Trying to pin down the best player of the year is no easy task and everyone will undoubtedly disagree with everyone else. Quite honestly, my personal number one for 2019 was Amandine Henry right until I was forced to sit down and evaluate every individual player over the calendar year. At that point the Frenchwoman was just overtaken by Norwegian winger Caroline Graham Hansen.
La misère Française
Yes, Graham Hansen wasn’t particularly good in the quarter final against England, but very few in the team were that day (shout-out to Karina Sævik). The Norwegian team has issues front to back and there was little pleasant about watching them fall apart in Le Havre. It was, arguably, a dismal World Cup for Norway who, despite reaching the last eight, consistently struggled to play good football, or at least, work as a team. Yet, there were bright spots for Martin Sjögren’s team; Guro Reiten had a good game against Nigeria, Vilda Bøe Risa was a consistent positive presence in the Norwegian midfield with Ingrid Syrstad Engen just as CGH tried to make the best of a bad situation.
The World Cup was arguably the low point for Graham Hansen this year, not least because of the lifeless way Norway went out to England, but because through it all she never hit her top gear as she does for her club team(s).
Maybe it’s because women’s football has such a blind spot when it comes to readily available stats for major leagues around the world that we consistently fall back on lauding strikers, even more than we usually would. A simple lack of assist stats – not the most involved of statistical analysis – has long been a thorn in my paw and is an area that has hurt Graham Hansen in the past.
There is a parallel trajectory between her career and that of Ada Hegerberg’s. Both were born in Norway in 1995, both earned their first senior caps in 2011 and played together at Stabæk in 2012, and both left over the summer of 2013 to move outside of Toppserien for the first time. Both had their own struggles at their new clubs, Hegerberg struggled with injury and clashed with then Turbine Potsdam coach Bernd Schröder as Graham Hansen was lost in the sea of talent at Tyresö (before the financial crisis caused the club to pull out of the Damallsvenskan season).
Summer 2014 saw both young Norwegians move again, Hegerberg to Olympic Lyonnais to catapult herself to the summit of women’s football around the world, and Graham Hansen to German champions, VfL Wolfsburg. As Ada’s star has risen, Graham Hansen has failed to capture the imagination of the women’s football world as much, despite her similarly world class talent. Could it simply be that whilst Ada was breaking goal-scoring records, firing in goal after goal for Lyon, Caro’s work on the wing, racking up an assist record that wasn’t as well tabulated and publicised?
In 2019 alone (51 matches) Graham Hansen has scored 28 goals for club and country, but has had a direct hand in 74 goals. Imagine if we praised assists as much as we do goals!
Is that enough to claim that she’s been the best player of the year? Maybe not. There is certainly no rule written anywhere that says the best player in the world has to be an attacker, even if there are few finer.
For Graham Hansen, who stayed faithful to Wolfsburg since moving to Lower Saxony ahead of the 2014-15 season, this summer was a time of change as she moved to another team who knew what it felt like to lose a UEFA Women’s Champions League final to Lyon: Barcelona.
For those unaware, the style of play in the Frauen-Bundesliga is, unsurprisingly, rather different to what you’d find in the Spanish Primera Iberdrola. The new league comes with new nuances. Yet, Caro seemed to need no time to settle into her new surroundings. Spanish defences traditionally mark players closely, suffocating attacks and giving them little to work with, just as Lieke Martens learned when she moved to Barcelona in 2017. But of course, Graham Hansen seemed utterly unperturbed and instantly fell into step with her new team, claiming her first competitive assist during the first half of her first match for the Catalans, a ruthless 9-1 thrashing of CD Tacón.
Barcelona’s attack is part beauty, part chaos: Jenni Hermoso, Mariona, Aitana Bonmatí, Asisat Oshoala, Patri, Alexia Putellas, and even Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi bombing on from fullback. With a new style, new teammates, new rhythms to understand, Graham Hansen took to her new team like a duck to water, understanding what her teammates needed with barely a pause along the way.
Even though her stats for Barcelona aren’t as eye-popping as they could be, with just a direct hand in 14 of the 43 goals the Catalans have scored so far this season in all competitions, she is already a vital component to the team. As MARCA correspondent David Menayo asked after Graham Hansen was subbed off during the first half against Valencia (the Norwegian carrying a knock going into the game), ¿Crees que existe Hansendependencia en el Barça? (Do you think there is Hansen dependence in Barça?)
Jenni leads the way for Barça this season with 12 goals in 10 league matches, and is another who has seamlessly integrated into the team after a summer move – although the Spaniard is well used to the league and has previously played for Barcelona. However, Graham Hansen’s importance for Barcelona as they desperately try to claim their first league title for five years can not be overstated, even with all parts of the fluid Barça attack all chipping in.
Like Homer Simpson thinking about food, CGH is similarly known for her dribbling. With almost a touch of the Brazilian ginga about her, there is something entirely captivating about how the Norwegian sways and scythes about with the ball on her toe. A slight shimmy of the hips and she can leave even the most experienced of attackers going for a proverbial hot dog. Her ability to outfox her marker is inherent to her game. Inside, outside, under, over, through Graham Hansen always finds a way to come out on top.
Not as playful as her Brazilian counterparts, Caro has found a way of marrying the flair with a straightforward, spatially-conscientious Norwegian style that punishes defences around the world time and again.
There are few in the world who’d think to put Caroline Graham Hansen at the top of their list of the best players in the world this year, even those who follow Wolfsburg, Barcelona or Norway. But, from her absolute sauce on the dribble to ease of moving club and showing up on the biggest stages, in the biggest matches and making every team she plays in better, for me, there is no question, she’s the player of the year.