The official website for European football

Technical topics

Technical topics
The Barcelona-Paris quarter-final offered an interesting tactical insight ©Getty Images

Technical topics

“If we are looking for the longer-term perspectives,” reflected Anna Signeul when the team of technical observers met in Milan on the day after the final, “I would highlight the trend away from building teams around one or two players. Now, the Champions League reflects a greater emphasis on creating strong, all-round teams. The stars are still there, but they don’t shine quite so brightly because the overall standard has gone up.”

I would highlight the trend away from building teams around one or two players. Now, the Champions League reflects a greater emphasis on creating strong, all-round teams. The stars are still there, but they don’t shine quite so brightly because the overall standard has gone up
UEFA technical observer Anna Signeul
In the past you saw one-speed games. Nowadays athletic condition and tactical awareness have improved and teams are equipped to change the tempo of the game
UEFA technical observer Hesterine de Reus
We saw a lot of positional interchanging but the core of the back line remained stable
Hope Powell on the difference between defence and the rest of the team

Hesterine de Reus added: “In the past you saw one-speed games. Nowadays athletic condition and tactical awareness have improved and teams are equipped to change the tempo of the game.”

Among the top eight teams of the 2015/16 season, overall strength certainly held sway over individual stardom, even though the quarter-finalists possessed diverse personalities. FC Rosengård and runners-up VfL Wolfsburg entered the competition with truly cosmopolitan squads. The former populated the middle-to-front positions with players from Brazil, Cameroon, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, FYR Macedonia, the Netherlands and the United States, with Ali Riley (New Zealand) and Anita Asante (England) habitually taking places in the back four.

In the final, the central core of the Wolfsburg team was formed by captain and centre-back Nilla Fischer (Sweden), Élise Bussaglia (France), Vanessa Bernauer (Switzerland) and target striker Zsanett Jakabfi (Hungary). At the other end of the spectrum, FC Barcelona fielded only Spanish players – most of them internationals – while the only foreign accents in the ACF Brescia Calcio Femminile camp were supplied by occasional appearances from Romanian goalkeeper Camelia Ceasar and English defender Paige Williams.

The team sheets of quarter-final debutants SK Slavia Praha featured only three players from neighbouring Slovakia among the Czech majority. The other three clubs occupied middle-of-the-road positions with a sprinkling of imports in fundamentally home-based squads. In the final, Olympique Lyonnais, the eventual champions, fielded three non-French players in their starting XI.

There are unequivocal signs that the UEFA Women’s Champions League is developing a more global feel, yet there is evidence to support Signeul’s opinion that collective virtues are paramount. “The teams that I saw,” she commented, “were very good tactically and very competitive – even though one or two of the results might suggest otherwise.”

©Getty Images

Slavia Praha struggled to counter Lyon's approach

Czeching the champions
In terms of results, Slavia Praha were a case in point. The Czech champions’ 9-1 defeat in Lyon exposed their difficulties in coping with the flair and technical abilities of the three-time champions. Anton Mišovec’s side relied on a deep-lying 1-4-1-4-1 formation, based on a very flat back four. Counterattacking strategy was hampered by limited outlets when the deep pressing led to ball-winning.

For the return match, Mišovec injected four new players and made positional changes in the key areas. Again, the team played a very deep line and allowed the opposition time to build moves from the back. But they applied aggressive pressure when they were close enough to engage in midfield and in the defensive third. Counterattacking opportunities were enhanced by quicker defence-to-attack transitions, although a lack of forward options or passing errors limited their time in possession. The French visitors constantly pushed forward but Slavia were able to absorb the pressure more effectively and were rewarded with a goalless draw.

The example endorses the opinion voiced by Jarmo Matikainen. “The competition exposes players to more demanding situations than they usually encounter in their domestic championships,” said former Wales national coach, “and standards of defensive organisation are getting higher and higher. The final was a good example of this, with both teams looking to control the game through their defensive mechanisms.”

Wolfsburg’s scorer Alex Popp commented after the shoot-out defeat that “we played the way we wanted to play, trying not to concede a goal. But through our own individual mistakes we gave them a gift.” Stretching that line of thinking to its extreme, the technical observers underlined the importance, at player-development levels, of avoiding the risk of teaching players to defend at the expense of teaching them how to play attacking football – a topic interrelated with the goalscoring facts to be presented later on.

