Chelsea: How can Emma Hayes overcome balanced Barcelona in the UWCL final?

Chelsea Women and Barcelona Women will meet on Sunday for the long-awaited UEFA Women’s Champions League final at Gamla Ullevi in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Both teams reached the final with convincing performances against some of the best European teams including Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich for Chelsea and Manchester City, PSG for Barcelona.

In this tactical analysis article by Selim Ben Hmida, we will look at both teams’ probable formations and line-ups before moving to an in-depth analysis of Chelsea’s attacking tactics and a look at Barcelona’s weapons to counter their opponent’s attacks relying on their organised defence and dangerous attacking plans.

Probable line-ups

Emma Hayes will most likely start the game with the 4-3-3 formation for this match as she did against Bayern Munich but as we have seen in previous games, this formation can change in the course of the match especially in attack since Kerr, Harder, and Kirby often exchange roles and positions to confuse defences and create spaces for each other. They would start with Ann-Katrin Berger as a goalkeeper, Jessica Carter as a right-back instead of the injured Maren Mjelde, Millie Bright, Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson or Niamh Charles as a left-back.

The midfield will be formed of Sophie Ingle, Melanie Leupolz and Ji So-yun as central midfielders, with Pernille Harder playing as a false nine and Sam Kerr alternating between moving to the left-wing and joining Harder inside the penalty area, while Fran Kirby would be the right-winger who becomes a second striker at times and plays so close to Harder and Kerr.

Lluís Cortés would also start according to a similar formation, the 4-1-4-1 which often becomes a 4-3-3 formation. This one was Barcelona’s most used formation this season and the team had great results when adopting it. And they would start the game with Sandra Paños as a goalkeeper, Marta Torrejón, Andrea Pereira, Mapi León, and Leila Ouahabi in defence, a midfield composed of Patricia Guijarro, Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí, and front three including Caroline Graham Hansen as a right winger, Lieke Martens on the left wing and Jennifer Hermoso as a striker, leaving Asisat Oshoala as an impactful sub during the game.

Chelsea’s key weapons + errors to avoid

Chelsea will be facing a very balanced team this time in a single match that will decide the winner of the tournament, therefore, the situation will be totally different from the previous games and the Blues will have to adapt to such circumstances. They will need to be very cautious at the back to avoid early goals and reduce Barcelona’s attacking threat since this would allow Chelsea to keep focused on scoring the leading goal and not just trying to equalise. Moreover, if Chelsea decide to press high from the first minute, they will have to be very careful to not commit marking mistakes at the back because if Barcelona overcome the high pressing, their wingers will more likely have a lot of free spaces in front of them and this could be harmful to Chelsea’s defence.

In fact, Chelsea have been suffering when defending against teams who rely on quick wingers and play good attacking football, maybe one of the most notable examples is Wolfsburg. Chelsea failed to mark their wingers tightly and this was a big risk, especially during the first leg of the quarter-finals. Just like you can see in this example, Wolfsburg’s winger was running freely on the right-wing and both Andersson and Eriksson were unable to catch her since they were already too distant from her, and if such mistakes happen against a player like Hansen, Barcelona will surely be more clinical than Wolfsburg since Hermoso will be waiting for such chances inside the box and Hansen’s crosses/through passes are usually accurate.

Moreover, Chelsea’s defenders will also make sure that they mark Barcelona’s players tightly during set-pieces and even in open play since many of the goals they conceded this season were due to poor marking inside the box, just like what happened here against Manchester City when Lauren Hemp was trying to cross the ball and Chloe Kelly got away from Andersson easily and scored a goal. Such mistakes happened a lot for Chelsea especially during corners, and they need to be more attentive than usual regarding this aspect if they want to avoid conceding goals.

In terms of attacking plans, Chelsea will need to first make sure they get possession of the ball since Barcelona are not a team that gives away the ball easily. On the contrary, they have a 68.31% possession average, which is a huge number even when compared to Chelsea’s percentage; 58.29%. This implies that high pressing will be necessary to prevent Barcelona from keeping hold of the ball for so long and building up the way they want. And because this high pressing will be risky, Chelsea will need to be very quick in exploiting any interceptions in their favour by relying on Ji, Leupolz and Ingle’s passes and the front three’s fast passing exchanges and movements, otherwise, they will not be able to create many chances.

