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Performance analysis: How Spain won the Women's Nations League final

UEFA Technical Observer Nils Nielsen analyses Spain’s victory in the inaugural edition of the UEFA Women’s Nations League.

Mariona Caldentey (centre) of Spain celebrates with Athenea de Castillo (right) and Aitana Bonmati (left) after scoring
Mariona Caldentey (centre) of Spain celebrates with Athenea de Castillo (right) and Aitana Bonmati (left) after scoring Getty Images

Spain followed-up their FIFA World Cup triumph by defeating France for the first time in 14 attempts to lift the trophy at La Cartuja de Sevilla. In this article, Nils Nielsen reviews, in conjunction with UEFA's performance analysis team, some key tactical features of the world champions’ success, including exploiting trademark possession play, effective high pressing, midfield overloads and well-rehearsed set-play strategies.


High press disrupts France’s possession play

Spain pressed high throughout the final, mostly in 1-4-1-4-1 formation with striker Salma Paralluelo (7) aiming to guide France to one side, making their play-out more predictable and laying foundations for collective pressing on ball-side.

Women's Nations League final performance insight: Spain high regains

The first clip shows Spain’s Athenea de Castillo (22) pressing France defender Sakina Karchaoui (7) with Aitana Bonmatí (6) ready to pounce; two team-mates cutting off crossfield outlets; and Salma, initially covering centre-back Griedge Mbock Bathy (19), forces a hurried clearance when the ball is passed to the goalkeeper. This is taken by Mariona Caldentey (8) on Spain’s left and immediately converted into a scoring opportunity via a cut-back.

The second clip shows France goalkeeper unchallenged but with a trio of Spain players ready to intervene. Salma moves across when the ball is played to the right and the lofted clearance by Maëlle Lakrar (2) is intercepted by the well-positioned Spain midfielder Laia Aleixandri (14).

The third clip illustrates how Spain’s counterpress generated regains which, as Nils Nielsen commented, “Spain exploited more efficiently, generating many dangerous situations – which was something France very rarely did”. Spain’s through pass on the left is cut out but pressure on the ball provokes a long vertical clearance and, with players running back at speed, Aleixandri again reads the play, intercepts and re-launches an attacking move from the regain.

Spain’s possession play

“France never worked out how to deal with the brilliant Spain midfield,” Nils Nielsen noted, “where there was always a free player and no panic”. Spain’s asymmetric front line posed problems with Athenea (22) as a touchline right-winger whereas Caldentey, on the other flank, dropped inside to create central midfield overloads and open space for Jenni Hermoso (10) and left-back Olga Carmona (19) to exploit. In a game where both teams pressed high, Spain’s composure under pressure was a key feature.

The difference in attacking styles is illustrated by data in the first graphic, showing how many of Spain’s entries into the final third were via a penetrating inside pass, whereas France relied more heavily on wing play and, above all, individuals driving forward.

The second graphic demonstrates the more direct attacking style adopted by France with moves of five passes or less accounted for all but 3% of their entries into the final third – and 71% involved two passes or less. Spain presented a much more even graphic with their 21% of entries based on six passes or more illustrating a more patient approach.

Women's Nations League final performance insight: Spain in possession

The first clip shows how Spain, starting to build with the two centre-backs unchallenged, switch the ball from side to side with Aleixandri cleverly supporting right-back Ona Batlle (2) until, finally, six France players are drawn into Spanish territory but outnumbered in tight areas – initially 2v3 then 3v4 – followed by a switch of play to space on the right flank.

In the second clip, goalkeeper Cata Coll (1) rolls the ball wide to a 4v3 scenario with Bonmatí part of the diamond. There is great composure under pressure and Aleixandri intelligently moving forward to take the France striker out of the passing line, allowing Bonmatí to switch play, with Hermoso dropping deep and, under tight pressure, deliver a one-touch pass to set Caldentey running on the left.

Low-profile crossing

Spain’s performance in a match where their success rate in entering the penalty area was 42% compared with 26% by France, illustrated the team’s preference for avoiding aerial combat and, instead, creating danger with low crosses or cut-backs – a formula which provided four of their five goals in the semi-final and final.

Women's Nations League final performance insight: Spain low crosses

In the first clip, a high regain prompts a neat combination between Carmona and Hermoso on the left and, with centre-backs facing the danger, Bonmatí sprints into the central area ahead of Amandine Henry (6) to score, replicating the goal that had put Spain 2-0 ahead against the Dutch with, again, centre-backs pulled out of position, leaving a midfielder (Jackie Groenen) to make the despairing, unsuccessful attempt to prevent Bonmatí’s finish.

The second clip shows a Spain attack breaking down and a hasty clearance being intercepted by Aleixandri. She finds Bonmatí in her favourite pocket to create a 3v2 scenario that, with composure and precision, frees space for Athenea to deliver a low cross from the right.

The third clip starts with a goal kick touched to the Spain keeper, her long pass finding Caldentey on the left, moving inside to create space for Aleixandri’s upfield run and a low cross that the France keeper snatches away from two onrushing opponents.

Well-worked corners

Surprisingly, Spain created more danger at corner kicks than France, whose predominantly mix-zonal defence struggled to cope with blockers and runners. Spain set out to entice opponents out of the box by sending players close to the taker – Salma, who delivered all corners left-footed and produced three free headers by unmarked players.

Women's Nations League final performance insight: Spain corners

The first clip shows four France players distributed zonally in the goal area, while five Spain players congregate in the penalty box. Irene Paredes (4), shielded by two team-mates, breaks free to connect.

The second is an inswinger from the right and, with Hermoso and Caldentey engaging with opponents and attention focused on Paredes, it is Aleixandri who meets the delivery unopposed. Again, France defend 1v3 around the penalty spot.

The third is from the left, with three blocking manoeuvres – two on the near post and one near the penalty spot. This time, the free header is saved by the keeper.

Coaches' assessments

Montse Tomé, Spain coach: "I have a group with very experienced players and with new young players coming up; it’s a very positive mix that gives great energy and ambition. They have a winning mentality and we can also see that we can get the maximum potential out of them. France haven’t had a shot on goal and that’s a credit to all of the players."

Hervé Renard, France coach: "In the final 30 minutes we were a bit higher up the pitch and tried to apply more pressure, but it was tricky when these players are on the ball – they commit very few technical errors. The technical level is exceptional. When I coached Morocco, we were lucky enough to play Spain at the 2018 World Cup, with a midfield of Iniesta, Isco and Busquets. Today I had the impression I was seeing the same thing."

"These analysis articles form part of a strategy of translating findings from our senior club and national team competitions into actionable insights for elite youth development. By looking at trends from the Women’s Nations League, these articles can be used as an engine for player development across the European landscape."

UEFA’s Head of Technical Education & Development, Olivier Doglia

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