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Technical Topics

Technical Topics
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Technical Topics

"I would say that the season confirmed that levels of technique, relationships and collective understanding are these days much better," Hope Powell remarked when the UEFA technical observers met the morning after the final in Cardiff. "It also confirmed that the ability to maintain control and play a passing game in tight areas is crucial if you want to compete among the top teams."

The champions, Olympique Lyonnais, demonstrated the value of an ability to play excellent possession football based on neat, accurate combinations, which allowed Gérard Prêcheur's side to dictate the tempo and direction of the game. Manchester City, who made club history by reaching the semi-finals on debut, were made to realise during their 3-1 home defeat by Lyon that they needed to scale another rung if they were to join the French club at the top of the continental ladder.

The same applied to City's fellow first-time semi-finalists FC Barcelona, pitted against Paris Saint-Germain and similarly adding further lessons to their learning curve. In a season where one of the salient features was the absence of German teams from the last four, pride of place was granted to the French challengers who combined high levels of technique, athletic qualities and tactical maturity.

Odd numbers not so odd

"If a structure proves successful," commented Powell, "the greater the temptation for other coaches to try it." A reasonable debating point would be to ask whether Lyon's successful change of team structure for the 2016 final was the trigger. Whatever the answers, the striking trend to emerge from the 2016/17 UEFA Women's Champions League was the move towards a system based on a trio of centre-backs.

As Jarmo Matikainen noted in Cardiff: "Five of the top eight teams operated with three at the back at some stage." UEFA's technical team took time to decide on the formation drawings to be used on the team pages of this report. Not only because some of the top eight varied their structure according to the opposition; also because they operated in attacking and defending shapes with rapid transitions from one to the other.

Fortuna Hjørring, Rosengård and Wolfsburg were the exponents of a 1-4-4-2 with Manchester City also adopting that template against Lyon, switching to a midfield diamond (with Carli Lloyd tucking in behind the front two) when chasing results in the final stages.

Curiously, OL's Prêcheur, having sprung a tactical surprise by changing to three at the back in the 2016 final against Wolfsburg, engaged reverse gear in Cardiff by reverting to a back four, excluding right wing-back Jessica Houara and withdrawing Amel Majri into a traditional left-back berth alongside the other three.

However, the trend towards a back line of three could be graphically illustrated by Barcelona. In the previous season, Xavi Llorens had opted for the club's traditional 1-4-3-3 structure. But when they travelled to Sweden for the first leg of their quarter-final against Rosengård, he set his team up in 1-3-4-3 formation with Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi operating in the wing-back roles.

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As Patricia González observed: "The three centre-backs were good at anticipating and intercepting the direct supply to the two strikers in Rosengård's 1-4-4-2, while the structure gave them numerical superiority in the middle-to-front zone and allowed them to create overloads in the wide areas. It also meant they had enough players forward to make quick attack-to-defence transitions with immediate pressure on the ball. They often capitalised on a 3v2 advantage in the central area of midfield, while high pressing allowed them to win the ball in advanced positions and quickly head for goal while the opponents were in their defence-to-attack transitional phase. Both their goals in the return leg were scored this way."

Even so, Rosengård succeeded in posing questions to the Barça defence by trying to exploit the spaces behind the wing-backs. On the other hand Manchester City, also operating in 1-4-4-2 formation, struggled to find answers when confronted with Lyon's 1-3-5-2 structure in the semi-final. Their narrow midfield enabled them to pressurise in numbers and disturb the opposition's build-up through central areas but obliged Nick Cushing's team to do a lot of chasing when OL opened up the game in the wide areas.

Against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals, OL had set out their stall in a 1-4-2-3-1 system, anxious to counter the powerful wing play which represented one of the major weapons in Ralf Kellermann's armoury and to deny any exploitation of spaces behind the wing-backs. As Wolfsburg held a very high defensive line – with goalkeeper Almuth Schult quick to sweep behind – Lyon created danger with rapid counterattacks based on direct passes in behind the Germans' back line.

In the other Germany v France quarter-final, Bayern München lined up in a 1-3-5-2 formation that mirrored the structure of Patrice Lair's Paris Saint-Germain. Katharina Baunach filled the holding role in front of the three centre-backs, with Sara Däbritz dropping deeper to lend assistance during the return match in Paris. Both teams tried to press high, but Paris's high level of technical ability gave them an edge in terms of building with possession play, forcing Bayern to defend deep in 1-5-3-2 formation and look for counters via a direct supply to striker Vivianne Miedema.

