Three successive titles don’t lie. Olympique Lyonnais re-asserted their status at the peak of European club football, while VfL Wolfsburg travelled home to Germany with the bitter aftertaste of another defeat at the hands of the team that had beaten them in the 2016 final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. With such a firmly established European hierarchy, the question to be re-fuelled by the final in Kyiv was what can be done elsewhere to challenge the elite. “The first thing,” commented Monika Staab when the team of UEFA Technical Observers met on the morning after the final, “is that the match demonstrated that no other team can match the Lyon bench.” “Teams like Barcelona and Manchester City are trying to challenge at the top,” Jarmo Matikainen added. “But, in playing terms, we are seeing that one of the factors is that so many teams are not used to high pressing and don’t really know how to cope with it. If you want to challenge the best, you need to start finding solutions – and maybe this is a problem that a lot of teams don’t encounter in their national leagues.”
After Lyon’s sustained high pressing had wreaked devastating effects on opponents in earlier rounds, it was also a key factor at the sharp end of the competition. In the semi-final against Manchester City, for example, Reynald Pedros’ team regained possession in City territory 27 times in Manchester and 29 times at home – compared with 11 and 8 times respectively by their opponents. The UEFA observer in Lyon noted “City had a problems in retaining ball possession and they were forced into a large number of passing errors when trying to play their way out.” City’s investments in high pressing had paid handsome dividends in the previous round against Linköping and, as Monika Staab had observed, “Linköping exerted no pressure up front, making it easier for City to play their way out.” But, as the statistics indicate, City’s high pressing was more poorly rewarded when attempted against the technically-gifted Lyon players. The importance of technical abilities in tight situations was illustrated by Lyon’s quarter-final against FC Barcelona, when their tally of high regains was also healthy, but Spanish levels of skill equipped Fran Sánchez’s team to remain confident and composed in possession in the face of sustained high pressure. “They had good connections between lines,” said Jarmo Matikainen, “and Lieke Martens was especially good at getting into pockets to receive.”
Wolfsburg were less assiduous in their high pressing, doing so only on occasions rather than systematically in the final. They also adopted a conservative approach during the semi-final against a Chelsea side that “dominated possession with a patient build-up from the back to entice the opposition to press.” One of the interesting facets of Wolfsburg’s quarter-final against Slavia Praha was that, in the first leg in Germany, both teams set out to press high. But, for the Czech team, the high-intensity pressing game was unsustainable over the 90 minutes and their first-half efforts were undermined when the home team exploited spaces between lines to find escape routes. At the other end of the pitch, Slavia set out to build through their centre-backs but, with the home team pressing aggressively, they found themselves obliged to play into enemy hands by hitting long balls towards the flanks – almost all of them comfortably intercepted by the Wolfsburg midfielders. In the return match, Pavel Medynsky opted for aggressive lower pressing in midfield which allowed his team to defend in more compact fashion – and earn a very creditable draw against the silver-medallists. In the final, Lyon won the ball in opposition territory only 13 times; Wolfsburg 11.
“I think that, overall, teams’ in-possession qualities were not really good enough to play out from high pressing,” Jarmo Matikainen remarked. “Teams need to find ways to avoid playing long or, at least, to develop mechanisms that will make longer options more effective.” Anja Palusevic remarked “Wolfsburg had a clear strategy: they would only build from the back if they were not being pressed. If they were, the Plan B would usually be to play to Nilla Fischer for her to play a long diagonal pass to the flank.” “I think we should recognise that the long pass to the wide areas is a valid option,” Carolina Morace added. “And the other dimension is that if you throw players forward to press high, you need to back this with well-organised defensive mechanisms so that your team retains its shape.”
Back to basics
“As a coach,” Hope Powell conceded, “it’s easy to overlook the importance of the basics. If you want to build a competitive team, you need to spend training-ground time on the first touch, body postures when receiving the ball and so on. We’ve been talking about – even at this level – the number of passes going astray and, many times, it’s because of basic abilities.” As a statistical reference point, it may be useful to point out that Lyon hit 564 passes with a completion rate (reception by a team-mate rather than an opponent) of 80% in the home leg of the quarter-final against Barcelona, whose tallies were 524 and 81% respectively. Over the two legs of the semi-final against Manchester City, Lyon executed 1.033 passes with a completion rate of 83% (922 and 81% by City). By contrast, Montpellier’s success rate in the home game against Chelsea was 72%, while the latter, in the semi-final against Wolfsburg, hit 832 passes with a success rate of 72%. The German team played 829 passes with a completion rate of 73%. In the final, the accuracy of passing was 75% for Wolfsburg and 79% by Lyon.
By way of reference, finalists Real Madrid and Liverpool averaged 89% and 84% respectively over the season and the overall passing accuracy among the 32 contestants in the men’s equivalent competition was 85%.
