How Real Madrid Femenino Rattled the Best Team in the World
Las Blancas not only led Barcelona for approximately 52 minutes, but fully deserved to be in front. Here's a comprehensive breakdown of how and why that happened and what we can learn from it.
For the umpteenth time: massive thanks to @AnkaraHansen for his translation work. We went back and forth over the videos, which are both in English and Spanish, for about five hours.
NOTE: If the videos do not seem to work for you, click the tweet and they should play on Twitter.
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How do you approach the best team in the world — one that hasn’t lost all season and currently stands first in their division, with 24 wins in 24, 136 goals scored, and only 6 conceded?
For most, the answer is to bunker down and boot it long. The last thing you want to do is go toe-to-toe against Fridolina Rolfö, Jenni Hermoso, Caroline Graham Hansen, Alexia Putellas, Aitana Bonmatí, and Patri Guijarro — the front six that graced the lawns of the Alfredo Di Stéfano on Tuesday in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
Teams that have tried to press them and play their normal, expansive game have been clobbered. Arsenal were totally outclassed away from home in the group stages and humbly reverted to a deep block in the following fixture. Real Sociedad have gone all out in every single matchup under Natalia Arroyo, impressing briefly before absolutely bleeding goals.
Yet, handing the initiative to Barça might be even more dangerous. If teams grant them easy entry into their own third, the entire rest of the ninety might be played there, for Barcelona’s offensive brilliance is linked to a defensive mastery that supercharges the former and vice-versa. In brief: their guiding tactical framework is positional play, which, on top of emphasizing the creation of numerical and structural superiorities in all parts of the pitch, prioritizes “rest defense.”
This refers to a team’s defensive structure when they have the ball, specifically in the moments directly preceding a turnover. In “juego de posición” (as the Spaniards would call it), it is particularly important for there to be a seamless transition between in-possession and out-of-possession phases, since football operates on a continuum — rather than distinct junctures — between offense and defense. Thus, the attacking shape will be designed so that players have to reorganize as little as possible when the time comes to counterpress.
As a result, Barcelona can mount relentless waves of pressure, producing an incredible number of final-third possessions for their savant-level attackers to work with. In their most dominant first-half spell vs. Real Madrid, Barça strung together a near-unbroken six-and-a-half-minute stretch in the opposition half from 20’-27’.
At that kind of volume for that kind of quality, variance gets squeezed out of the equation, making it almost impossible for inferior opposition to “shithouse” a result.
In order to combat this, teams need to start thinking like Barça for their own context; offense and defense are one, continually influencing each other at all times. What you do with the ball affects your chances of conceding and what you do without it impacts your ability to score.
If you cannot find a way to resist and break through the Catalan outfit’s pressing game, you cannot hope to prevent your keeper’s net from bulging.
Thus, strangely enough, the answer to Barcelona’s attack might exist in the attacking plans of their rivals.
Alberto Toril’s Master Plan
Patience in Possession
Las Blancas have played Barcelona on an exhausting amount of occasions by now (for Madridistas, at least) and have exclusively chosen the conservative approach. That is, aside from one time under ex-boss David Aznar, when they went out in a 4-4-2 diamond, pressed high, and tried to build from the back. Interestingly enough, in that game, Madrid created an early transition opportunity from a turnover (that they thoroughly botched) — and confused Barça enough for Alexia to comment on it post-game — before promptly getting smacked in the second half.
Alberto Toril hadn’t entertained such fancy shenanigans vs. La Blaugrana going into this encounter and, indeed, he chose a fairly standard lineup, fielding the only (or most-expected) — and, coincidentally, heavily-technical — midfield he could (Aurélie Kaci was injured) in his usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
Nevertheless, his approach in possession was a dramatic departure from what we had seen before. Instead of panicking or immediately trying to find the first option in behind, Madrid made a purposeful effort to play the ball short, circulate at the back, and wait for their moment.
In fact, there were probably moments where Real should’ve accelerated play quicker and taken a risk. Nonetheless, the net benefit of this strategy was huge — not because it generated incredible offense, but because it provided valuable minutes of relief from Hansen’s dribbling, Alexia’s through balls, and Jenni’s shots.
In the 21st minute, a shocking statistic flashed on the screen of DAZN’s stream: Madrid had 45% possession.
This was no doubt influenced by Barcelona’s curiously lethargic press. Hermoso and Aitana loathed to engage aggressively and, when they did, it was an uncoordinated effort between themselves and the midfield line, thus, leaving open pockets for Claudia Zornoza and Teresa Abelleira to collect the ball.
It’s not clear why such a famed high-pressing side operated in this manner, but it might have to do with a series of injuries that have thinned their squad in the most heavily-congested part of the season. If so, we might see such passivity again, meaning that the viability of Madrid’s possession plan could extend past this result.
