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Barcelona Femení and the Pursuit of Perfection

BARCELONA, Spain — These are the bare statistics of Barcelona Femení’s season so far. The team has played nine games in the league. It has won nine games in the league. 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. So did its second. In its third and fourth games, it scored eight.

That was only the start. 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. That finished 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.

Including its two appointments in the Champions League, Barcelona has played 11 games this season. 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. In his mind, it is a simple equation: You just have to place the numbers in 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 does not ask for more from his players out of rote instinct; he does it because he knows that what appears to be a slight fissure at this stage of the season could prove a fatal fault line 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. When you win a game, 8-1, that goes unnoticed, but we have to improve that, because when we play in the final 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 goalkeeper saves 13, and 12 go wide. In a more balanced game, we would not have so many chances, so we have to make sure we take more of them. 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?”

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

“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.”

Those details are not easy to find at Barcelona, not 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 of significant investment, attracting a sponsor, 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 choose, unlike many of its peers, to use the financial clout of its parent club 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. Chelsea has done it. Manchester City has an English core but they have done it, too.”

Barcelona, he said, wanted to do it 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 halting. “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 seemed to come in 2019. Barcelona finished second in the league, again, but 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. But the further up the curve the players got, the harder they had to work even for the smallest gains.

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. And not only can his players understand his gentle chiding and detailed tape sessions, but they can also appreciate 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. That is the biggest struggle: with yourself. The coach might always want more, but we do as a team. We are never satisfied.

“Why be happy with scoring four when you should have scored eight?”

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