For the fans of a club with the richest history in world football, it is quite a novel thing to be witnessing the birth of a new team. There is no baggage, no expectations, no past standards or players to compare against, and no agendas (yet). That sense of a fresh start is rejuvenating and the feeling of intrigue that follows it cannot be suppressed — even by a 9-1 defeat to FC Barcelona.
The loss sucked, to be sure, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of women’s football would’ve known that this result was practically inevitable. Barcelona Femení have been around since the late 80’s and became an elite team around the same time Pep Guardiola took the men’s side to new heights. Barca’s women won their first league title in 2012 and haven’t looked back, breaking into the upper echelons of European football by reaching the Champions League final last season. In that same year, they finished second in the Primera Iberdrola (Atlético Madrid were first), 21 points ahead of third-placed Levante.
By establishing themselves so late in the women’s game, Real Madrid are fighting an uphill battle. The club’s resources give them an edge and a sense of assuredness that glory is inevitable, but it will take years before Las Blancas have a shot at reaching Barcelona’s level. Today was a perfect, if painful, reminder of that.
CD Tacon manager David Aznar stayed with the 4-4-2 formation he had been using all preseason but added a slight twist. Sofia Jakobsson, who had been playing up top alongside fellow star forward Kosovare Asllani, was shifted out wide on the right. This made room for Jessica Martínez to step into the eleven and complete a very impressive looking attack.
Barcelona coach Fran Sánchez stuck with the club’s classic 4-3-3, deploying a lineup full of high-quality players. Hansen and Mariona stood out as the team’s offensive engines, while Oshoana looked primed to threaten the back line with her aggressive runs off-the-shoulder.
CD Tacon Continue to Struggle Playing Out From the Back
Trying to play out from the back was CD Tacon’s number one problem in preseason. It is tempting to identify the problem as tactical but it simply looks like Tacon’s players don’t have the quality to be playing a short build-up game. The defenders’ and central midfielders’ first touch lacks the crispness to set themselves up for a quick pass. This creates an incessantly hurried atmosphere, where the focus lies on desperately trying to shield the ball from a presser instead of finalizing viable passing options.
When a pass can be made, the deliveries almost always lack the pace, accuracy, and smoothness to break lines. Hence, Tacon often feel like a greater danger to themselves when they have the ball in their own half than when the opposition is attacking them. It doesn’t help when the goalkeeper, Yohana, doesn’t appear to be that good with her feet, either.
Such a problem can at least somewhat be put down to a lack of familiarity, but it does feel like player quality is capping Tacon’s press resistance. Unsurprisingly, Barcelona, being the opposite of unfamiliar and lacking in tactical cohesion, ruthlessly capitalized on their opponent’s sloppiness.
In the 8th minute, a terrible giveaway right in front of Tacon’s goal allowed central midfielder Alexia Putellas to put Barcelona up by one goal.
CD Tacon Stay Compact & Delay the Tsunami, But Display Critical Defensive Flaws
Without the ball, Tacon were a bit more impressive. They defended ultra-compact between the lines in a 4-4-2 medium block. This was a natural reaction not only to Barcelona’s ball-dominance, but to the presence of Aitana Bonmati and Alexia tucked into the halfspaces. The varying, but occasionally narrow, positioning of wingers Hansen and Mariona also dragged the fullbacks inwards, creating a tight box of Tacon players (vertically and horizontally) that made it nearly impossible to pass through the midfield.
Barcelona briefly struggled to create consistent opportunities against this structure, as they were initially intent on playing vertically into Oshoala. But, 20 minutes in, they found their way through to goal. This time, it was the other central midfielder, Aitana, who was the beneficiary. She made a run behind the defensive line in the right halfspace and went one-versus-one with the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
As compact as Tacon were, they had a critical defensive flaw — a lack of pressure on Barcelona’s deep ball players. It is all well and good to stay ultra-compact, but it has to be supplemented with the harassment of key ball progressors. Since Tacon chose not to do so, Barcelona’s superior individuals had all the time in the world to pick out dagger balls.
This is less of an issue when the defensive team is packed just outside their own box, since it is difficult to break down a tightly packed defense without space in-behind (even with time on the ball). But when the defensive team plays a high line, the lack of pressing up top becomes suicidal.
Tacon’s goal seemed to be to utilize an offside trap, which was fairly well-executed, but with so much time to find a pass — and so many opportunities due to Tacon’s inability to hold onto the ball — it was only a matter of time before Barcelona got it right.
Barcelona Tighten the Noose and Tacon Score a Consolation Goal
After Barcelona figured out how to pick apart Tacon’s defense, the game was over. Barcelona started to push into the final third and their counterpressing (and Tacon’s terrible ball retention) allowed them to stay there. Just as their club philosophy dictates, La Blaugrana easily shifted the ball from side-to-side, sucked Tacon’s shape inwards, and released runners into 1v1 situations.
Hansen was the biggest beneficiary of this and she tortured poor left back Esther with her one-versus-one ability. The Barcelona right-winger caused the own goal and then assisted another before half-time.
After the break, Tacon hit back quickly and gave Madridistas the faintest bit of hope. The moment of magic came from the boot of Jakobsson, who delivered a delicious cross that Jessica converted with a clinical header (somewhere, Zidane is smiling).
Alas, the hope was false and Barcelona scored another, and another, and another, and another, and another.
CD Tacon Aren’t Going to Win Anything Soon, But Some Immediate Tactical Improvements Can Help Their Cause
Part of Barcelona’s superiority in possession came from their formation. A 4-3-3, when utilized effectively, is naturally designed to outmatch a 4-4-2 defensive structure. This made it difficult for strikers Asllani and Jessica to press Barcelona because defensive midfielder Guijarro kept dropping to create an overload.
Such structural superiority can be mitigated by defending in a wing-oriented fashion. One striker can stick with the dropping defensive midfielder, while the other presses the ball-side center back with a curved run that cuts off access to the far side.
By doing this, the defensive team can limit the opposition into passes down the nearest wing, where the waiting winger, central midfielder, and fullback can press aggressively in a congested space.
Another option would be to change the formation entirely so that Tacon have more personnel in midfield, but that might require benching one too many quality attackers.
On offense, Tacon probably have to abandon their emphasis on short build-up in favor of going direct. It is rudimentary and will force Tacon’s talented strikers into hunting down second balls, but it seems like the only viable way to achieve ball progression given the team’s present talent levels.
Making that change, along with some defensive adjustments, won’t turn Tacon into a contender overnight, but it will go a long way in helping them complete a respectable campaign in their first ever season as Las Blancas.
Special Player Mentions
She was the only player making things happen for Tacon. Her dribbling ability made her more than a handful for Barcelona’s seasoned back line and her assist demonstrated her world class quality. She is a level above almost everyone in the squad.
Aside from the goal, she didn’t do much — but what a goal it was. Forget the quality of the header, she deserves a special mention simply for the significance of scoring the first goal in the history of Real Madrid’s women’s team.
It always feels odd to highlight a goalkeeper’s performance when so many goals are conceded, but none were her fault. If it weren’t for her, the score probably would’ve been 16-1. She made countless one-versus-one saves and was quick off her line in an attempt to diminish the consequences that arose from a lack of pressing.