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Women's Champions League tactical analysis: Brann 1-2 Barcelona

UEFA technical observer Gemma Grainger outlines how the Spanish side penned in the hosts in their quarter-final first leg.

Lucy Bronze strides forwards for Barcelona in Bergen
Lucy Bronze strides forwards for Barcelona in Bergen UEFA via Getty Images

UEFA technical observer Gemma Grainger gave credit to Brann's defensive resilience as the Norwegian team made Barcelona work hard for a one-goal winning margin in Bergen.

The home team, who had enjoyed over 60% of the ball in five of their six group games, successfully adjusted mindsets to out-of-possession play during a game when the current champions were dominant with a 71% share.

As it happened: Brann 1-2 Barcelona

Grainger, head coach of the Norway national team, focused on three aspects of Barcelona's play that helped convert the match into an attacking monologue.

"Barça had many chances during the first half," she commented. "But they only converted one of them, whereas Brann scored from their first attempt. That came when their No7, Rakel Engesvik, did well to hold up the ball for her team to get into position and the equaliser gave them hope and more self-belief in their ability to hold firm in defence."

It was one of the few occasions when the hosts managed to play out of their own half during a first half when the visitors had 23 goal attempts to Brann's two. The home team restricted Barça to nine attempts after the break but generated none of their own.

Barcelona undermine construction work

During the group phase, Brann had impressed with their ability to build through the thirds. Barcelona were determined to prevent them from doing so – as illustrated by the first video showing their set-up against Brann goal-kicks.

Women's Champions League tactical analysis: Barcelona disrupt Brann’s build-up

The first clip shows the Barça outfielders deployed in 4-1-3-2 formation, all in Brann territory. When Brann play the ball to the right, the visitors respond with seven players in that area, forcing the ball back to the keeper who, seeing no options due to Barça's close individual marking, is hurried into a long clearance comfortably controlled by Ona Batlle and immediately translated by a forward pass into an attempt at goal.

The second scenario is similar with all the Barcelona outfielders crowding their left flank, provoking a high regain and immediately heading for goal. The final clip in this section shows Brann keeper Aurora Mikalsen (who kept her team in the game with decisive saves) playing to the left, prompting the opponents to press in two four-player diamonds; recover the ball; and play it back to their own keeper to reinitiate an attack.

"Barcelona's compact high pressing with overloads in small areas was one of the keys to their ability to dominate from start to finish," said Grainger. Intense high pressure forced the home team to make 37 hopeful clearances, compared to one by the defending champions. In this game, 15% of Brann's passes were long – their highest percentage of the season.

Barça on the ball

Of Barcelona's 821 passes (with a completion rate of 91%), 398 were in Brann's defensive third – more than Brann's total of 344 over the whole pitch. The visitors played into the opposition's box 61 times; the home team, only four. "Yet Brann did try to press 3-4-3," Grainger remarked, "especially when the Barcelona keeper had the ball. It was a brave strategy." However, it did not produce many rewards, as the visitors were good at finding solutions.

Women's Champions League tactical analysis: Barcelona overcoming the press

The first clip of the second video shows Brann clearly divided into two departments: three at the back, seven upfield, and a large unpopulated area between the two units. Barça's response is a long pass through the open space to Mariona Caldentey (constantly floating across the front line and rotating with Salma Paralluelo in central attacker positions), who shields the ball while support floods forward, with runs ahead of the ball paving the way for a shot at goal.

The next clip shows Barcelona's strategy when confronted with a narrow 5-4-1 defensive block. The response is a pass to the right with Keira Walsh and then Aitana Bonmatí offering to receive in an inside channel. The latter's appearance draws out two defenders, opening a space for her to receive from Caroline Graham Hansen and square the ball for Paralluelo to hit the winning goal – her sixth of the campaign.

The final clip in this video once again shows Brann in their deep defensive block with Barcelona trying to undermine their compactness with a 2v1 scenario on the left. A patient interchange of passes leads to another stretching ploy via a switch of play to the other flank, where a series of trademark darting runs aims to distort Brann's defensive shape. On this occasion, however, the home team maintains sufficient cover in the central area of the box to stifle the shot at goal by Paralluelo.

Barcelona's intelligent use of the wide areas generated 26 crosses in open play, while the hosts delivered two.

High line and high standards

"One of the striking features of the game was Barcelona's rest defence, with the image of their two centre-backs within 35 metres or so of the Brann goal-line," Grainger reflected. "It kept the whole unit extremely compact and laid the foundations for some really effective counter-pressing."

Women's Champions League tactical analysis: Defence is the best form of attack

The opening clip in this video starts with five Barcelona players spread across the Brann penalty area in an attacking scenario, while the ball is with a sixth on the left flank. As Grainger points out, the interesting image is the holders' resting-defence set-up against a home team with all 11 in their defensive third. The advanced positions of their defenders allowed Barça to use the back three in their passing interchanges as they seek routes through the defensive block. In this case the ball is played to right-back Lucy Bronze but when the move is broken up by a tackle, Barcelona immediately switch into counter-press mode with pressure on Mikalsen forcing the goalkeeper to boot the ball into touch.

The second clip illustrates similarly effective counter-pressing following another sequence of passes involving an exceptionally high defensive line of three. In this case, a vertical forward pass is intercepted, triggering collective counter-pressing with the ball-carrier rapidly crowded out by a mix of defenders and midfielders. Within seconds, possession is regained and another wave of attacking play surges towards the Brann goal.

"I think Barcelona's ability to smother Brann's attempts to counter with a mix of counter-pressing and high regains was one of the keys to this game," Grainger reflects. "And this level of the Champions League is where the best players can make the difference. Caroline Graham Hansen won our Player of the Match award because she made a decisive contribution – not only scoring the first goal but also delivering one of the key passes in the build-up to the winning goal and generally combining well with Bronze on the right flank."

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