Want to cook up a get-rich-quick scheme? Figure out who wins the UEFA Champions League. Although the tournament purports to crown the champions of Europe, the best team in Europe usually don’t win it.
Let’s start in 2010-11. OK, bad example. That’s the 2010-11 Barcelona team that Sir Alex Ferguson called the best side he’d ever seen. The next year, though? Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League — and won the Champions League.
Bayern Munich were the best team in 2012-13 when they won it all, but the next season, Real Madrid finished third in LaLiga and lifted the cup. In 2014-15, it was the other potential best team of all time, the Lionel Messi–Luis Suarez–Neymar Barcelona.
Then, once again, it was Real Madrid, who, once again, didn’t win their domestic league. In 2016-17, Real Madrid won it again and did win their domestic league this time. They dropped down to third the following season, but still won the Champions League again — beating the fourth-place team in England in the final. That team, Liverpool, rose up to second the following season and won the Champions League. In 2020-21, Bayern eviscerated everyone; they were the best team in the world.
Last year, Chelsea beat Manchester City in the final. Chelsea also finished 19 points behind City in the Premier League.
Put another way, just five of the previous 11 Champions League winners have won their domestic league. Since 2010, Real Madrid have won the Champions League twice as many times as they’ve won LaLiga. And yet, this is the defining competition in modern soccer, the tournament that drives everyone mad and, at least half of the time, leaves us with unlikely champions who we all scramble to explain after the fact.
The simple explanation for all this: Knockout soccer is random. Anything can happen across the seven matches it takes to go from the round of 16 to lifting the trophy, which is what makes this tournament so great.
Legacies are defined by a couple of coin flips among the greatest players and coaches in the world. We don’t need rote dominance over a large-enough sample of matches to truly determine the best team — we already have domestic soccer for that — but that also doesn’t mean the Champions League is totally random, either. Otherwise, I don’t know, Ferencvaros or Krasnodar would’ve won this thing at some point in the past decade.
There are some patterns that have united all of the previous champions since the 2010-11 season, and we can apply those to all of the teams in this year’s last 16. We’ll run through a number of statistical categories and eliminate the teams that don’t meet the threshold until there’s a team or two still standing.
Is this the most scientific approach? No. Is it more fun this way? Absolutely. Let’s get to it.
All stats are up to date through Feb. 11 and come courtesy of Stats Perform. Domestic play only.
Measurement No. 1: Scoring enough goals
Surprisingly, the fewest goals scored by a Champions League winner since 2010 does not come from the only Champions League winner since 2010 to finish behind Newcastle United in the league table. The 2011-12 Chelsea team scored 1.7 goals per game, but last year’s Chelsea squeezed even more juice out of the lemon with 1.5 goals per game. Those are the only European champs with fewer than 2.0 goals per game. The average among winners is 2.5, and four teams — both Bayern winners, 2014-15 Barca and 2015-16 Madrid — are tied for the most with 2.9.
The teams who tend to win this tend to be the ones who can blow their opponents off the field on a given night and remove some of the variance that defines most soccer matches, but it’s possible to win it all with a meeker attack — and a Russian oligarch funding your roster, too. Only one team in this year’s field fails to meet the minimum mark: Lille, who are averaging 1.3 goals in Ligue 1 and have a -4 goal differential.
Teams eliminated: Lille
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax Amsterdam, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Internazionale, Juventus, Manchester United, Benfica, FC Salzburg, Sporting CP
Measurement No. 2: Goals against
Unsurprisingly, the most goals scored by a Champions League winner since 2010 comes from the only Champions League winner since 2010 to finish behind Newcastle United in the league table. However, they’re not alone at the bottom. Both 2011-12 Chelsea and 2017-18 Real Madrid allowed 1.2 goals per game en route to their titles.
For reference, the average Premier League team allowed 1.3 goals per game last season. The average Champions League winner, though, has allowed 0.9 goals per game, with the best mark (0.5) going to Jupp Heynckes’ 2012-13 Bayern Munich team.
Before we get to the eliminations here, it’s worth pointing out that Lille are both scoring the fewest goals and allowing the most goals (1.5) of any remaining team in the tournament. Life comes at you fast and all that.
Both Manchester United and Atletico Madrid are gone, too. Shockingly, Diego Simeone’s side are allowing 1.4 goals per game this year — the second-highest total of all the teams in the round of 16. What happened to goalkeeper Jan Oblak? Atleti’s opponents in the round of 16, United, have improved defensively under Ralf Rangnick, but their season-long rate (1.3 goals per game) doesn’t meet the threshold, either.
Interestingly, the second-favourites to win it all (per Pinnacle), Bayern Munich, just sneak in here, as they’re conceding 1.1 goals per game. Something to keep an eye on, at least.
