Barcelona and England star Keira Walsh talks about the Women’s Clasico
When Barcelona came knocking on the door, Keira Walsh could have chosen the familiar path, one of certainty and comfort.
It came days after England won the 2022 European Championship. She moved to Manchester City, the team she and her father had supported all their lives. Considered one of the best players in the world, the environment she had created was very much suited to her improving her upward trajectory.
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But that’s not his way. The lure of the Champions League proved too strong, and as she said: when Barcelona come knocking, it’s hard to turn them down. Especially when you’re a No.6 ball player, the heart of a team’s possession and movement between defense and attack.
“Every midfielder wants to play for Barcelona,” Walsh told ESPN. “You grow up watching Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets, and being part of this club is incredible. And then you look with who I would play: Patri [Guijarro]Aitana [Bonmati] and Alexia [Putellas.] So the chance to learn from them, see how they play and improve my game, yes, I’m really happy to be here.”
Walsh speaks at the Barcelona training ground. At this point, the club were considering the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final with Roma, a match they would win 1-0 in Italy.
Barcelona, the most dominant women’s team in the sport, are flying in La Liga F this season. They are 10 points ahead of Real Madrid with a frankly ridiculous record: 22 wins out of 22, 98 goals scored and only five conceded. This begs the question: if their path to the top of the league and their fourth straight league title seems a foregone conclusion, is it easy for them to go into cruise control mode?
In short: no. When Walsh trains, she sees the other players at the club and the efforts they are making to improve, and she is out of her comfort zone, away from home, and focused on improving and the height of the famous club crest.
The tipping point for Walsh was that Manchester City failed to win the Champions League. When she lined up against Real Madrid in their August 2022 qualifier, it was less than a month after winning the Euros. Her City team-mate Lucy Bronze had already announced her move to Barca, while her England midfield partner Georgia Stanway had agreed to join Bayern Munich. City would lose the qualifier to Real Madrid at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano 1-0, with former City star Caroline Weir scoring the only goal. That’s when Walsh realized she needed a new challenge.
“He probably didn’t reach those Champions League final stages and didn’t even qualify for the tournament [which did it]”, says Walsh. “When a club like Barcelona arrives, it was very difficult to say no. Man City is my home club: it was not an easy decision. But the chance to play Champions League football and win trophies meant it was something I couldn’t say no to.”
Although the Women’s Super League (WSL) in England is universally admired, Walsh remembers those afternoons watching Barcelona play on TV; she remembers how she was so captivated, and that curiosity pushed her in favor of the move.
“Why I was younger, my dad made me watch Spanish football, but it all made me appreciate the style,” she says. “When I was younger, the English teams tended to kick the ball longer, but we always liked the way Barcelona played and the way the Spanish teams play. That had an influence on me. So even if he is also a City fan, it was a no-brainer for both of us.”
Barcelona paid a world-record transfer fee for Walsh and that comes with a sense of expectation, but Walsh says that’s nothing compared to the expectations within this group of players. That’s what keeps them all honest. “Playing for Barcelona carries its pressure,” she says. “It’s such a prestigious club, and wearing the shirt comes with pressure. But the more you play in those games and you get used to it, it gets a little easier.”
Walsh has enjoyed playing alongside Bonmati and Guijarro in midfield, but she is looking forward to her chance to play alongside the best player in the world, Putellas, who suffered an ACL injury in July 2022. “We really miss her. on the court, and I think even when she’s in the gym and in and around the physio room, you can see what a special presence she has,” Walsh says. “I think all the girls look up to her, but for me, it was not really a surprise to see that because we have so many world-class players.
“I talk a lot about Patri, but I think she does a lot of work that people don’t notice and for me she glues the team. She rotates the team, creates chances and assists. She does all the odd jobs that I think people don’t notice sometimes. It wasn’t a surprise that she went a bit higher, and Barcelona always win. For me, that makes perfect sense.
It’s those kinds of tactical adjustments and the need for adaptability that drive Walsh forward. She is encouraged to reflect on the pitch about her positioning and role in the same way coach Sarina Wiegman developed the England team. Instead of sitting deep and playing the ball wide down the flanks like Walsh did at City, she is encouraged by Barca boss Jonatan Giraldez and Wiegman to look forward, while looking for space and short passing.
“Here in Spain, it’s much more tiki taka, and it took me a bit of getting used to. Although City want to keep the ball, here you have to be constantly on the move and everything goes through their midfield.”
Walsh pushing herself out of her comfort zone is symptomatic of the environment Wiegman created and the advantages her England teammates enjoyed. Bronze has already explained how her time at Lyon (2017-20) made her a better player. Like Walsh, she swapped City for Barcelona in the offseason.
“I know coming to Barca can help me improve again,” Bronze said. “When I got the chance to go last summer it was always going to be overseas. Keira is similar, you feel uneasy for a little while and then once you get the languages down and different styles of play, your game just goes to another level.”
All of this brings us to The classicthe showpiece match of the Spanish season, as Saturday marks the second clash between Barcelona and Real in La Liga F.
Walsh has already experienced it twice this season. His first encounter with Real came on November 6 as Barca won 4-0 in the capital. They then met again in the Copa de la Reina semi-final in January, a match which Barcelona managed to win 3-1 despite Irene Paredes being sent off. Heading into Saturday’s game at the Estadi Johan Cruyff, Barca are overwhelming favorites to extend their league-leading 10-point lead against their former rivals.
“It’s definitely spicy. The atmosphere in the front locker room is different, you can see the fight and the passion the girls have for this game,” Walsh said. “Just playing these games is amazing. I grew up watching them on TV and being able to be in them is amazing.”
In the end, those matches were the occasions that encouraged her to leave behind everything she knew to experience something new and, in the process, improve as a player.
“These are the types of games you want to play as a professional,” says Walsh. “Being here and seeing the mentality of the staff, the players and the club, I think they’ve reached the Champions League final many times, but they don’t rest on that. They keep going and they want to win. more trophies. And that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”