"If three at the back has become fashionable," Matikainen remarked, "it is because the coaches have given it a lot of thought and have taken conscious decisions about the benefits it might bring to their teams. The more or less adventurous play by the wing-backs allows you to balance attacking and defensive considerations and the top teams showed that it can be productive in controlling the game in midfield and getting an extra player forward to support attacks."

He and other technical observers agreed that Lyon's ability to switch comfortably and seamlessly between playing structures from match to match and during individual games set the benchmark for a season marked by high degrees of tactical flexibility.

Standing room only

©Sportsfile

"I'm not sure we can talk about the 'sitting midfielder' any more," said Matikainen, "because the job description has become much more demanding. For example, Saki Kumagai does a brilliant screening job for Lyon, but she also contributes much more." His comment sparked discussion on the evolution of roles in the central midfield positions, with the trend towards three-at-the-back structures maybe more propitious to triangular relationships in the central area than, say, a classic 1-4-4-2.

"I think it's safe to say," opined González, "that we don't see traditional No10s any more – either in the men's or women's games." The 2016/17 UEFA Women's Champions League demonstrated that the top clubs no longer rely on a single playmaker. In the final, Shirley Cruz Traña provided the nearest approximation because of her ability to spot and deliver game-opening passes. Yet as Matikainen pointed out, "she had other duties to perform and I thought that PSG worked extremely well and in disciplined manner to contain Lyon through the centre. The final gave us good illustrations of how the central midfielders have big defensive responsibilities and, at the same time, must be prepared to take the No10 role".

Paris highlighted the importance of achieving the proper balance in central midfield. Against Bayern, Lair fielded Grace Geyoro in midfield – hence her inclusion in that category in UEFA's Squad of the Season – to balance the more overtly attacking qualities of Cruz and Verónica Boquete. Geyoro, incidentally, became champion of Europe at the age of 19 – a fact that prompted Powell to remark: "She is one of a number of young players who are coping magnificently on the big stage. It's not only EUROs and World Cups but also the age-limit competitions and development tournaments for national teams that are helping the youngsters to mature as footballers. And this bodes well for the future of the game."

In the final, Geyoro was switched to centre-back with Formiga and Aminata Diallo accompanying Cruz. "However, the understanding between the Lyon trio, their ability to play in tight spaces and their out-of-possession work were key to their success," said Powell.

"What they did so well," added Anja Palusevic, "was the constant positional rotation during the match which allowed them to share workloads and pose lots of questions to the opponents." OL certainly asked questions of Manchester City in the first leg of their semi-final – and Cushing's response in the return fixture was to deploy a narrow 1-4-2-2-2 defensive block aimed at blunting OL's edge in the central area.

"I think Lyon really emphasised that today’s central midfielders really need to be all-rounders," said Palusevic. "What we also saw," Powell continued, "was the importance of linking players – rather than playmakers – in defence-to-midfield and middle-to-front construction. As an example of the latter, I would pick out Dzsenifer Marozsán. She was the creative leader of Lyon's attacks by linking the team together with excellent passing."

The back room

"Goalkeeping standards keep on going up, year in, year out," Powell observed. "It's legitimate to put this down to better coaching – and it's encouraging that more girls seem to want to play in goal these days."

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The level among the top teams was sufficiently high for no fewer than five keepers to be shortlisted for UEFA's Squad of the Season. Barcelona's Sandra Paños was commended not only for her handling but also for her readiness to sweep behind the back line; Bayern's Tinja-Riikke Korpela, after keeping a clean sheet at home to Paris, received praise for excellent reflexes and organisational skills; Manchester City's Karen Bardsley excelled at commanding her terrain, was quick off her line and reacted well to situations in and around the box. Paris's Katarzyna Kiedrzynek played an important part in build-up play and, when opponents pressed high, accurately opened play to the wings with long passes. "I think she typified the general improvement," Powell commented, "because we now see goalkeepers who are good with their feet and contribute with accurate distribution of the ball."

