How do you win the Champions League?
I’ve been trying and failing to answer this question for a while now. Broadly, the answer is obvious, score more goals than your opponents, or at least more away goals than your opponents, for four straight rounds. But how do you do it? Is there a secret sauce, a certain mix of talent and tactics that flourishes in a knockout competition between the world’s 16 or so best teams? And how is it different from what’s required to clinch a title over a 38-game season against teams of varying quality?
Pep Guardiola has built comprehensive sides that totally dominate every phase of domestic play, but he keeps falling short in the knockout rounds. Zinedine Zidane, meanwhile, guided a collection of superstar talents to an incredible three year run that included only one league title but three straight Champions League victories. In 2017-18, Real Madrid were the third best team in Spain and the best team in the world. It sure seemed like something about the Real teams made them more likely to perform well in the Champions League and something about Pep’s Manchester City and Bayern Munich teams made them less likely to carry their country level dominance over to the continent.
Except, the first time the two managers met in Europe, last season, Pep’s City comprehensively dismantled Zidane’s Madrid in a year when City lost the league and Madrid actually won it. Plus, Guardiola won the Champions League in two of his first three seasons as a manager. Perhaps the greatest manager to ever do it, Sir Alex Ferguson, took home the European Cup twice, in his entire career. Maybe there isn’t any kind of secret sauce here. Maybe it’s all just luck, luck of the draw, luck of the matchup, luck of the referee whistle, luck of the right rebound. All you can really do is build the kind of team that dominates domestically and hope your shit works in the Champions League a couple times. Chasing after Madrid’s success even for the manager who oversaw it might just be like chasing after 21 straight coin flips that land on the same side
The beauty of this question and the competition that keeps asking it is that we still don’t really know the answer, and we might not ever now. Or, when we figure out the answer, the sport could suddenly change. But in order to at least find our footing, we can look to the past. Last year for ESPN, I broke down the statistical profiles of the previous nine Champions League winners to try to figure out which of the 2019-20 participants looked most like the past champions. The answer: PSG.
They came in second, so pretty close. We’ve got more data this time around more seasons in the Stats Perform database, plus 19-20 Bayern Munich get thrown into the champions pool so let’s give it another shot. How do this year’s competitors compare to all the Champions League champions since 2008-09?
We’ll start off with the basics and where last year’s winners shined. Among the previous 12 winners, no one scored more goals than Bayern Munich’s absurd 2.94 goals per game last season. On the other side of the spectrum is Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea, who are on the other side of the spectrum for, just about all of these stats. They finished sixth in the Premier League in 2011-12, and their joint leading scorers were Frank Lampard and Daniel Sturridge, with 11 a piece. They averaged 1.71 goals per 90 minutes.
Seemingly a low bar to clear, but apparently not low enough for a couple of this year’s competitors. Funnily enough, this year’s Chelsea team is scoring fewer goals per match (1.65) than that year’s Chelsea team. Then there’s Lazio (1.68), who somehow have the same number of points in Serie A as both Napoli and Atalanta despite a measly plus-7 goal differential.
However, both Chelsea and Lazio look like Bayern Munich compared to Sevilla, who are averaging 1.45 goals per game in La Liga this season. I’ve sometimes thought that teams that are used to playing defensively might have a hidden advantage against the elite teams in the Champions League they get to play they always play, compared to a dominant side that suddenly sees less of the ball against another dominant side but you know what’s better than sucking the life out of matches, Scoring a ton of goals. Teams with Sevilla’s lack of prolificacy just haven’t been able to put enough points on the board to advance through four separate knockout rounds.
Once again, Bobby Di Matteo and Co. lead the way in the wrong way. They conceded 1.21 goals per 90 minutes in 2011-12. In fact, only four of the last 12 winners allowed more than a goal per game. Chelsea, plus Real Madrid in 16-17 and 17-18. The best defensive team to win it all was, surprisingly, not Jose Mourinho’s Inter. They allowed 0.89 goals per game, a number bested by Liverpool in 18-19 (0.58), Barcelona in 14-15 and 10-11 (0.55), and Bayern Munich in 12-13 (0.53). They’re not typically thought of in this way, but given that all four of these teams paired elite defense with attacks that were more than good enough to win the Champions League, perhaps this quartet of sides should be remembered as the best defenses of the modern era.