In this regard, Harder and Kirby’s movements without the ball between their opponents’ defensive lines will more likely create the difference like they did before on many occasions. And just like in this example, Kirby is intelligent enough to position herself in key spots whenever the midfielders intercept the ball. Such movement can be the centre of a whole attacking action because when Ji here sees Kirby waiting for a pass, she immediately gives her the ball, and this automatically triggers Harder and Kerr’s movements towards different spots to give instant passing options for Kirby.

As soon Kirby gives the pass to one of the two attackers, she also runs towards the box while knowing that she might receive a pass and therefore she prepares herself to shoot at any second. This chemistry, quick passing combinations and more importantly the movements without the ball can be fundamental keys for Chelsea to beat Barcelona’s defence given that they keep the same finishing accuracy of the past few games.

Barcelona’s tactical plans

Barcelona would more likely start the game trying to impose their game and relying on the strong midfield that they have to ensure they keep possession of the ball and prevent Chelsea from attacking while at the same time try to exploit Hansen and Martens’s efficiency and pace on the wings. The latter was already crucial in breaking Paris Saint Germain’s defence twice and can also cause troubles to Chelsea in the final by dribbling past her direct opponent and shooting, as she did in this goal action. But what is more important here is the cross behind PSG’s defensive line and the quick movement of Martens without the ball to win some precious seconds over her marker.

Barcelona will try to keep their wingers as wide as possible when attacking, however, when they reach the box, one of the wingers would join Hermoso inside the box and the other attracts defenders from the wing and crosses at the right time to both Barcelona players who would more likely be able to shoot freely. Alternating between this and the reliance on Hermoso’s efforts would create much danger for any opposing team especially when taking into consideration the fact that players like Putellas are excellent in shooting from distance and this can also be a possible weapon to try if things don’t work in attack.

Hermoso’s movements inside the box can also be fruitful for Barcelona if she gets the necessary passes at the right time. Hansen and Putellas usually serve her with accurate through passes and crosses while Spanish international does not disappoint when given such opportunities. It is obvious in the following pictures how Hansen and Putellas look for Hermoso as soon as they get the ball and they almost automatically give her passes. Hermoso’s finishing skills can harm Chelsea in the final either by headers or shots, even though both Bright and Eriksson will do their best to disturb her and prevent her from getting the ball freely.

Barcelona’s mission however will be more complicated in defence however since they will have to stop one of Europe’s most creative and dangerous attacks led by Kerr, Kirby and Harder. Despite León and Pereira’s aggressivity and tactical maturity, defending against three dynamic players who exchange positions continuously and play with one or two touches so often will certainly be challenging for Barcelona’s back-line. Torrejón and Ouahabi will also need to stay attentive for the whole game and help the two centre-backs in closing down Chelsea’s players because they usually rely on attacking from the middle, which means that both full-backs will need to prevent these players from penetrating inside the box especially when coming from the wings.

At the same time, Guijarro, Putellas and Bonmatí’s role will be very important when out of possession since these three players would avoid letting Chelsea’s attackers stay between the lines and intercept the passes going their way to save the back-line from the huge threat that may occur following such passes. Moreover, Putellas and Bonmatí will have attacking roles as well since they will be much needed in midfield when having possession, to find the unmarked players, give them passes and support them by giving passing options upfront and inside the box when possible.

Conclusion

The UEFA Women’s Champions League final will be an intense one this season with both teams playing entertaining football and having some of the best players in Europe. It will be a tough mission for either teams with a slight advantage for Chelsea given their excellent run of form during this last part of the season and especially thanks to their powerful attacking performances.

But at the same time, Barcelona proved that they are no less than Chelsea in terms of attacking and defending as well and this was clear during their semi-final and quarter-final games. In fact, Barcelona’s defensive organisation and aggressivity is what Chelsea still lacks even though the latter put on some solid defensive performances lately.

This article was originally published on Total Football Analysis