The common denominator among the leading sides was the desire to build from the back. Lyon's Sarah Bouhaddi was composed in her distribution to the centre-backs or the holding midfielder who, as in many teams, dropped deep to initiate construction while the full-backs pushed high. Bardsley was equally confident with, in the case of Manchester City (and Bayern), the centre-backs splitting and dropping extremely deep to receive at the sides of the box. This implied responsibility for centre-halves, whose passing ability was one of the key components in the initial phase of attacking play. In this respect, OL centre-back Wendie Renard and central midfielder Kumagai were outstanding in their ability to open the game with accurate long passing to the wide areas.

Goals win matches

Competitive levels as the tournament worked its way towards Cardiff were reflected by a decreasing scoring rate. After the autumn group stage had posted an average of 4.74 goals per game, the first two knockout rounds yielded 3.58 and then the eight quarter-final matches produced just 13 goals at 1.64 per game. With the remaining five fixtures, including the goalless final, supplying 11 goals at 2.2 per match, the overall balance for the knockout rounds of the UEFA Women's Champions League was 3.21. This represented a modest increase of 5% on the previous season and surpassed the average of 3.04 registered in the men's equivalent.

If the 54 qualifying round games are included, the overall balance for the campaign was 452 goals at 3.93 per game.

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2016/17 top scorers
Zsanett Jakabfi (Wolfsburg) 8
Vivianne Miedema (Bayern München) 8
Gulnara Gabelia (BIIK-Kazygurt) 7
Alexandra Lunca (Olimpia Cluj) 7
Aleksandra Sikora (Medyk Konin) 7
Cristiane (Paris Saint-Germain) 6
Eugénie Le Sommer (Lyon) 6

The season, however, threw up a paradox in the sense that Olympique Lyonnais successfully defended the title despite failing to score in three of their last four games – two of them at home. In each of those matches, Prêcheur's side dominated and controlled, but without converting superiority into goals.

"If anything," commented UEFA's technical observers after watching the 1-0 home defeat by Manchester City, "Lyon should have been more clinical in the final third, especially as they enjoyed so much possession in useful areas and situations."

In this respect, the chart showing goal attempts is revealing. Lyon's attempts-per-goal ratio was distorted by the first two knockout rounds, in which OL converted 41 on-target attempts into 27 goals. From the quarter-finals to Cardiff, 72 attempts – half of them on target – harvested just five goals. The table shows the quarter-finalists' ratios of the number of attempts required to manufacture a goal.

FC Bayern München

  5.32

Olympique Lyonnais

  5.53

FC Barcelona

  6.29

Paris Saint-Germain

  6.52

VfL Wolfsburg

  7.46

Fortuna Hjørring

  7.50

Manchester City

  7.58

Rosengård

12.57

In individual terms, Wolfsburg's Zsanett Jakabfi had nine on-target attempts compared with two which went wide of the mark. Bayern's Miedema, her companion at the top of the scoring charts with eight, showed similar efficiency with a 13-5 split between accurate and wayward finishes. Paris's Cristiane (14-7) and OL's Eugénie Le Sommer (15-6) scored six apiece while team-mate Camille Abily (10-2) contributed five goals and as many assists to Lyon's run to the title. By contrast, OL striker Ada Hegerberg registered an 11-14 balance in terms of on and off-target finishes.

FC Barcelona

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

ZFK Minsk (a)

16

  8

  5

  3

1

ZFK Minsk (h)

19

10

  5

  4

1

FC Twente (h)

16

  3

  6

  7

0

FC Twente (a)

10

  7

  2

  1

0

Rosengård (a)

  4

  1

  1

  2

0

Rosengård (h)

11

  3

  6 

  2

0

Paris (h)

  4

  2

  1

  1

0

Paris (a)

  8

  2

  4

  2

0

Total

88

36

30

22

2

FC Bayern München

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Hibernian LFC (a)

22

12

  9

  1

2

Hibernian LFC (h)

19

  8

10

  1

0

FC Rossiyanka (h)

32

11

14

  7

0

FC Rossiyanka (a)

19

10

  6

  3

1

PSG (h)

  5

  1

  3

  1

0

PSG (a)

  4

  1

  3

  0

0

Total

101

43

45

13

3

Fortuna Hjørring

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Athletic Club (a)

11

  6

  5 

  0

0

Athletic Club (h)