Two teams without anything close to an elite defense. Marco Rose’s current and future employers. Borussia Dortmund and Monchengladbach enter the Round of 16 with the joint worst defensive records, allowing 1.48 goals per game. They turn the average Bundesliga team into a better attacking side than, well, Sevilla.
For the second year running, Atalanta get cut down at the second hurdle. The openness at the back is why we love them (1.32 goals allowed), but also why they probably won’t win the Champions League. We saw it happen last year: they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead over PSG, but the defense couldn’t even push the game into extra time, as they conceded twice after the 89th minute to lose, 2-1, in regulation.
Now, if you listen to the sports books and you should; they know more about sports than you then Bayern Munich are joint favorites to win this thing, while Liverpool are the clear third favorite to take home the trophy for the second time in three years.
But if either of the past two winners are to win again, they’re either going to have to suddenly tighten things up at the back, or triumph with a weaker rearguard than any of the previous 12 European champs. Liverpool are allowing 1.33 goals per game, and Bayern aren’t much better at 1.30. Plus, they both have underlying numbers roughly equal to the Chelsea mark. Liverpool with 1.2 xG allowed per 90, and Bayern at 1.22 so it’s not like we should really expect a ton of improvement, either. Bayern can blow anyone off the field they’re scoring the most goals of any team in the field but they’re allowing nearly a half a goal per game more than they were last year. Thanks to the struggling backlines, both them and Liverpool seem vulnerable to an upset against just about anyone in the field.
We’re talking field tilt: your total completed final third passes, compared to your opponent’s total completed final third passes. Since 2008-09, no team has won the Champions League without completing at least 55 percent of the final-third passes in their matches. Wanna win it all, you might need to spend significantly more time near your opponents goal than you do your own. Well, duh, and well, at least we’ve found a place where Chelsea don’t set the minimum. No, that would go to Mourinho’s Inter, who, you guessed it, completed 55 percent of the final third passes in their matches. Funnily enough, Barcelona won the Champions League the following year with 73.1 percent of the final third passes something of a reputation of the Mourinho approach and the high-water mark in the metric until Luis Enrique’s Barcelona won it all in 14-15 with a 74-percent share of the final-third passes. They’re the best soccer team I’ve ever seen.
This year’s iteration of Barcelona isn’t anywhere close to either of those just mentioned sides, but they’re at least keeping the tradition going by leading all remaining sides with 70.8 percent of the final third passes. In La Liga, they’re currently eight points behind Atletico Madrid, who might as well wear orange and green stripes to get their point across. Diego Simeone’s side have completed 51 percent of the final third passes in their matches this season, which ties them with Gladbach for dead last among this year’s Round of 16 participants. They somehow punched their way out of the group stages with a negative goal differential, but it’s gonna be really hard to thread that needle for seven more games.
One clear way soccer has changed at the top level: the best teams don’t shoot like they used to. Among the past 12 champs, the average winner took 17.5 shots per match. The leaders among this year’s participants, Bayern Munich, are only averaging 16.15 shots per game. Overall, the best teams are taking slightly better shots than they used to, but really, their attacks are just worse than they used to be. If it feels like a down year across Europe, it’s because it is. The top teams just aren’t as good as they’ve been over the past 10 plus years.
On our list of winners, the most shot-shy team was Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who averaged 15.13 shots per match. The most-shots award goes to Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, who racked up an absurd 19.53 attempts per game. That same quality, unfortunately, has not carried over to the current iteration of the club. Zidane’s side are attempting 13.48 shots per match. Will they be able to generate enough attempts against that suspect Atalanta defense. Maybe, but a team that takes fewer than 14 shots hasn’t won this tournament in a long time.
