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UWCL semifinals: How the games will be won and lost

Photo by Sara Aribo/PxImages) (Sara Aribo / SPP)

The final stages of the UEFA Women’s Champions League are underway, featuring two highly-anticipated matches between four top-quality teams competing for a coveted spot in the final. In the semifinals, Chelsea will take on Barcelona, while Arsenal will host Wolfsburg in what promises to be some of the most intriguing matchups of the tournament thus far.

Barcelona are the clear favorites against Chelsea on paper, but due to the tactical strengths of Emma Hayes’ team, the game will still pose several tactical questions for the Catalan side.

On the other hand, Arsenal’s tie against Wolfsburg may not be as clear-cut, given Arsenal’s recent improvement in form. The German giants remain a formidable opponent, and the matchup promises to be a closely-fought battle.

Let’s take a deep dive into the key areas that could determine the outcome of each match.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona

With players such as Alexia Putellas, Sam Kerr and Caroline Graham Hansen all due on the field, the match promises to be of exceptional quality.

Interestingly, these two teams met in the Champions League final two years ago, where Barcelona dominated and comfortably beat Chelsea, 4-0. Although both teams have had continued success since then, their journeys to this Champions League semifinal have been distinct. While Barcelona made it to the final last year, Chelsea were eliminated in the group stages.

Tactically, the midfield and defensive structure is where the game will be won and lost.

Wing Play

One of the most obvious pain points for Chelsea will be the wide areas. They’ve struggled to maintain a consistent set of full-backs this season, and as a result, have had mixed success when defending against top-class wingers. Though they strengthened in the summer with Eve Perisset, the left-back spot is still an issue that’s been unaddressed. Unfortunately for the London side, one of Barcelona’s areas of strength is the wings and in Mariona Caldentey and Caroline Graham Hansen, they boast two of the most skillful wingers in football.

Chelsea often start matches with a formation of a 4-2-3-1, quickly transforming between that and a 4-4-2 on and off the ball as they look to counter with pace and physicality in midfield. The two full-backs would usually be secondary attacking levers but in Chelsea’s case, they’re used more as defenders rather than attacking outlets, to ensure there’s always a backline of four defenders. The likely duo to start will be Jess Carter and Perisset, both of whom will likely be predisposed to their own defensive third rather than venturing forward.

The setup in their off-the-ball shape against Olympique Lyon was a strict 4-4-2 when defending, where they wanted to confine Lyon from going through the middle and were happy to let Ellie Carpenter and Perle Morroni attack the wings instead. In Barcelona’s case, their in-possession tactics and habit of superior ball possession means they will likely force their own full-backs forward to attack, creating a double-up.

Caldentey’s preference is to drift inwards and play in the half-spaces where she’ll crowd the space between the full-back and centre-back, which will pressure Perisset to be positionally perfect. This could open the space for Fridolina Rolfö to overlap and create a second point of reference on the left wing.

However, Jess Carter vs. Graham Hansen will be a key battle. Given the defender’s strength in individual defending, her task will be to man-mark and contain the Norwegian winger from exerting full control of the flank. Lucy Bronze will not be overlapping, but rather the England international will drive into midfield to create an overload in the middle. The isolated duel will be key in how Chelsea can avert one major threat.

Midfield Control

Another position of strength for Barcelona is their midfield. The midfield trio of Aitana, Patri Guijarro, and Keira Walsh has a combination of control, creativity, and flair that is unrivaled anywhere else in the World. Barcelona prefer to build out from the central areas with their key strength in both progression and ball control coming from their midfielders.

Ball rotation and retention will be Barcelona’s main objective and considering that they’ll most likely hold the lion’s share of possession, they will need to be wary of the counter-press and transition game that Chelsea will look to deploy in response. Aitana and Patri will look to play in between the lines, stretching the midfield horizontally by drifting slightly wider for Walsh to distribute to. This should inevitably force Chelsea’s midfield to split and open space for the forwards to drop into the vacant spaces, or for the other midfielder (without the ball) to drive into the same space. In the absence of Alexia, Aitana has taken the off-ball runner role. This way, they create a straight line of vertical space to play through balls into from deep.

Chelsea’s double pivot will need to be positionally perfect. Sophie Ingle and Erin Cuthbert have been the go-to pairing with a more creative No. 10 such as Jelena Cankovic added ahead. However, it’s possible that Chelsea may revert back to the midfield that started against Lyon with Cuthbert playing as the attacking midfielder, creating a high-pressing focal point. It will be a monumental task, but Barcelona’s best chance of winning will come down to how they manipulate Chelsea in build-up and free Walsh to operate in that No. 4 space. She is more than proficient at playing in tight spaces. We could also see more of Mapi León driving out from the back to help alleviate the pressure in midfield.