16

  7

  7

  2

0

ACF Brescia (a)

 9

  3

  6

  0

0

ACF Brescia (h)

13

  6

  6

  1

2

Manchester City (h)

  6

  1

  4

  1

0

Manchester City (a)

  5

  3

  1

  1

0

Total

  60

26

29

   5

2

Olympique Lyonnais

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Avaldsnes (a)

22

11

  8

  3

2

Avaldsnes (h)

21

10

  5

  6

0

FC Zürich (h)

35

14

11

10

1

FC Zürich (a)

27

16

  9

  2

0

VfL Wolfsburg (a)

13

  7

  5

  1

1

VfL Wolfsburg (h)

16

  6

  9

  1

1

Manchester City (a)

16

  9

  3

  4

0

Manchester City (h)

11

  5

  5

  1

0

Paris (final)

16

  9

  5

  2

0

Total

177

87

60

  30

5

Manchester City WFC

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Zvezda 2005 (h)

19

  7

12

  0

2

Zvezda 2005 (a)

  9

  6

  3

  0

2

Brøndby IF (h)

14

  4

  7

  3

0

Brøndby IF (a)

10

  4

  4

  2

1

Fortuna Hjørring (a)

13

  4

  5

  4

1

Fortuna Hjørring (h)

16

  5

10

  1

0

Lyon (h)

  4

  1

  2

  1

1

Lyon (a)

  6

  3

  3

  0

0

Total

91

34

46

 11

7

Paris Saint-Germain

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

LSK Kvinner (a)

15

  4

  6

  5

1

LSK Kvinner (h)

15

  9

  4

  2

1

BIIK Kazygurt (a)

  9

  6

  1

  2

0

BIIK Kazygurt (h)

28

17

  8

  3

0

FC Bayern München (a)

17

  9

  4

  4

0

FC Bayern München (h)

18

  6

  8

  4

1

FC Barcelona (a)

13

  5

  5

  3

1

FC Barcelona (h)

14

  5

  5

  4

0

Lyon (final)

  8

  4

  3

  1

0

Total

137

65

44

 28

4

FC Rosengård

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Bleidablik (a)

19

10

  7

  2

1

Bleidablik (h)

23

  9

11

  3

3

Slavia Praha (a)

12

  8

  4

  0

0

Slavia Praha (h)

17

  9

  6

  2

2

FC Barcelona (h)

  7

  4

  1

  2

0

FC Barcelona (a)

10

  0

  8

  2

1

Total

 88

40

37

 11

7

VfL Wolfsburg

Opponent

Attempts

On target

Off target

Blocked

Woodwork

Chelsea (a)

19

11

  6

  2

0

Chelsea (h)

13

  3

  4

  6

0

Eskilstuna (a)

17

  9

  7

  1

0

Eskilstuna (h)

30

  8

10

12

0

Lyon (h)

  6

  3

  2

  1

1

Lyon (a)

12

  5

  3

  4

1

Total

  97

39

32

 26

2

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.

Of the 196 goals scored in the knockout rounds, 88 hit the net in the first half; 107 after the break; and one during extra time. The chart hints at good fitness levels by revealing that the final 15 minutes were not the most prolific – though the number of goals scored after the 75th minute was inflated by the 11 goals notched in additional minutes after the 90.

Minutes

Goals

%

1-15

 23

12

16-30

 25

13

31-45

 36

18

45+

  4

  2

46-60

28

14

61-75

40

20

76-90

28

14

90+

 11

  6

91-105

  0

  0

106-120

  1

  1

The paucity of goals (24) scored during the matches watched by UEFA technical observers makes a search for trends practically a mission impossible. However, one-third came from dead-ball situations and one-quarter stemmed from crosses or cutbacks from wide areas. A total of 106 corners in those matches led to a single goal – Manchester City's winner at home to Fortuna when an outswinging delivery from the right by Melissa Lawley was headed in by defender Lucy Bronze at the far post.

Significantly, five of the 24 goals could be traced directly to losses of possession in the defensive third – a fact which emphasises that, in today's increasingly competitive UEFA Women's Champions League, mistakes are often ruthlessly punished.

https://www.uefa.com/womenschampionsleague/season=2017/technical-report/technical-topics/index.html#technical+topics