At the other end of the field, only one of the teams in the Round of 16. Gladbach is allowing more shots than Mourinho’s Inter allowed (12.61) route to winning the competition in 09-10. However, that same Inter side allowed the lowest quality shots (0.071 xG per shot) of any of the previous 12 champs. The winner to allow the best shots is actually last year’s Bayern Munich, who conceded shots worth, on average, 0.124 xG. Liverpool concede the best shots in this year’s field (0.144 xG/shot), but Barcelona are second worst at 0.131 xG/shot. Despite a disappointing place in the La Liga table, Ronald Koeman’s Barca have pretty much all of the statistical makings of a Champions League winner except this one. Then again, the same thing was true about Bayern Munich. Can Barca up the ante? For our purposes, we’re gonna say no.
There seems to be a sweet spot here; don’t move too fast, or too slow. Given the number of different teams from different countries with different stylistic profiles, the teams that win the Champions League tend to be teams that can comfortably operate across a spectrum of speed.
Measurement of how quickly a team’s possessions move toward the opposition goal. The fastest winner was Chelsea, with a direct speed of 1.87 meters per second. You might think that’s just an indicator of the fact that, you know, Chelsea weren’t very good. They were countering a lot because they had to, or something like that. Except, Ancelotti’s shot-monsters at Madrid were just behind them, at 1.82 meters per second. I guess that’s what happens when you play Angel Di Maria in the midfield.
On the other end of the spectrum, it will not shock you to hear that the slowest winner was Pep’s Barcelona in 2010-11, who moved upfield at a rate of 1.31 meters/second. It might also not shock you that Pep’s current team are the slowest team left in the field. But if Manchester City win it all this season, they will be so much slower than anyone else who’s recently done it. City’s direct speed is a glacial 1.05 meters/second. So, if you’re looking for a reason why City will once again fail to turn a dominant domestic season into grander European success beyond, you know, then this would be it. What happens if they can’t keep the game at their preferred pace.
Same goes for Juventus, to a lesser extent. Their direct speed sits at 1.23 meters/second. That’s still lower but also a lot closer to what we’ve seen from previous winners, and given that the pandemic has made the game somewhat less intense this season both from a pace and pressing perspective, it feels like it’s close enough. It’d be one hell of a thing if, in his first season as a manager, Andrea Pirlo won the Champions League but lost Serie A for the first time in nine years. We’ll believe it when we see it, though.
We have entered the picking-nits stage of proceedings. Last season’s semi finalists and this season’s Group H members both look a lot like champions. OK fine, they look nothing like champions, frankly. RBL are currently in second place in the Bundesliga. As evidenced by their place on this list, they do everything well. Except they do it without a goal-scorer. In the Bundesliga, no one on the team has scored more than four goals. In the Champions League, the only player to nab more than one was Angelino, who is a fullback. He’s their leading scorer in the Bundesliga plus Champions League, and can that distribution of responsibilities really lead to a European Cup. Julian Nagelsmann is practicing some kind of unholy alchemy in Saxony.
PSG, meanwhile, are currently in second place in Ligue 1. 58-percent chance of winning the league that they’re supposed to win in their deep sleep. It’s not really like they’ve been unlucky, either. Lyon, who are in third, have a better expected goal differential than the Parisians. Well things have been going so poorly that they fired their coach, who is now coaching the fifth place team in England, and replaced him with the coach who was fired by the ninth place team in England.
Of course, the last time we saw that coach, Mauricio Pochettino, in the Champions League knockout stages, he was guiding a much, much less talented Tottenham team to the final. They’re stuck with a rough first round matchup against Barcelona, and it looks like they’ll be without Angel Di Maria and Neymar for both matches. But they still have maybe the best player in the world in Kylian Mbappe, and they still have almost all of the players who nearly took down Bayern Munich in last season’s final.
More importantly, for our purposes, they also have the requisite passing percentage. No winner has completed fewer than 82.9 percent of their passes (Mourinho’s Inter, again), and RBL are ever so slightly below that rate (82.4) so far this season, while PSG lead all 16 teams with an 89.4 completions percentage.
And so, we land on PSG for the second year in a row, but rather than focusing specifically on them, this is the more important point. No matter who wins the Champions League this year, we’re gonna see a winner we’ve never seen before either in how they play or from the name on their jersey.
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