Teams eliminated: Atletico Madrid, Manchester United
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Inter Milan, Juventus, Benfica, Salzburg, Sporting
Measurement No. 3: Field control
OK, so we know that attack seems a little more important than defence. Teams with average defences have won the Champions League before, while no team with an average attack has done it. But what about how they control the ball? Rather than looking at possession, we’ll consider “field tilt,” which is the percentage of all the final-third passes in a match completed by one team. It’s a ratio of how many final-third passes you complete vs. how many you allow, and it’s a good representation for how effective you are at controlling the field. The average winner since 2010 produced a field tilt of 63.9%; the high comes from 2014-15 Barcelona (74%) and the low from 2011-12 Chelsea (56.1%).
Among the remaining sides, only Juventus fail to meet the threshold. They’re just barely edging the field-tilt battle (50.4%) in Serie A this season, and that number has been in decline for a couple of years now, too. Under Maurizio Sarri in 2019-20, they produced their highest number since 2010 (62.8%). It dropped to 53.5% under Andrea Pirlo, and it’s fallen even further in Massimiliano Allegri’s first season back with the club.
Unfortunately, we also have to eliminate FC Salzburg here, too. The real reason is that we don’t have access to this data for the Austrian Bundesliga, but we’ll call it measurement No. 3-B: no team from Austria has ever won the Champions League.
Teams eliminated: Juventus, Salzburg
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Inter Milan, Benfica, Sporting
Measurement No. 4: Shots
No team has won the Champions League since 2010 without attempting at least 14.6 shots per game. The defending champs (Chelsea) lowered the previous mark just slightly, which was Liverpool’s 15.1 in 2018-19. The average among the winners is 17.2 shots per game, and the high-water mark was Real Madrid’s 19.5 shots per game in 2013-14.
Simply put: To win the Champions League, you need to take a ton of shots. The only remaining team who don’t do that are Unai Emery’s Villarreal, who are attempting just 12.5 shots per game, the second-lowest mark among all the teams in the round of 16. The 10 teams left all pass the requisite thresholds for a number of other shot-based metrics, too: shots against, expected goals per shot and xG per shot allowed.
Teams eliminated: Villarreal
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Benfica, Sporting
Measurement No. 5: A crossing equilibrium
As a general rule, crossing is inefficient. It’s soccer’s version of the bunt or a run on first down. Most of them get blocked or cleared, and the most likely outcome of a given cross is … a transition opportunity for your opponent.
Here is a quick glance at cross outcomes. I used the same framework as I did for corners to look at a whole sequence until its termination.
Do we have expected values wrong by only looking at direct shots (which lead to a goal 2.1% of the time here)?
— danzn1 (@danzn1) January 30, 2019
Of course, not all crosses are created equal, and neither are all crossers. A pacey cutback is better than a lofted ball from the sideline, and a wide pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold or Kevin De Bruyne is better than, well, a wide pass from pretty much anyone else. Plus, crossing keeps the defence honest. If you never cross the ball, the defence never has to worry about it, and they can pack even more bodies into central areas to make your noncrossing possessions less efficient, too.
For our purposes, we want our prospective champions to fall somewhere within a band created on the top by 2011-12 Chelsea and the bottom by 2010-11 Barcelona. For the former, 19.7% of their final-third passes were crosses, while the latter came in at 8.7%. Given that they happened in consecutive years, it’s almost like one approach was a response to the other.
Two remaining teams run afoul of our desired equilibrium: Sporting CP, who are crossing the ball with an absurd 20.8% of their final-third passes, and PSG, who cross with just 8.3% of their attacking-third passes. For the latter, that number might speak to a lack of physicality or diversity of approaches among their attackers. All of the other favourites have goal scorers who can score from settled possession, through counterattacks or by attacking a quick aerial ball into the box.
Teams eliminated: PSG, Sporting
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Benfica
Measurement No. 6: Pressing
All previous 11 Champions League winners were one of two things: A) hard to pass against, or B) Real Madrid. Eight of the champs since 2010 allowed opponents pass-completion percentage below 80.0%, while Madrid’s opponents completed at least four in five passes in all three consecutive title seasons under Zinedine Zidane. His Madrid sides would often lose control of matches — when they’d be unable to get the ball — only to be saved by a moment of individual brilliance or a rival’s high-leverage ineptitude.
The average winners have held opponents to a 77.2% pass-completion rate, while the worst mark (81.8%) was recorded by Madrid in 2016-17. Even easier to pass against, though, are this year’s Real Madrid, who are allowing 82.9% of passes to be completed. When Carlo Ancelotti won the tournament with Madrid in 2013-14, his team pressed relatively effectively (77.4%), but that hasn’t carried over to his second stint with the club, perhaps because he has many of the same players — just eight years older.
That theme extends to Inter Milan, who have the third-oldest team (adjusted by minutes played) in Europe’s Big Five leagues this season, per the site FBref. Their average age is 29.5 — only Lazio and Elche are rolling out older lineups — and they’re allowing their opponents to complete 83% of their passes this season.