As Carolina Morace reflected, “This links with the point we were making before, because some players still have difficulties to hit an accurate long pass. If we want teams to play attractive football, we have to train players in the right way and to work on their agility and fluidity of movement.” “At EURO 2017,” Jarmo Matikainen agreed, “we were impressed by top athletes and we need to transfer those standards into club football. And, when it comes to competing at the highest level, we need to ask what the requirements are in our domestic leagues and what sort of demands are going to be made when we step into the Champions League.”
Morace’s reference to long passing can be backed by statistics. Of Lyon’s 564 passes in the home leg against Barcelona, for example, only 2% were long. The figure for the visitors was 4.6%. During the two legs of the Lyon v Manchester City semi-final, the percentage for both teams was between 6% and 7%. On the other hand, the other semi-final provided figures more similar to parameters in the men’s competition, with both Chelsea’s and Wolfsburg’s percentages creeping into double figures. In the final, however, long deliveries accounted for 8% of Wolfsburg’s passing and 6% of Lyon’s. The search for role models in the art of long passing could easily begin with Wolfsburg’s Nilla Fischer and Manchester City’s Stephanie Houghton, both excellent providers of accurate passes over distance.
Bend me, shape me
Structural flexibility was almost the norm among the top teams. Linköping switched between 1-4-4-2 and 1-4-2-3-1 against Manchester City; Montpellier switched from 1-4-4-2 to 1-3-5-2 when chasing the result against Chelsea. The latter forsook their habitual 1-3-4-3 for a 1-4-2-3-1 structure when they entertained Wolfsburg; Slavia Praha permuted 1-4-2-3-1 with 1-4-4-1-1; Wolfsburg, although basically loyal to their 1-4-2-3-1, did change momentarily to 1-4-4-2 against Slavia. FC Barcelona stuck to a 1-4-4-2 formation, as did Lyon, except for the switch to 1-4-1-4-1 to protect the favourable result in Barcelona and the effective switch to a midfield diamond for the return leg of the semi-final against Manchester City’s 1-4-3-3, deploying Camille Abily at the cutting edge behind the two strikers, Ada Hegerberg and Eugénie Le Sommer. The use of the diamond not only laid foundations for domination in midfield but also opened wide channels for attacking runs by the full-backs.
In other words, structures metamorphosed frequently in response to the characteristics of the opposition. The debating point is to what extent this is appropriate – compared with Zinédine Zidane’s policy at Real Madrid: “our game does not change, no matter who the opponent is. All we do is to inform the players about our opponents’ individual characteristics to make them aware of specific responses.”
Less visible than the structural changes was positional flexibility. Wolfsburg might point to Alexandra Popp’s permutations between screening midfielder and advanced roles as an example but, again, Lyon set the benchmarks – the riches of the champions’ squad allowing Reynald Pedros many options. “I have to raise my hat to Lyon,” Jarmo Matikainen admitted, “because the players change roles so seamlessly. In Barcelona, important positional changes stabilised the team and posed new problems to the opposition. The team was blessed with so many options – as we saw during the final when Shanice van de Sanden came on to inject pace on the right wing when playing against ten. We all saw the big impact that she made.”
Most teams, however, were more rigid in their positional strategy. “I think some teams are so dominant in their national leagues that they don’t see a need to change,” Anja Palusevic opined. “I missed that element of freedom within a playing system. And I believe that when you step up to this high level it demands a degree of flexibility.”
Spreading the wings
The presence of Shanice van de Sanden on the Lyon bench served as a reminder that genuine wingers are no longer automatic inclusions in starting line-ups. Manchester City provided an exception to the rule, fielding Melissa Lawley, initially on the right, and Anita Parris as fast, agile, interchanging wingers always ready to try their 1 v 1 skills and determined to find routes into the areas behind the back line. However the scarcity of the 1-4-3-3 structure among the top teams hinted at a trend towards wide midfielders rather than genuine wingers.
“For my personal taste,” Carolina Morace commented, “I would have liked to see greater attacking movement in the 1-4-2-3-1 formations. We expect to see teams attack with the full-backs, but sometimes the synchronisation of movements was not that great. And if you play with three centre-backs you obviously put a great burden on the wing-backs.” The challenge at development levels is to develop the full-backs’ job descriptions in terms of their contribution to attacking play without compromising defensive qualities. Again, Lyon provide a prime example in Lucy Bronze, who displayed outstanding athleticism at right-back, supported attacks, won the 1 v 1 contests and delivered good passes. She set up the crucial winning goal at home to Barcelona and scored the only goal of the semi-final against her former club, cutting inside to connect with a brilliant volley into the far corner of the Manchester City net.
The guardians of the net
Whereas EURO 2017 had sown doubts about progress in goalkeeping skills, the UEFA Women’s Champions League served to allay them. When the UEFA team pooled their observations in Kyiv, there was general agreement that the standard among the top teams in the club competition was higher – to the extent that there was ample debate before naming Barcelona’s Sandra Paños and Wolfsburg’s Almuth Schult in the Squad of the Season. “There has been good work by goalkeeper coaches,” Anja Palusevic remarked. “I saw Wolfsburg many times during the season and I think Schult is a great example. Over the years I’ve seen an incredible development because of good work on the physical and technical aspects of the job. She now has presence and composure and she has made a big impact on the success of the team.”