©Getty Images

Bresica coach Milena Bertolini was happy to switch the team's formation regularly

The chameleon approach
Although Gérard Prêcheur adopted the format for the final – the second in succession won by a side playing three at the back – Milena Bertolini’s Brescia were the only team to use this structure as the default setting. Sara Gama and Elena Linari picked up the opposition strikers, with Roberta D’Adda in a free covering role. As usual in this system, the two wing-backs were the key components in transition play in both directions, although the quick positional transfers were sometimes difficult to marry with the mechanisms of pressing the opposition’s ball-carrier in the wide areas. The team’s attack-to-defence transitions generally built a 1-5-2-3 structure when out of possession.

Brescia provided a good illustration of the tactical flexibility that has become a trademark of UEFA Women’s Champions League football. Bertolini switched to 1-4-3-3 for the final 20 minutes in Wolfsburg and to 1-4-4-2 in the second half of the return leg. Lyon, apart from changing their structure for the final in Reggio Emilia, operated 1-4-3-3 and 1-4-2-3-1 formations during the knockout rounds preceding it. Compatriots Paris Saint-Germain also offered 1-4-3-3 and 1-4-4-2 set-ups and rang positional changes during the course of games. In the first leg of the semi-final in Lyon, Farid Benstiti had to cope with a notable coaching challenge. With two players suspended, he set up his side in 1-4-4-2 formation, only to lose his left-back, a centre-back and one of the two controlling midfielders through injuries sustained between the 21st and 37th minutes. His side went 2-0 down after the first reshuffle and conceded three more during the closing minutes of the first half when, as the technical observer put it, “the enforced changes had created uncertainty and a loss of defensive clarity”.

Other coaches enjoyed better fortune with injuries but also implemented positional permutations into their match strategy – sometimes reaping dividends and, on other occasions, having lesser success. Anna Signeul, who watched 1. FFC Frankfurt adjust their 1-4-4-2 to a formation with a midfield diamond against Wolfsburg, said: “There were many changes of position during the games I saw, with the wide midfielders becoming full-backs and vice-versa and with the wingers often changing sides.” The strong message transmitted by the top sides was of a trend towards the development of all-round players equipped to play various roles within the team structure.

©Sportsfile

Frankfurt showed a particular strength in defence

The back door
The centre-backs were, in general, an exception to this rule. “We saw a lot of positional interchanging but the core of the back line remained stable,” noted Hope Powell. In the view of UEFA’s technical observers, Rosengård, for instance, “fielded two right-footed central defenders who were fast and strong in the tackle. Their reading of the game was excellent and they held the defensive line as high as possible.” 

Of Frankfurt, they highlighted “two central defenders who compensated one another well – one strong in the tackle; the other fast and very effective in one v one situations.” The final then served to clearly illustrate that the centre-backs’ ability to read the game and build from the back are key weapons in the top teams’ armouries. Among the top eight, Slavia were practically alone in preferring long, central clearances by the goalkeeper. For Lyon, Sarah Bouhaddi concentrated on distributing to the back line and initiating a patient build-up through the thirds. Ditto Brescia, whose construction work was based on short combination play at the back and through midfield. The most successful teams were prepared to commit both full-backs to attack and had evidently worked hard on the mechanisms of positional combinations with wingers or wide midfielders.

In general, opening the back door entailed the two full-backs moving quickly into receiving positions while the two centre-backs split wide to distribute play either with parallel passing along the flank or – and Wolfsburg’s Nilla Fischer was a prime example – switching play with long diagonal passing to the wing. In terms of closing the back door, there was greater diversity. Lyon set out to press high in numbers, as did Frankfurt, who aimed to close down quickly with immediate collective pressing as soon as the ball was lost. Wolfsburg tried to individually press the ball-carrier high but generally preferred to defend collectively as from around 10 metres into opposition territory. Rosengård adopted a similar approach based on pressure as from the centre circle.

