BARCELONA, Spain — These are the bare statistics of Barcelona Femení’s season so far. The team has played nine league games. It has won nine of the league’s nine games. It has won them, in fact, by such a margin that the word “won” does not quite capture it. Barcelona’s first game ended, 5-0. The second game was also a success. It scored eight in its third- and fourth games.
That was just the beginning. The next week, it beat Alavés by 9-1. Late last month, it faced Real Sociedad, the one team still vaguely, theoretically, in its slipstream at the summit of La Liga Fémenina. It was 8-1. In the middle of all that, it found time to deconstruct Arsenal, the otherwise unbeaten leader of Britain’s Women’s Super League, too.
Barcelona has played 11 games this year, including its two Champions League appointments. It has conceded three goals — one each to Alavés, Real Sociedad and Arsenal — and it has scored a scarcely believable 60. Its coach, Jonatan Giráldez, has weighed all of that evidence before drawing his conclusion: Barcelona really should have scored more goals.
The natural assumption might be that he is, if not joking, then perhaps exaggerating for effect, but Giráldez is quite serious. He sees it as a simple equation. All you have to do is place the numbers in the proper context. “We have generated more than 200 chances,” Giráldez said. “So if you look at it like that, we have not scored very many.”
This is a manager’s job, of course: to demand constant improvement from players, to refuse them the luxury of resting on their laurels, to eschew the very idea of being satisfied. “That’s what coaches are like,” said Marta Torrejón, the experienced Barcelona defender, “always wanting more.”
Giráldez’s reasoning, though, is rather more pragmatic. He was promoted to head coach last summer after the unexpected departure of his predecessor, Lluís Cortés, only weeks after the club had won not just the Spanish league and its domestic cup but also its first Champions League title, crushing Chelsea, 4-0, in the final.
Giráldez, 29, was given the job ahead of a cluster of other applicants — at least 20 coaches from around the world speculatively sent in their résumés — essentially as a continuity candidate, someone who knew “our ideas and our identity,” as the club’s sporting director, Markel Zubizarreta, put it.
To Giráldez, the job is a considerable privilege and a constant pressure. Barcelona, now the foremost team in women’s soccer, has standards to maintain and expectations to meet. He doesn’t ask his players for more out of rote intuition; he does so because he knows what seems like a small fault at this stage of the season could turn into a fatal one later on.
“We have conceded two goals from set pieces this season,” Giráldez said. (The third, scored by Real Sociedad’s Sanni Franssi, came from a counterattack.) “One from a corner, one from a free kick. It’s not easy to win a game 8-1. But, it is important that we improve our performance because if we play against Lyon, Paris St.-Germain, or Wolfsburg in the Champions League final rounds, that action could send you home.
“If we have 25 chances in a game, the goalkeeper saves 13, and 12 go wide. We wouldn’t have as many chances in a balanced match, so we need more. We have to work out why we did not score more goals: We got nine against Alavés, but I had the sensation that we could have scored 15. Why didn’t we?”
He quickly states that it is important to acknowledge that it is difficult to score eight goals in one game and to celebrate this. Then demand more.
“You can win, 8-0, and still have a lot of things to improve,” Giráldez said. “My job is to detect what we have done badly and modify it. It is about improving every detail.”
These details are difficult to find at Barcelona these days. In the eight years since Torrejón joined the club, it has changed almost beyond recognition. “It is like a different place,” she said. “From zero to 100.”
When Torrejón arrived, training sessions still took place in the evening, because the players either attended college or went to work during the day. Already a fixture on Spain’s national team back then, she had joined on the promise that Barcelona would turn professional. There was talk about significant investment, attracting sponsors, and building a winning team.
When the move came, in 2015, it felt “like luxury,” Torrejón said: arriving at Barcelona’s training complex in the morning, having breakfast together as a team, enjoying access to the club’s medical services and its conditioning staff and its state-of-the-art facilities. Still, though, “thinking about winning the Champions League was impossible,” she said.
Barcelona did not, like many of its peers choose to use the financial power of its parent club in order to accelerate its growth. “For 10 million euros,” or about $11.5 million, “you could buy a team of the best players in the world,” Zubizarreta said. “There are teams out there that are projects based on doing that. Lyon has done it. It has been done by Chelsea. Manchester City has an English core but they have done it, too.”
He said that Barcelona wanted to do things differently. “The best thing we can do is be ourselves,” Zubizarreta said. Instead of upgrading its squad with a patchwork of superstars, it decided to allow the players it had to flourish, to build a team that was “distinctively Barcelona.”
Progress was slowing down. “It is very hard to climb the ladder organically,” Torrejón said. There was a Champions League semifinal appearance in 2017, but for three years in succession the team finished second in the league to Atlético Madrid. In that, perhaps, lay the only conceptual difference between the club’s men’s and women’s divisions. “The men’s team not winning trophies to invest in the future would not, maybe, be the best-received news,” Zubizarreta said.
The reward appeared to have been in 2019. Barcelona was second in the league again and qualified for its first Champions League final. It met Lyon, the sport’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, in Budapest, and was swept away 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, an assistant coach at the time, was a “brutal” change in the way Barcelona trained. “We could improve quickly at the start,” he said. The players had to work harder even for the smallest gains, however, as they progressed up the ladder.
That approach became so embedded in the club that it has endured even what might have appeared to be its apogee: the treble acquired under Cortés last season, capped by a destruction of Chelsea in the Champions League final that echoed Barcelona’s own experience against Lyon two years previously.
And so, even now, Giráldez can watch his team, champions of everything, scoring five and six and eight and nine against its opponents, with its goal difference — in the league alone — of plus 52, and ask for more. Not only can his players appreciate his gentle chidings and detailed tape sessions but they also understand them.
“The secret is that we are competing with ourselves,” Torrejón said. “You compete with your rival for points or for qualification, but with yourself to be better every day, for your place in the team. The biggest struggle is with yourself. While the coach may always want more, we as a team do. We are never satisfied.
“Why be happy with scoring four when you should have scored eight?”
Source: NY Times