lieke Martens last season, and it is what has kept her as a starter in 2021/22 over Martens AND Fridolina Rolfö, even under a new coach.

Let’s go to the film to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Mariona’s runs into the right channel have been a common theme for a long time, and it was no different vs. Arsenal. In the first clip, she instantly reads Alexia dropping deep and initiates a counter-movement, breaking the “rules” by roaming into the same vertical zone as her teammate. In a vacuum, this is inefficient positioning. In the real context of the game, it’s a brilliant piece of off-ball play that leverages Alexia’s gravity to dart in behind Beattie.

It’s all a little more subtle in the next sequence. Alexia doesn’t do anything — and that’s precisely what spurs Mariona into her maneuver. Observing that Putellas is being effectively blocked off, Caldentey simply offers herself as an outlet and overloads Maanum.

Eidevall actually gets what he wants here — a line of three (plus a tucked in winger) squeezing the center and cutting off the lanes to Barcelona’s expected structure in the middle. But it doesn’t work out because Mariona loosens her shackles and engages in the unexpected.

On Barcelona’s first and third goals, Mariona adjusts differently, vacating central locations in favor of stretching wider. She does this in the initial clip to provide the type of width Giráldez would want from an overarching perspective — a perfect example of breaking the rules to fulfill the intended purpose of the edict.

Alexia then reacts off of that, taking Mariona’s movement as a signal to do some crime herself; the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year abandons the double pivot and fills the area Mariona normally would on paper. Note how this still achieves Barcelona’s prime objective of opening space in the channel, while providing a network to come back inside, developing into the goal.

Once again, the next example is more subtle. Mariona could probably wait for Barcelona to reorganize and they’d still progress fine, but that isn’t good enough for her. Switch passes are only as valuable as the moment in which the defense has yet to reorganize themselves, so Mariona gets in the driver’s seat and demands the ball deep. As Aitana and Patri reset into the intended shape, Mariona is already driving forward and Alexia has begun to react.

As a consequence, Arsenal part like the Red Sea and Oshoala scores before Eidevall’s women realize WTF has happened.

The Synergy Between Barcelona’s Rule Setters & Rule Breakers

Alexia’s role in all this shouldn’t be glossed over. Notwithstanding Mariona’s importance as the catalyst, it is equally vital for there to be a reaction to her movements. This is where the tactical intelligence of Barcelona truly stands out — it’s not just isolated moments of recognition, but a chain reaction of awareness and perception, with everyone somehow always reading each other’s intentions perfectly and remaining on the same wavelength.

Thus, if Mariona is the anarchist, Alexia is the sympathetic leftist — someone who adheres more closely to the rules imposed by the hierarchy but will break some windows and protest in the streets in critical support of her more radical teammate.

And then there are those who adhere more strictly to what is laid out before them (I’ll stop the incredibly pretentious political analogies now). Oshoala’s discipline at the point of the attack ensures the constant defensive occupation that allows others to be free without being tracked by individuals who can see the entirety of the offense.

To a lesser degree, Aitana and Hansen also offer an interesting structural contrast to the left-hand side, playing in greater connection to how Giráldez specifically directs rather than the intent behind his instructions.

This variation between left and right (oh, god, it’s another insufferable political analogy, isn’t it) provides Barcelona with two distinct ways of destroying their opponents: they can either play by the rules or break them.

Rivals have no chance whichever Barcelona choose, but it is the Catalan team’s ability to seamlessly flit between what is instructed and what is implied that truly makes them the greatest outfit in the history of women’s football.