Barcelona Femení and the pursuit of perfection

BARCELONA, Spain — These are the bare stats from Barcelona Femení’s season so far. The team played nine games in the league. It won nine matches in the competition. In fact, it won them by such a margin that the word “won” doesn’t quite cover it. Barcelona’s first game ended 5-0. So did his second. In its third and fourth game, it scored eight.

That was just the beginning. The following week, it defeated Alavés 9-1. At the end of last month, it faced Real Sociedad, the only team that was theoretically still vaguely in its slipstream at the top of La Liga Fémenina. That ended 8-1. In the midst of all that, it was time to deconstruct Arsenal, also the otherwise undefeated leader of the British Women’s Super League.

Including his two nominations to the Champions League, Barcelona have played 11 games this season. It has conceded three goals – each to Alavés, Real Sociedad and Arsenal – and has scored a barely credible 60. The coach, Jonatan Giráldez, weighed all that evidence before drawing his conclusion: Barcelona really should have scored more goals.

The natural assumption might be that if it’s not a joke he might be exaggerating for effect, but Giráldez is serious about it. In his mind, it’s a simple equation: you just have to put the numbers in the right context. “We have generated more than 200 chances,” said Giráldez. “So if you look at it that way, we didn’t score a lot.”

This, of course, is the job of a manager: to demand constant improvement from players, to deny them the luxury of resting on their laurels, to avoid the idea of ​​being satisfied. “That’s how coaches,” said Marta Torrejón, the veteran Barcelona defender, “are always looking for more.”

However, Giráldez’s reasoning is a bit more pragmatic. He was promoted to head coach last summer following the unexpected departure of his predecessor, Lluís Cortés, just weeks after the club won not only the Spanish League and the domestic cup, but also its first Champions League title, with Chelsea winning 4 0 was defeated. in the final.

Giráldez, 29, got the job ahead of a cluster of other applicants — at least 20 coaches from around the world speculatively sent in their resumes — essentially as a continuity candidate, someone who knew “our ideas and our identity” as the club’s sporting director. , Markel Zubizarreta, said it.

For Giráldez, the track is a great privilege and constant pressure. Barcelona, ​​now the preeminent team in women’s football, has standards that must be maintained and expectations that must be met. He asks no more out of instinct from his players; he does it because he knows that what appears to be a minor rift at this stage of the season can turn out to be a fatal rift later on.

“We have conceded two goals from set pieces this season,” said Giráldez. (The third, scored by Sanni Franssi of Real Sociedad, came from a counterattack.) “One from a corner, one from a free kick. If you win a game, 8-1, that goes unnoticed, but we have to improve on that, because if we play in the last rounds of the Champions League, against Lyon or Paris St.-Germain or Wolfsburg, that action could send us home .

“If we have 25 chances in a game, the keeper saves 13 and 12 go wide. In a more balanced game we wouldn’t have that many chances, so we have to make sure we get more of them. We have to figure out why we don’t.” scored more goals: we got nine against Alavés, but I felt we could have scored 15. Why didn’t we?”

It is important, he quickly adds, to recognize that it is very difficult to score eight goals in a game, to appreciate and celebrate that. And then demand even better.

“You can win 8-0 and there are still a lot of things to improve,” said Giráldez. “My job is to find out what we’ve done wrong and fix it. It’s about improving every detail.”

Those details are not easy to find in Barcelona, ​​not these days. In the eight years since Torrejón joined the club, things have changed almost beyond recognition. “It’s like a different place,” she says. “From zero to 100.”

When Torrejón arrived, the training sessions still took place in the evenings, as the players either went to university or went to work during the day. She was already a fixture in the Spain national team by then and had joined the promise that Barcelona would turn professional. There was a lot of investment, attracting a sponsor, building a winning team.

When the move came, in 2015, it felt “like luxury”, said Torrejón, arriving in the morning at Barcelona’s training complex, having breakfast together as a team, enjoying access to the club’s medical services and conditioning staff. and the state of -the-art facilities. But “it was impossible to think about winning the Champions League,” she said.

Barcelona, ​​unlike many of its peers, has not chosen to use the financial clout of its parent club to accelerate its growth. “For 10 million euros,” or about $11.5 million, “you can buy a team of the best players in the world,” Zubizarreta said. “There are teams that base projects on that. Lyons did it. Chelsea did it. Manchester City have an England squad, but they did it too.”

Barcelona, ​​he said, wanted to do things differently. “The best thing we can do is be ourselves,” Zubizarreta said. Rather than upgrade its team with a patchwork of superstars, it decided to nurture the players it needed, to build a team that was “distinctive Barcelona”.

Progress stalled. “It’s very difficult to climb the ladder organically,” said Torrejón. In 2017, there was a semi-final of the Champions League, but three years in a row, the team finished second in the league of Atlético Madrid. Therein lay perhaps the only conceptual difference between the men’s and women’s sections of the club. “The men’s team not winning trophies to invest in the future might not be the best-received news,” said Zubizarreta.

The reward seemed to come in 2019. Barcelona again finished second in the league, but qualified for the first Champions League final. It met Lyon, the sporting equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, in Budapest, and was wiped out in the first half.

“It was a mirror,” Zubizarreta said. “We could see how far we had to go.”

As soon as he returned from Hungary, he sought out the club’s conditioning experts. There was no shortage of talent, but he knew that Barcelona’s players had to be fitter, faster and stronger to compete with the very best clubs in Europe.

What followed, according to Giráldez, then assistant coach, was a “ruthless” change in the way Barcelona trained. “We were able to improve quickly in the beginning,” he said. But the further up the curve the players got, the harder they had to work, even for the smallest profit.

That approach became so entrenched in the club that it has even endured what may have appeared to be its pinnacle: the treble achieved under Cortés last season, topped by a destruction of Chelsea in the Champions League final that mirrored his own experience. Barcelona against Lyon for two years reflected earlier.

And so, even now, Giráldez can see his team, champions of all, score five and six and eight and nine against his opponents, with a goal difference – in the league alone – of plus 52, and ask for more. And his players can not only understand his gentle rebuke and detailed tape sessions, but they can appreciate them.

“The secret is that we compete with ourselves,” said Torrejón. “You compete with your rival for points or qualification, but with yourself to get better every day, for your place in the team. That is the biggest struggle: with yourself. The coach may always want more, but we as a team. We are never satisfied.

“Why be happy with a score of four when you should have scored eight?”

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