Teams eliminated: Real Madrid, Inter Milan
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Chelsea, Benfica
Measurement No. 7: Protecting your box
All of the remaining six teams score a lot, concede few, dominate territory, shoot a bunch, cross the ball in moderation and make it hard on their opponents to pass the ball. So it’s time to start nitpicking.
Given how important a single goal can be in this tournament, the winners all tend to play a style that reduces the randomness in their defensive third. They keep their opponents out of the penalty area, which makes them less likely to concede a penalty or a closer-range shot that might be well-covered, only for it to still end up deflecting into the goal. The average winner has conceded just 14.7 penalty-area touches per match, with a peak of 18.4 allowed by Real Madrid in 2015-16 and a low of 10.6 allowed by 2010-11 Barcelona, who also allowed by far the lowest pass-completion percentage (71.1%). We think of them as a brilliant possession team; they were one of the great defensive teams of all time, too.
That means goodbye to the defending champs, Chelsea, who are allowing 18.7 touches in their penalty area this season — up from 15.7 last term. For all the consternation about Chelsea’s expensive, misfiring attack this season, the defence has fallen off a good bit from the second half of last season’s historic run.
Teams eliminated: Chelsea
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax, Benfica
Measurement No. 8: Fouls
No team in the last 11 years has won the Champions League while fouling opponents more than 13 times per game (2012-13 Bayern); the average is 10.8. My theory is that there’s some indicator of control here. If you have to foul a ton, you’re either overaggressive or constantly losing the ball in positions that require a rule violation in order to prevent greater damage, or both. More fouls also means you’re more likely to get a red card, which is a killer in a knockout tournament, or multiple yellow cards, which can lead to the suspension of key players.
Benfica’s continued existence in this process is mainly due to the fact that they play in the weaker Portuguese league, but their journey ends here. They’re committing 13.7 fouls per match, which is essentially a statistical proxy for “this team plays in the Primeira Liga,” where the ball is never in play.
Football is often regarded as a 90-minute game but how long does the ball actually remain in play for?
I looked at 19 professional football leagues at different levels and here are the results: pic.twitter.com/72WiKh7K6q
— UtdArena (@UtdArena) February 7, 2022
Teams eliminated: Benfica
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Ajax
Measurement No. 9: Pace
Manchester City have adapted to the pandemic era of soccer by slowing things down to a crawl. They press less aggressively, attempt easier passes and take their time getting up the field. It worked brilliantly in domestic play, as they moonwalked to a title last season and are heavy favourites again this season despite directly competing with two of the five best teams in the world. Now, they’re moving a little faster this season — with a little more rest for their players and fans back in the stands — but they might as well be going in reverse compared to the previous 11 Champions League winners.
Since 2010, the average winner has moved the ball upfield at a rate of 1.54 meters per second. The high was 1.87 m/s for Chelsea in 2011-12, and the low was 1.15 m/s for Chelsea last year. Roman Abramovich’s club contains multitudes.
This season, City are moving the ball upfield at just 1.05 meters per second. It obviously can work; they made the final last season with an even slower approach. But beyond sheer randomness, this is the main reason the favourites might not win — again. It will inevitably happen at some point in the next few rounds, so how will City cope when the pace of the game gets out of hand? Against this level of competition, they won’t be able to control every minute of every match.
Teams eliminated: Manchester City
Teams remaining: Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Ajax
Measurement No. 10: Passing
Compared to all of the previous winners, there’s almost no area where these three remaining teams don’t measure up favourably, so we’re going to end it here: What percentage of your passes do you complete? The efficacy of this number should be captured somewhere in all of the other numbers. If you’re dominating in essentially every statistical category that’s even just vaguely connected to winning games, then you’re probably completing enough of your passes.
But not for us! We are grading on whatever the opposite of a curve is. (A straight line? A 90-degree angle?)
I’ve gone through around 100 different stats at this point to try to separate these teams — number of shots from individual play, pullbacks, pass distance for all passes before the final third, pass distance for all passes, percent of shots with your head, percent of possessions that reach the penalty area that lead to shots, passes per second of possession, and lots more — and they all hit the benchmarks.
Except, just barely, this one.
Liverpool are completing 84.1% of their passes this season. Since 2010, no team has won the Champions League without completing at least 84.5% of their passes — a mark that was matched by 2018-19 Liverpool. Yes, those 0.4 percentage points are completely imperceptible to the human eye, and one game could easily shift Jurgen Klopp and Co. back above the threshold. Just, like, complete five extra sideways passes and you’re there — but, well, you’re not there yet, so you’re outta here.
And so, that leaves us with Bayern Munich and Ajax.
Consider Bayern the most champion-like side among the five favourites to win it all, and consider Ajax the dark horse that looks most like future winners. Sure, Erik ten Hag’s team play in the Dutch Eredivisie, but they’ve scored 64 goals and conceded just five in 21 matches — and they were just as dominant among the better competition of the Champions League group stages. No matter where they’ve played so far this season, Ajax have looked like one of the best teams in the world. The same goes for Bayern … but you already knew that.
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