©Getty Images

Barcelona had clear tactics on how to counter Paris in the teams' quarter-final

Taking the initiative
Hope Powell spoke of the trend towards “possession-based play through the thirds”, with Jarmo Matikainen adding: “More and more teams are realising that their possession play is crucial if they want to control the game and the tempo of the game.” The final provided a clear example, with Lyon using their possession play to control and dominate, whereas Wolfsburg’s game was focused on containment.

A debating point among the observers was whether the increase in resources dedicated to scouting might be leading towards an overemphasis on countering the opposition rather than taking the initiative. In searching for a balance, Barcelona could be cited as an interesting example. Matikainen observed that Xavi Llorens’ team, in their quarter-final against PSG, “set out to hold a high line and press early. They kept a strong midfield block to disrupt the opposition’s build-up game and wingers contributed to good, quick transitions to defence by dropping back to mark the attacking full-backs. They played a good passing game with controlled openings from the keeper and the back four. They consumed a lot of energy in defending but still looked a threat when attacking.”

The final third
During that quarter-final, Barcelona had good possession but found it difficult to break down their opponents’ defence. According to Matikainen, PSG “despite excellent build-up and approach play, were less efficient in their finishing and the final pass”. They had to wait until the 86th minute of the second leg to score the tie’s only goal. Indeed Benstiti’s team had scored only twice in six games when they made their exit from the competition. Hope Powell said something similar of Lyon after the final, noting: “Lyon controlled the game yet, for all their domination, they didn’t kill the game off. They lacked penetration in the final third.” Meanwhile, Anna Signeul, watching Rosengård against Frankfurt, said: “They produced some great combination play but had problems in getting through the final third and creating chances. Their goal attempts were mostly shots from their own side of the opposition’s back line.”

©Sportsfile

Lyon overwhelmed Paris in the semi-finals

Despite the sprinkling of high scores, the goal tally for the knockout rounds in 2015/16 registered a downturn of 15% in comparison with the previous season. The average, however, maintained a healthy complexion at 3.05 goals per match. At the same time, it is convenient to point out that the scoring rate for the Round of 16 and the quarter-finals dropped to 2.44 and 2.38 respectively, before Lyon’s 7-0 semi-final win against Paris redressed the balance.

As usual, the qualifying mini-tournaments (235 goals at 4.9 per game) hoisted up the global average for the campaign, though once the knockout rounds got under way, the scoring rate fell away considerably to end the season at 3.86 over the 109 matches played in total.

The question mark, however, is related to the comments about the difficulties encountered in the final third and in the accuracy of finishing. The table reveals that, even in the matches involving the season’s top eight teams, only 39.7% of the goal attempts reached the target. PSG’s lack of goals could be traced to statistics from the quarter-finals and semi-finals, when 11 of their 39 attempts obliged the goalkeeper to intervene. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, for all their attacking potential, were accurate with 36% of their finishing. Five of the top eight teams registered more off-target efforts than those directed between the posts. This begs the question whether more can be done on training grounds and at youth-development levels to improve the quality of finishing.

How the goals were scored
Only 34 of the season’s goals were scored in the matches watched by UEFA technical observers from the quarter-final stage and 20 of those were scored in the matches involving Lyon. Looking for trends is therefore a risky business. Six goals stemmed from dead-ball situations: three corners, two direct free-kicks, and one penalty. The three corners converted from a total of 116 represented a success rate of 1:39. Of the 28 goals scored in open play, nine (almost one-third) had their origin in crosses or cut-backs from the wide areas, with diagonal passes into the box accounting for a further four. Through-passes supplied five goals, whereas combination moves and solo runs with the ball were the source of two and one goals respectively. Four goals were struck from long range, while three others could be directly attributed to defensive errors which presented the opposition with an immediate shooting opportunity.

Three goals were the result of successful counterattacks, while eight of the 34 were headed into the net.  Unusually, the 186 goals in the knockout rounds were evenly shared between the first and second halves, the numerical split being 92:94.

