When Barcelona came knocking, Keira Walsh could have chosen the familiar path, one of certainty and comfort.
It happened a few days after England had won the 2022 European Championship. She was settled at Manchester City, the team she and her father had supported all their lives. Regarded as one of the world's best players, the environment she'd established was all attuned to her improving her upward trajectory.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
But that's not her way. The lure of the Champions League proved too much, and as she said: when Barcelona comes knocking, it's tough to turn them down. Especially when you're a ball-playing No. 6, the core of a team's possession and movement between defence and attack.
"Every midfielder wants to play for Barcelona," Walsh tells ESPN. "You grow up watching Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Sergio] Busquets, and to be part of this club is amazing. And then you look at who I'd be playing with: Patri [Guijarro], Aitana [Bonmati] and Alexia [Putellas.] So the chance to learn off them, see how they play and improve my game, yeah, I'm really happy to be here."
Walsh is speaking at the Barcelona training ground. At that stage, the club was looking toward the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal with Roma, a match they'd go on to win 1-0 in Italy.
Barcelona, the sport's most dominant women's club team, is flying in Liga F this season. They're 10 points clear of Real Madrid with a frankly ridiculous record: 22 wins from 22, 98 goals scored and just five conceded. It begs the question: if their path to the top of the league and their fourth consecutive league title looks a foregone conclusion, is it easy for them to go into cruise control?
In short: no. When Walsh gets into training, she sees the other players in the club and the lengths they go to get better, and she's out of her comfort zone, away from home, and focusing every day on improving and live up to the famous club crest.
The tipping point for Walsh was Manchester City falling short in the Champions League. When she lined up against Real Madrid in their qualifier in August 2022, it was less than a month after she'd won the Euros. Her City teammate Lucy Bronze had already announced her move to Barca, while Georgia Stanway, her England midfield partner, had agreed to join Bayern Munich. City would lose the qualifier to Real Madrid at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano 1-0, with former City star Caroline Weir scoring the only goal. It was at that moment Walsh knew she needed a new challenge.
"It was probably not reaching those end stages of the Champions League and not even qualifying for the tournament [which did it]," Walsh says. "When a club like Barcelona comes in, it was very difficult to say no. Man City is my home club: it wasn't an easy decision. But the chance to play Champions League football and win trophies meant it was something I couldn't say no to."
Though Women's Super League (WSL) in England is universally admired, Walsh remembered those afternoons watching Barcelona play on the TV; she recalls how she was so enthralled, and that curiosity pushed her in favour of the move.
"Why I was younger, my dad made me watch Spanish football, but that all made me appreciate the style," she says. "When I was younger, English teams tended to kick the ball longer, but we always appreciated the way Barcelona played and the way Spanish teams play. That had an influence on me. So even though he's a City fan as well, it was a no-brainer for both of us."
Barcelona paid a reported world-record transfer fee for Walsh and with that comes a sense of expectation, but Walsh says it's nothing compared to the expectations within this group of players. That's what keeps them all honest. "Playing for Barcelona does carry its pressure," she says. "It's such a prestigious club, and wearing the shirt it does come with pressure. But the more you play in those games and get used to it, it does get a little bit easier."
Walsh has enjoyed playing alongside Bonmati and Guijarro in midfield, but she's eagerly waiting for her chance to play alongside the world's best player, Putellas, who suffered an ACL injury in July 2022. "We really do miss her on the pitch, 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 wasn't really a surprise to see that because we have so many world-class players.
"I do speak about Patri a lot, but I think she does a lot of work that people don't notice and for me, she glues the team together. She keeps the team ticking over and creating chances and assisting. She does all the little jobs that I think people don't notice sometimes. It wasn't a surprise that she's moved a little bit higher up, and Barcelona are still winning. For me, it makes perfect sense."
It's those sorts of tactical tweaks and need for adaptability that push Walsh on. She's encouraged to think on the field about her positioning and role in a similar way to how coach Sarina Wiegman has developed the England team. Instead of sitting deep and playing the ball wide to the flanks like Walsh did at City, she's encouraged by both Barca boss Jonatan Giraldez and Wiegman to look forward, while also looking for space and short passes.
"Here in Spain it's a lot more tiki taka, and it took me a little bit of time to get 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 created by Wiegman, and the benefits her England teammates have enjoyed. Bronze has spoken previously about how her time at Lyon (2017-20) made her a better player. Like Walsh, she swapped City for Barcelona in the offseason.
"I know that coming to Barça can help improve me again," Bronze said. "When I had the chance to leave last summer, it was always going to be abroad. Keira is similar, you feel uncomfortable for a little bit and then once you get to grips with languages and different styles of play, your game just goes to another level."
All of which brings us to El Clasico, the marquee match in the Spanish season, as Saturday brings the second clash between Barcelona and Real in Liga F.
Walsh has experienced it twice already this season. Her first encounter with Real was on Nov. 6 as Barca won 4-0 in the capital. They then met again in the semifinals of the Copa de la Reina in January, a match Barcelona managed to win 3-1 despite Irene Paredes being sent off. Heading into Saturday's match at Estadi Johan Cruyff, Barca are overwhelming favourites to extend that 10-point lead at the top of the league against their old rivals.
"It definitely is spicy. The atmosphere in the changing room before is different, you can see the fight and the passion the girls have for this game," Walsh says. "Just to play in these games is unbelievable. I've grown up watching them on TV and to be able to feature in them is incredible."
In the end, these games are 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 sorts of games you want to be playing as a professional," Walsh says. "Being here and seeing the mentality of the staff and the players and the club, I think they've reached the Champions League finals time after time, 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 part of."