Despite how proficient they are on the ball, even Barcelona are susceptible to being crowded out of space, so they still need to be careful in how they play out from the back.

Arsenal vs. Wolfsburg

The second semifinal should be a much closer affair with another German side for Arsenal to face. Having gone 1-0 down in the first leg against Bayern Munich, the Gunners later made a roaring comeback in the second leg at the Emirates to beat the Bavarians 2-0, winning the tie on aggregate. Since then, Arsenal have been on an upward trajectory, beating Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in the Women’s Super League to put them in contention for the title.

In contrast, Wolfsburg’s form has dipped lately, only just scraping through with a 2-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain in the last round. They lost to Bayern in the league but came back later to win the DFB Pokal semi-final 5-0 against them. The German side are veterans of the tournament and most notably reached their last final in 2020 against Lyon.

From a tactical perspective, there are two areas where the game will be won and lost. The way these teams operate off the ball and negate the attacking structures is imperative and will dictate the tie.

Lena Oberdorf vs. Arsenal’s Midfield

Arguably the most talented defensive midfielder in world football is Wolfsburg’s Lena Oberdorf. The German international is the hub of her side’s midfield and is able to control proceedings both on and off the ball. Wolfsburg set up in a 4-2-3-1 in possession with fluid positional interchange of movement of forward players, while out of possession, they opt for a similar 4-2-3-1 shape with Oberdorf in a key controlling role in midfield. 

Strong in duels, Oberdorf is well-placed both defensively and to offer support when her team has the ball. This is where the German comes into her own — she’s the type of player who has the ability to control an area of two people rather than just one. Oberdorf’s constant scanning is key to helping create the impression that she is everywhere; she never switches off and has the processing speed, tactical understanding, and mental fortitude to assess multiple threats and determine which one is most dangerous.

For Arsenal’s attackers to have any hope of creating opportunities, they’ll need to nullify Oberdorf’s threat through overloads and runners in behind. This makes both Frida Maanum and Caitlin Foord’s roles integral given they are two of Arsenal’s most in-form players. Maanum in particular is on a goal-scoring streak with her movement to get in behind defenses improving as she’s started more at Arsenal. The battle between the two will be key but for Arsenal to achieve success, they’ll need to have interchangeable runners and quick off-the-ball movement to get around the aforementioned German defensive midfielder. Stina Blackstenius will be tasked with occupying the central defenders which means if Arsenal can spring a 2 vs. 1 on Oberdorf, there’s a chance to catch the Wolfsburg defense off guard.

Nullyfing Wolfsburg’s attacking structure – Alex Popp

Where Wolfsburg can thrive is through their attacking play. They have a fluid and interchangeable forward line with the likes of Alex Popp, Ewa Pajor, Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir and Jule Brand at their disposal. Against PSG, we saw Wolfsburg use this method of attack to ensure that the opposition were not able to nail down who they had to mark.

However, the one player that Arsenal will most need to nullify is star striker Alex Popp, who is their main outlet and goalscorer. What makes her so dangerous is her movement and timing. Popp’s role as a centre-forward is a mix of a deep-lying playmaker and a forward presser. She is the focal point of an aggressive front line who are excellent at pressing and the German international remains dangerous out of possession too. Popp thrives in counter-attacking situations and given the speed around her, she has more room and freedom to find deeper pockets of space so that she herself can create space and passing opportunities for the wide players and No. 10.

Against Paris Saint-Germain, Popp caused the French side midfield issues by dropping deep into pockets of space to link up play and allow Svenja Huth and Jill Roord space to operate into central areas. The goal she scored in the second leg from outside of the box was a clear example of where Popp excels and how the opposition can struggle with her movement.

As such, the double-pivot of Lia Walti and Leah Williamson will have to be positionally disciplined to contain the movements of Popp and possibly even look to man-mark the Wolfsburg forward. Cutting off the spaces Popp can drift into will need to be managed and will be critical in stopping Wolfsburg from operating at 100%. This task will likely come down to Williamson who is naturally a centre-back and will need to be a bit more defensive and protect Arsenal in defensive transitions.

The UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached an exciting stage with the semi-finals featuring some of the best teams in Europe. The matches between Chelsea and Barcelona, as well as Arsenal and Wolfsburg, are eagerly anticipated and promise to be fiercely contested.

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