Minutes

Goals

%

1-15

 29

16

16-30

 32

17

31-45

 27

15

45+

   4

  2

46-60

26

14

61-75

31

17

76-90

33

18

90+

  3

  2

91-105

  1

  1

106-120

  0

  0

Decimal points account for the extra %

FC Barcelona

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

BIIK-Kazygurt (a)

18

  6

10

  2

1

BIIK-Kazygurt (h)

30

10

13

  7

1

Twente (a)

25

  6

12

  7

0

Twente (h)

18

  9

  7

  2

1

Paris (h)

  2

  0

  2

  0

0

Paris (a)

  3

  1

  2

  0

0

Total

96

32

46

15

3

ACF Brescia

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Liverpool (h)

11

  3

  7

  1

1

Liverpool (a)

  7

  4

  3

  0

0

Fortuna (h)

18

  4

10

  4

0

Fortuna (a)

  3

  2

  1

  0

0

Wolfsburg (a)

  3

  2

  1

  0

0

Wolfsburg (h)

  8

  5

  3

  0

0

Total

50

19

25

  5

1

 

1. FFC Frankfurt

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Standard (a)

15

  6

  5 

  4

0

Standard (h)

21

11

  8

  2

0

LSK (a)

19

10

  6

  3

0

LSK (h)

31

10

16

  5

1

Rosengård (a)

  7

  3

  3

  1

1

Rosengård (h)

21

  8

  7

  6

1

Wolfsburg (a)

  5

  2

  2

  1

0

Wolfsburg (h)

12

  3

  7

  2

0

Total

131

53

54

  24

3

Olympique Lyonnais

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Medyk Konin (a)

30

16

  9

  5

1

Medyk Konin (h)

37

15

  8

14

0

Atlético Madrid (a)

20

10

  7

  3

0

Atlético Madrid (h)

17

  9

  5

  3

0

Slavia Praha (h)

41

14

15

12

1

Slavia Praha (a)

30

  8

17

  5

1

Paris (h)

16

  8

  7

  1

1

Paris (a)

12

  5

  2

  5

0

Wolfsburg (n)

20

  9

  9

  2

0

Total

223

94

79

  50

4

 

Paris Saint-Germain FC

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Olimpia Cluj (a)

23

10

12

  1

2

Olimpia Cluj (h)

24

  9

11

  4

2

Örebro (a)

31

11

15

  5

1

Örebro (h)

28

10

11

  7

1

Barcelona (a)

12

  1

  9

  2

0

Barcelona (h)

18

  7

  5

  6

0

Lyon (a)

  5

  2

  1

  2

0

Lyon (h)

  4

  1

  2

  1

0

Total

145

51

66

 28

6

Rosengård FC

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

PK-35 Vantaa (a)

12

  7

  3

  2

0

PK-35 Vantaa (h)

15

  8

  7

  0

1

Verona (a)

13

  5

  5

  3

1

Verona (h)

13

  6

  6

  1

1

Frankfurt (h)

11

  4

  5

  2

0

Frankfurt (a)

16

  5

  8

  3

1

Total

 80

35

34

 11

4

 

SK Slavia Praha

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Brøndby (h)

15

  8

  4

  3

1

Brøndby (a)

11

  4

  4

  3

0

Zvezda 2005 (h)

17

10

  5

  2

1

Zvezda 2005 (a)

12

  5

  5

  2

1

Lyon (a)

  3

  2

  1

  0

0

Lyon (h)

  3

  2

  1

  0

0

Total

61

31

20

 10

3

VfL Wolfsburg

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Spartak Subotica (a)

14

  3

  9

  2

0

Spartak Subotica (h)

39

19

12

  8

0

Chelsea (a)

10

  1

  4

  5

0

Chelsea (h)

12

  3

  7

  2

2

Brescia (h)

26

13

  8

  5

1

Brescia (a)

15

  5

  8

  2

0

Frankfurt (h)

19

  7

10

  2

0

Frankfurt (a)

  8

  2

  5

  1

0

Lyon (n)

11

  3

  6

  2

0

Total

154

56

69

 29

3

Note: attempts striking the woodwork are included in the on-target total if deflected by goalkeeper or defender and in the off-target total if the attempt strikes the woodwork directly

https://www.stg.infra.uefa.com/womenschampionsleague/season=2016/technical-report/technical-topics/index.html#technical+topics