The lead-up to Real Madrid Femenino’s first match of the 2020/21 Primera Iberdrola season against FC Barcelona Femení was surreal. Yes, because we’re in a pandemic and because this game might not have been played at all, but also because it was a beginning on top of a beginning.
Technically, Madrid’s women’s team had already debuted against the same opponent last year, suffering a 9-1 thrashing against a side that would go Invincible in the shortened campaign. Yet, today was treated as the grand opening. The hype from the press was more tangible, the social media promos were better, and more people were watching.
It turns out that naming your team after the club is less confusing and better for the brand. Who knew?!
The palpable excitement generated by the true start of Las Blancas will have been dimmed slightly by the 4-0 loss to a loathed rival, but there were many signs of a bright future ahead in that performance.
David Aznar made some interesting decisions, abandoning his 4-4-2 from last season and playing Kosovare Asllani as the lone center forward. New signings Marta Cardona and Olga Carmona played out wide with their strong foot near the touchline, while Aznar picked a fluid midfield trio; Maite Oroz and Teresa Abelleira provided the technical quality and Kaci the grit. In the last line, the versatile Babett Peter slotted in at left center-back next to offseason upgrades Ivana Andrés and Kenti Robles. Marta Corredera, a nominal right back, played on the left, presumably for her experience and overall quality compared to her competitors.
Barcelona head coach Lluís Cortés sprung less surprises — the exception being Jenni Hermoso up top. She was the league’s top goal scorer last season, but operated from an advanced right central midfield role that allowed her to kill opposition back lines with her late runs into the box. Drowning in riches, Cortés plugged Aitana in the center of the park, knowing that she could replicate Hermoso’s aggressive off-ball mentality.
Misa Keeps Real Madrid in the Game
María Isabel Rodríguez, better known as “Misa,” quickly became a fan favorite before even kicking a ball thanks to her charisma and suave personality. Madridistas will only love her more after her legendary first half performance, even if she was less than perfect in the second half.
Before the break, Misa saved a direct free-kick destined for the bottom corner, tipped over a long shot heading for the top corner, denied Torrejón, who had gotten clear in the box, apparated towards the ~30 yard line to deny a 1v1, and kept out a header.
Of course, an active goalkeeper is also a sign that the other team is dominating, though Barcelona were probably less incisive than they would’ve liked in the first half (their standards are high). With one of Maite Oroz or Aurélie Kaci stepping up alongside Asllani, Madrid managed to congest the space between the lines and hinder Barcelona from progressing towards the box with too much ease.
Nevertheless, the warning signs were there, as Aitana barely missed contact with a cross following an untracked run into the penalty area in the 16th minute. A few moments later, Barcelona drew first blood, thanks to a deflected shot from Patri Guijarro.
The goal itself was a bit fortunate, but there was little luck in Barcelona’s approach and in the build-up to the opener. As they grew into the game, La Blaugrana began to find their rhythm and exploit Madrid’s excessive ball-oriented shape. With too much of the team shifting over to the player in possession, Barcelona were able to play through and back, before switching to a player on the far side.
This strategy put the likes of Caroline Graham Hansen in dangerous 1v1 positions — a death sentence for any defense. If, by some miracle, she couldn’t beat her mark or pull off the final ball, Barcelona immediately counterpressed in numbers and with intensity to win possession back.
Barcelona Dominate Thanks to a Finely-Tuned High Press
In the few opportunities Madrid had to build from the back, Barcelona pressed high:
The scheme was especially visible on goal kicks, where Barcelona created a pressing trap on Madrid’s left-hand side; Aitana stepped out of midfield to guard whoever dropped (usually Teresa and, occasionally, Maite Oroz), while Hermoso shadowed Ivana, and Hansen pinched inwards to dissuade a vertical pass to the LCM.
As soon as Misa made the pass to Peter, Barcelona’s entire structure shifted over to the wing, seeking to hem Las Blancas in.
The press was expertly executed and even the best of teams would’ve struggled to play out of it, but Madrid seemed to lack a clear plan of what to do when it was sprung. Players wasted precious milliseconds wondering who to pass to and there was no support for runners going off-the-shoulder when they finally decided to go direct. This can be put down to a lack of chemistry, though Aznar’s tactical credentials remain questionable based on the evidence of last season.
Regardless of the cause, Madrid barely managed to enter Barca’s half aside from a brief salvo in the 25-28 minute period. The first opportunity arrived after a quick free-kick, allowing Kaci to fire off Madrid’s first shot of the game from a tough angle. A couple hundred seconds or so later, Kenti Robles cut inside from the right, barnstormed her way across the box, and put a shot on goal that Asllani tapped in.