What’s interesting is that Las Blancas were not trying to match Barça’s Cruyffian aesthetic in possession — a significant amount of their passes into the final third were long. However, those deliveries were executed on Madrid’s own terms (i.e. when they had set themselves and were ready to battle for second balls or had managed to drag Mapi forward, isolating Andrea Pereira 1v1 with Esther González).
Esther was a sheer warrior on the night, bringing the intensity, physicality, and downright aggression necessary for a target player.
Athenea del Castillo was another key weapon; Madrid tried to set her up in isolations vs. left back Leila Ouahabi on numerous occasions, allowing the 21-year-old virtuoso to bring Madrid into the final third through her dribbling and carrying. For someone who has a reputation for wanting to go straight at defenders, Athenea showed significant maturity on a massive stage, calculating exactly when she should explode off the mark or pass it back.
Through his tactics, Toril revealed a clear emphasis on matchups, and it soon became obvious that he had been talking about Pereira and Leila when he mentioned that Madrid were aware of Barça’s “weak points” prior to the match.
Aggressive Defense (in All Thirds)
Of course, none of what was described addresses what Barça opponents should do out of possession, and it’s tricky to find answers from this first leg. The visitors were remarkably poor on the ball by their standards and made a number of mistakes you would never expect. On paper, pressing the most press-resistant midfield in the world is suicide. However, given, that sitting off in a passive block doesn’t work that well, either, teams might as well try to be more aggressive to see if it can provide slightly better outcomes.
At the very least, it could introduce the element of surprise, as it seemed to on Tuesday; it is highly possible that, after facing deep block after deep block; hearing Toril’s words complimenting Madrid’s organization in such set-ups (mind games?); and enduring the hyperbolic appraisal of Madrid’s 1-0 loss earlier in the season, Giráldez expected to face the same game plan. If so, it’s not crazy to think that Barcelona were taken aback by the sheer intensity with which Madrid attacked them out of possession, playing a part in the mistakes that followed.
Certainly, nothing can be taken away from the level of execution that Las Blancas showed, closely mimicking — both in form and efficacy — Aznar’s framework vs. City in the UWCL qualifiers.
The players’ work-rate and determination were the fundamentals empowering incredibly-agile processing and mapping of threats and space — all enhanced by clear directives within a player-oriented press and ball-oriented block.
From the former, Maite took primary responsibility for Patri, looking to cut off the lane to the defensive midfielder as she went out to press a center-back. In conjunction with Esther, this helped partially negate Barça’s 3v2 advantage in build-up. The front two were backed up by Zornoza’s and Teresa’s ferocious marking on Aitana and Alexia, respectively, and the narrow positioning of wingers Athenea and Olga. The objective was to completely shut out the center and guide play wide, where Madrid’s press could truly be ramped up to eleven.
It was a fairly classic set of instructions implemented beautifully; the true sign of an effective press can be witnessed in how a side uses their coordination, communication, and chemistry to adjust to the natural variations that occur throughout a football match. If a midfielder lost access or needed to react to an emerging problem, a teammate would help out within the logic of the structure, either maintaining the integrity of the press or buying time for someone to recover.
If Madrid were pushed back, the set-up changed from player-to-player to a greater focus on the ball itself. What’s notable is that the level of proactiveness remained the same, which might be the key to defending Barcelona. Choosing between all-out pressing and an ultra-deep block might not be the answer, but you do have to actively direct possession into zones where one can aggressively attempt to win the ball, regardless of the line of engagement.
Real were superb at this, using any reception facing the touchline as a trigger to apply pressure on the blind side, often leading to 2v1’s vs. the ball carrier. It was through this that Madrid created the shocking opener; after Tere regained possession and launched a failed counter, Las Blancas flowed straight into the counterpress (another common trend on the night) and did everything they could to keep play pinned to the flank. Even as Alexia spun past Teresa — seemingly escaping the trap — Zornoza stayed committed, forcing the Ballon d’Or to turn back and pressuring her into an uncharacteristic turnover.
It might seem ironic to some that Madrid’s goal came from their defense and their defensive solidity from their offense, but I know that you, the enlightened reader, are well-aware of the inextricable relationship between these two phases.
Clever Offensive Set-Pieces
While Real Madrid’s turnaround under Alberto Toril appears dramatic, the return to form has more to do with picking low-hanging fruit than any genius method. Getting half your squad back fit and healthy, bringing the dressing together, and improving on the margins (i.e. set-pieces), is enough to return the All Whites to UWCL-qualification contention thanks to the inherent quality of their personnel.
Nevertheless, that does not mean that Toril’s work should be dismissed (just valued accurately), especially in regard to dead balls. Real have shown immediate improvements in this department and created some of their most threatening situations against Barcelona from these plays. Against such a dominant opponent, no stone can be left unturned.
