Barça Femení Featured Femení, English Player Analysis

OPINION: Barça Femení’s 2023/24 Season Preview

Written by a former staff member under the pseudonym Sempre t’Animaré.

Barça Femení’s new signings Esmee Brugts & Ona Batlle and exits Geyse, Nuria Rábano, Ana Crnogorčević, Emma Ramírez & Laia Codina of the summer transfer window.
Image: Barça Femení’s new signings Esmee Brugts & Ona Batlle (U) and exits Geyse, Nuria Rábano, Ana Crnogorčević, Emma Ramírez & Laia Codina (D).

Transfer window is now officially closed! One could argue that it was a little underwhelming with five departures and only two players joining Barça Femení. However, improving on already the best team in Europe is, needless to say, extremely difficult. Especially taking into account the financial constraints.

As for the signings themselves – Ona Batlle is widely regarded as the best full-back in the world. Recently she was named in the PFA WSL Team of the Year 2022/23. Batlle was instrumental in Spain’s eventual World Cup success and consistently demonstrated above average, if not exceptional, performance regardless of the flank. Esmee Brugts on the other hand is much more of a mystery for me – I had no opportunity to see her play at PSV and data for Vrouwen Eredivisie (Eredivisie Women) is essentially nonexistent. But I’m sure Barça did their due diligence and it’s more than an impulsive decision based solely on her World Cup performance. She’s supposed to be quite a flexible player, so I could imagine seeing her on either of the wings, but also as the pseudo-left-back – effectively solo width provider on the left side, thanks to her pace and remarkable defensive abilities. I mention Ona’s and Esmee’s capabilities to play as LBs for a reason – on Tuesday (5 September) we’ve learnt that Fridolina Rolfö will undergo keyhole surgery tomorrow (8 September) due to a meniscus injury in her right knee. It’s clear that either one of our new signings would have to fulfill Swede’s role for a few coming months rather than weeks.

Another player who might not feel “100%” is Keira Walsh. It was noticeable that after her super quick return, following a mysterious injury during the World Cup, she almost completely avoided risky tackles that could put strain on her knee.

But it’s not only Keira who needs to be “wrapped up in cotton wool”. Since September 2022, Irene Paredes (32) played over 3,600 minutes which is the most of all Barcelona Femení players. To put things in perspective – that would place her on the seventh place in terms of minutes played in our men’s team! To reach such a number it’s not enough to be a key player of the team, it’s crucial to be available for play at all. And Irene, knock on wood, isn’t injury prone. If her minutes are managed wisely, considering Barça’s style of play and the fact that Irene relies, first and foremost, on intelligence and anticipation, she’d continue to be an important figure for Barça in the next couple of years. Physically, she’s top-notch as well – her recorded top speed during the 2022/23 UEFA Women’s Champions League was third highest among all center-backs.

Not so long ago, in an interview for L’Esportiu Jonatan Giráldez mentioned the possibility of “changing the role of some players”. I think it’s safe to assume that after the departures of Laia Codina and Geyse, those alterations are most likely to affect center-back and center-forward positions.

Most natural candidate for our “new CB” is obviously Ingrid Syrstad Engen. The concept of playing defensive midfielders as center-backs is nothing new and we’ve seen her play on that position last year (6-1 vs Atlético Madrid, 27 November 2022). Albeit, not in a sufficient time frame (at least for me) to be able to make definitive conclusions. Considering that she’s better in the air than both Mapi León and Jana Fernández, Ingrid seems like an obvious candidate to step in and give Irene Paredes some rest.

Moving on to the problem of a “new No. 9” – Salma Paralluelo seems like the most logical option thanks to her excellent physicality and solid ball striking abilities. Although last season she predominantly played on either of the wings, during her time at Villarreal she was frequently utilized as one of the strikers in their 4-4-2 formation. She has no problem receiving with her back to goal and against a high line she’s a constant threat thanks to her outstanding pace. However, first touch and weak foot are certainly areas of improvement for the 19-year old Spaniard.

Another possibilty that’s evidently being considered is playing Alexia Putellas as a false 9 (e.g. preseason friendly vs Club América). Which would not only be a solution to the striker problem, but also the way of fitting all four star midfielders of Barça Femení on the pitch together. For me, such setup has an added benefit of giving Patri Guijarro more offensive freedom. Her arrivals at the box are lethal and the most prominent example of those is obviously the UWCL final vs VfL Wolfsburg. In an interview a couple years back, she described herself as an “offensive player” and I doubt she’s changed her mind since. Therefore I am not a fan of tying her down to the role of a single “number six”. That being said, due to the packed calendar – rotations would be the key to success. And for this very reason, I think we’re usually going to see some combination of three of Bonmatí, Guijarro, Putellas and Walsh on the pitch at any given moment.

Things look exactly the opposite between the posts, with a plethora of interesting options. Sandra Paños (30, contract until 30.06.2024) used to be the unquestionable number one for Barça Femení, but it’s safe to assume that importance of Cata Coll (22, 30.06.2026), who’s coming back from a very successful World Cup, would only grow in the coming months. And let’s not forget about the Font sisters – Gemma (23, 30.06.2024), who demonstrated solid performance last autumn, and Txell (18, recently renewed for unspecified period of time) – winner (and best goalkeeper) of 2022 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, as well as 2023 UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship (named in the Team of the Tournament). Splitting minutes between two world-class GKs might work, three or more – absolutely not. Sooner rather than later, someone would have to leave for their own career’s sake.

To sum everything up, despite some minor shortcomings no one would be able to convince me that some other club in Europe has more talent and sheer quality in the squad than Barça Femení. But as a wise man once said – “we had a good team on paper. Unfortunately, the game was played on grass”. The decisive factors wouldn’t be individual statistics and awards, but rather how well would substitutes and players from the B team perform when our stars need some rest, whether the individual skill and talent would go in hand with mental and tactical aspects of the game and could players that were plagued with injuries in the past stabilize their form.

Finally, to all malcontents out there – you don’t have to agree with every decision of the coaching staff, you don’t have to like all of our players equally, but as someone who grew up watching Pep Guardiola’s Barça (and witnessed everything that happened afterwards), I can tell you that we truly are – living in the golden years of Barça Femení.