Es que es de risa de verdad, Paños nunca tiene control del balón— Brandon (@esquivl10rm) October 4, 2020
For reasons still unclear to me (if anything, Paños fouled Asllani), the goal was ruled out and Barcelona were able to go into the tunnel up 1-0.
Barcelona Tighten the Noose
Madrid came out with some spirit in the 2nd half, winning more duels and managing to spring an excellent counter-attack in the 54th minute. But the fundamental reasons behind the potency of attacking transitions — disorganization and space — can quickly become lethal for the team launching them if things don’t pan out. In this case, Maite Oroz probably chose the wrong option in Asllani, who had a defender ahead of her unlike the onrushing Cardona.
Barcelona ably dealt with the cross and launched a counter of their own, easily finding Hansen on the right-hand side. With no one in position to help, the tricky Norwegian winger dipped her shoulder and glided past Corredera before releasing a cut-back. The ball bounced off of Misa’s foot and onto Babett Peter, before rebounding back off Misa and into the net. For all of Hansen’s great work, her delivery was nowhere near a red and blue shirt and she was fortunate that it resulted in end-product.
With the wind in their sails, Barcelona soon built on their advantage off of a vintage sequence:
They quickly moved the point of the attack wide to Torrejón, as they so often do, and hustled to offer near-side support. Madrid’s players gravitated towards the ball, with the exception of Corredera, allowing Hansen to receive the ball in space and charge towards the box. Torréjon took advantage and burst down the overlap, getting off a free cross as substitute Lieke Martens came inside on the blind-side of the defense. For once, Misa was found wanting, as she got her hand to the ball but let it slip through.
Sofia Jakobsson Resuscitates the Team
It’s impressive how Madrid continued to fight and look for a goal despite all the deflating events that had occurred beforehand. Asllani, playing in a rather unsuitable pure number 9 role, continued to work the channels, and Madrid tried to leverage their upgraded technical ability by attempting to play through a less interested press and by striving to hit tight windows in hope of a miracle.
Their efforts were aided by the entrance of CD Tacón’s 2019/20 MVP, Sofia Jakobsson — who was strangely dropped from the eleven and probably should’ve come on earlier — for Olga Carmona in the 70th minute. She swapped wings with Cardona and the two of them gave Madrid life in transition.
Jakobsson’s ball carrying ability and willingness to make direct runs were an instant boon and she nearly fashioned a consolation prize in the 74th minute.
Cardona should’ve done better, but overall she looked rejuvenated on the left. Now able to juke her way inside onto her stronger foot, she retained possession well against pressure and allowed Madrid to spend some time in the final third.
Sensing that they had lost a measure of control and that Madrid were not going to make the final minutes easy, Barcelona refocused themselves and killed the game.
Once again, Hansen found herself 1v1 and once again she picked out another teammate — this time, Alexia.
With Las Blancas’ spark finally extinguished, Cortés made a string of changes to give his starters a well-earned rest. Aznar followed suit and brought off Asllani for Lorena Navarro.
Such a comprehensive defeat was not a surprise. Barcelona are far and away the best team in the division and have spent years implementing great recruitment and tactical planning to get to this point. One day, Madrid will be able to challenge them — but today is not that day.
In that context, there are some positives to take away. Misa was outstanding outside of a minor error on the third goal and Kenti Robles showed why she’s been a part of league-winning sides in the past with some of her on-ball runs.
There were also promising glimpses of technical quality in midfield through the haze of Barca’s press, as Maite Oroz and Teresa showed off their “pausa.”
There are also some fair criticisms to be levied. For all that can be said about lack of chemistry and match prep, one can still expect higher standards of off-ball organization. Madrid seemed to play into Barcelona’s hands, at times, thanks to the former’s aggressive ball-oriented mentality, and always seemed to lose sight of the late runner into the box.
Additionally, it is unclear how Aznar plans to maximize Asllani — potentially his best player. Over the course of last season and including this game, Asllani has appeared isolated and far below her best. That is because she is often asked to do the work of a traditional forward — running channels and occupying the CB’s — when she’s really more of a false nine or shadow striker.
Perhaps the 4-3-3 with Asllani up top was specific to Barcelona, but, given the sample size from 2019/20, it’s fair to question whether Aznar knows how to get the best out of his biggest game-changing talent.