The routines ranged from the simple to the dramatic. On free-kicks, Madrid were generally interested in further abusing the matchup between Pereira and Esther. On angled deliveries from out wide, Esther would linger half a step offside to prevent her marker from getting a step on her. Then, right before the delivery, the ex-Levante striker would rejoin the line and make her move towards the box.
Straight-on FK’s either sought to have Esther nudge headed passes to those underneath or ahead of her, or simply tried to find her in behind, with figures like Olga Carmona trying to distract and disrupt the defense.
The sexy stuff came on corners.
A cleaner strike might’ve caused Sandra Paños some trouble.
Jonatan Giráldez’s Response
Barcelona coach Jonatan Giráldez faced a first going into the halftime tunnel — he had never had to prep his team after conceding first. According to @amicus_arcane, the last time Barça went down before scoring themselves was in June 2021 vs. Real Sociedad.
This was a rare, big test for the 30-year-old and he passed with flying colors.
There is no doubt that the iffy penalty call vs. Real Madrid changed the game — that’s what penalties (because they result in goals 75% of the time) normally do. But the idea that it crushed the home side from an emotional perspective feels like a typical in-the-moment assessment. While it is no doubt deflating to lose your advantage in such controversial fashion, that fact didn’t necessarily reflect itself in the way Madrid responded (this was true even after they went 2-1 down).
Madrid’s high press remained as vigorous as possible until the limitations of the human body showed (although Toril’s substitutes kept energy levels up) and Barcelona, albeit possessing a renewed sense of belief, continued to make dumb mistakes — evidenced by Paños nearly gifting the lead back right after Alexia converted from the spot.
Thus, at least some of Barcelona’s second-half turnaround was down to their own play, particularly the introduction of Claudia Pina, which moved Rolfö to left back and extricated Leila from proceedings.
The Claudia Pina Effect
On the face of it, there was nothing dramatic about this — Pina’s average position closely resembled Rolfö’s.
Pina’s impact was more subtle and originated from an alteration in profiles rather than a big change in shape. Rolfö, while capable of occupying the defensive line to make way for Jenni’s false nine stuff, isn’t the most skilled associative player. At times, she struggled to function on the same wavelength as Alexia and others when trying to receive to feet. Additionally, the Swede interpreted her role in a rather rigid sense, mainly abandoning her central locations to receive wide on the touchline. This isn’t surprising, as she’s naturally an inverted winger.
Pina, on the other hand, is an attack-minded midfielder, who thrived as a second striker on loan at Sevilla and is arguably most comfortable deeper (according to some Culés). She has a natural desire to get on the ball and is adept at receiving with her back-to-goal and linking play. These tendencies were perfect for the game context, as she created an additional overload that Madrid couldn’t handle, finally fashioning a true free player behind Toril’s confrontational midfield line.
Equally importantly, it removed a liability on the day in Leila and replaced her with Rolfö, who is underrated defensively and on a completely different plane offensively, both in her off-ball movement and on-ball skill. The box entry that led to the penalty call had less to do with anything special from Pina and more to do with Rolfö simply making something out of nothing in a 1v1 situation, wriggling away from Lucía and floating a cross into the area.
The Irene Paredes Effect
The 65th-minute introduction of Paredes (who was only just returning to fitness) for the other weak link in Pereira was probably the point where Barcelona truly took control. Despite their offensive game getting better after the Pina sub, Giráldez’s forces still struggled to fully contain Madrid going the other way.
Paredes, a genuine candidate for the ‘Best Defender in the World’ title, solved that issue, finally stifling Esther through superior positioning, strength, and aerial ability.
Did Real Madrid Shoot Themselves in the Foot?
An underrated storyline from this game: in the second half, Madrid increased the frequency with which they went long from scenarios where they previously would’ve attempted to circulate from the back. Anecdotally, this appeared to be a reaction to a number of unsuccessful build-up sequences in succession, some of which failed due to individual execution on Real’s part rather than better Barça pressing, although the high block did seem to get slightly more cohesive after Irene’s arrival.
Whatever the reason, Madrid lost a significant amount of control because of this and found it more difficult to ward off those aforementioned waves of attacks. Even worse: it had a hand in Barcelona’s go-ahead strike; the fifty-fifty losses were unfortunate, but going short, initially, to set up a direct pass to the last line — instead of the midfield area — was how Madrid managed this risk in the first half.
Such a gradual shift away from the original plan is perhaps reflective of the development that Madrid have yet to undergo. When committed to reactive schemes, they can shine, thanks to an unselfish work ethic, a host of defensively-intelligent players, and deadly options in transition.
Notwithstanding these traits, they can come up short if asked to find consistent solutions on the ground across an entire game. That Barcelona, superpower mentality in possession has not yet been fully ingrained within the budding Madrid project, exposing the gap that still remains between the two, however much it may have shrunk after the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.