In Kyiv, there was comment on the (very) gradual emergence of female GK coaches, with Monika Staab mentioning “a lot of keepers will actually tell you they prefer male GK coaches because they can test them better with the power of their shooting. But I will endorse what Anja says about the work being done – you can see that warm-ups, for example, are of very professional standards. I think that, these days, it’s crucial to develop goalkeepers who, apart from shot-stopping, can pass accurately with hands and with both feet.” “We should also help them to refine their decision-making about when to build from the back and when to go for the quick transition,” Carolina Morace added.
The other side of the coin
Does praise for goalkeepers imply doubts about the quality of finishing? Once again, as the competition climbed towards the summit in Kyiv, the number of goals dwindled. Although Lyon were the competition’s most prolific scorers, their goalscoring pattern was, once again, disconcerting: 30 goals in the first four games; four in the next four before travelling to Kyiv. Then 97 minutes without scoring, followed by four in nine minutes against ten. In the previous season under Gérard Prêcheur, they failed to score in three of their last four games – and did likewise at the final in Cardiff. After three hours of football in this season’s semi-final between Manchester City and Lyon had yielded a single goal, the observers commented “if anything, Lyon should have been more clinical in the final third. They enjoyed so much possession in useful areas and created so many good situations…” In overall ball possession, Lyon certainly enjoyed 54% and 59% in the two games against Manchester City but only 51% against Barcelona. In the final against Wolfsburg, they had 53%.
During the semi-final against Manchester City, Lyon mounted 234 attacks, of which 44 ended in goal attempts. Only six of City’s 133 attacks produced a shot at goal. Chelsea managed 12 from 183 in the two games against Wolfsburg, who registered 35 from 204. Comments about Montpellier being let down by wayward finishing were borne out by a balance of 39 on-target attempts – only one-third of the French club’s total of 118.
Yet the overall scoring rate, superficially at least, registered healthy levels. The 10 qualifying groups yielded 237 goals at 3.95 per match (the drop from 4.74 in the previous season could be interpreted as a positive trend in terms of competitivity), while the knockout rounds offered spectators 212 goals at an average of 3.48 per match. This compares with 3.21 in the previous season.
If the group games are included, the overall balance for 2017/18 was 449 goals at 3.71 per game.
The table shows the average number of attempts required by the competition’s top eight teams to manufacture a goal.
In individual terms, the record tally of 15 goals by Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg offers a contrast with 2016/17 when nobody scored more than eight. Of the Norway striker’s 53 attempts, 28 were on target. Her nearest pursuer, Wolfsburg’s Pernille Harder, posted six assists to add to her eight goals, while Lyon’s Camille Abily was also the provider of five goals in addition to the six she scored. In the Wolfsburg ranks, Alexandra Popp supplied six assists as well as four goals; Caroline Graham Hansen five assists and two goals. Shanice van de Sanden ended the season with a remarkable balance of zero goals + six assists during the 190 minutes the Dutch winger contributed to Lyon’s title-winning campaign.
Manchester City FC
SK Slavia Praha
Of the 212 goals scored in the knockout rounds, 89 hit the net during the first half; 118 during the second half; and, of course, five during extra-time in Kyiv. Once again, the fact that the final 15 minutes were not the most fruitful supports theories that fitness levels continue to improve. And one striking difference is that only one goal was scored in added-time after the 90 minutes, compared with 11 in 2016/17.
The 39 goals scored from the quarter-finals onwards represent a small cross-section. But, whereas one-third of the goals scored during the same segment of the 2016/17 season had stemmed from set plays, the figure for 2017/18 was significantly lower at 18%. No goals were scored directly or indirectly from free kicks, raising questions about the development of this specialised skill. The nearest approximation was the own goal which went into Wolfsburg’s credit column when a free kick was turned into the net by a Chelsea player. Three of the dead-ball successes were penalties (two for Manchester City; one for Chelsea) with the other four stemming from corner kicks. This represents a dividend of one goal per 35.5 corners – halving the ratio of 1:76 registered at EURO 2017. All four of the corners were converted by headers.Decimal points account for the extra 1%
Among the open-play goals, 58% had their origin in the wide areas, with half of those successes down to cut-backs. Two were from diagonal balls into the box (Slavia Praha’s opener at home to Wolfsburg and the latter’s second at home to Chelsea) with the remainder coming from crosses. There was only one goal from long range (Pernille Harder’s shot which put Wolfsburg 4-0 ahead against Slavia). Advanced ball-winning was, once again, influential. Chelsea’s opener during the 0-2 win in Montpellier was a high interception and an immediate through pass. A similar scenario gave Emma Hayes’ team the opener in the home leg – Fran Kirby running clear after intercepting a crossfield run by an opponent. And Lyon’s winner at home to Barcelona stemmed from an intercepted clearance allowing Shanice van de Sanden to deliver a trademark cut-back which was to be repeated during the final which allowed Lyon to re-assert their supremacy with a hat-trick of UEFA Women’s Champions League victories.