The Champions League is the pinnacle of global soccer. It’s the only time we are sure to see teams from disparate leagues matching up at full strength with the same incentives. It’s also the only time we get to see teams from leagues off beaten path match up against the big boys and get their day in the wider public eye. So it’s kind of strange how it can sometimes be treated a bit like an afterthought in English writing and specifically among stats writers. I get why: it’s much harder to draw conclusions over a smaller sample and the wild differences in opponents make it hard to compare teams that the satisfyingly balanced league schedules absolve make easier.
With those limitations in mind, I still think there are lots of insights to be grabbed from looking deep into the Champions League stats. Right now is the perfect time, with 3 rounds down and the next kicking off today. We will look at the surprising blowouts in Group D, which of the little guys can hang, the battle for coefficient (not that one), Leverkusen’s softening press (?), and the fascinating subject of changing pass lengths and how that reflects on domestic leagues.
The Madness of Group D
After the draw, this was clearly the group to watch. 4 teams from Europe’s top 4 leagues in one group is reasonably rare. Last years Europa League winner in Sevilla, UCL runner up in Juventus and European-narrative-around-the-neck-having Man City joined a team I was fascinated to see make the jump to the big stage in Gladbach. I wondered in my Bundesliga preview whether their distinctive style of play would hold up on a bigger stage. That style is now in transition as Lucien Favre has been replaced by Andre Schubert but whatever Gladbach has done in the UCL, it has been torn apart.
In fact, this group which seemed the most evenly balanced has given us 4 of the most lopsided games so far. The combined deep completion maps for each of those games (separate colors representing the two different teams in a game) are below:
for Gladbach-City (81 deep completions by City are most by any team in a single game so far)
and in a non-Gladbach game that will stand out as one of the more dominant and surprising results of the year, Juventus-Sevilla (24-1 in shots)
City-Sevilla and City-Juve have been the only really competitive games for 90 minutes so far in a group that promised much more.
The little guys
One of the best parts of the Champions League is seeing teams you’d never otherwise watch show up and make a name for themselves. Basel, Shakhtar, Porto, Galatasaray, Zenit, and Celtic have had great moments in the last few competitions that remind you just how many good players and teams there are out there outside the top leagues. We also generally have more data and see bigger teams a lot more so we need to conclude more on these sides in the small UCL sample.
Here we will use territorial data to see who among the small sides can hang and be competitive and who is just happy to be here. I use territorial data because it reflects team quality rather well and stabilizes extremely quickly on the offensive side especially.
BATE-the 2-0 win over Bayern a few years ago was not a sign of a Belarusian surge.
Maccabi Tel Aviv-provided maybe the scenes of the tournament so far with their celebration in front of a roaring crowd when they beat Basel in the playoff, but were lucky to advance after being thoroughly outplayed by the Swiss side and have been unsurprisingly battered in group play.
Astana-A fun story for the first Kazakh team ever in the Group Stage and a solid performance to get a home point against Galatasaray but still not close.
Possibly can’t hang but extenuating circumstances mean we just don’t know
Olympiakos-Have had to play Bayern and Arsenal which is brutal for anyone but have created extremely little even against Zagreb.
Can hang to some degree
Dynamo Kiev-drew with Porto and Chelsea at home by completely constricting the game. Bland attack (though Everton fans might not agree) but holding teams like Porto and Chelsea to under 20 deep completions shows enough defensive solidity to rate a very conditional hang-with-rating. Creating offense over a 3-game span would be a much better indicator.
Shakhtar Donetsk-They have been outscored 8-0 which makes it weird to see them here, but their passing rating is 6th best in the Champions League. This factors in pass origin and destination with regard to how far from goal the ball is played from, 1 is set to be league average for an EPL team. So a completed 15 yard pass in your own half counts for much less than one in the opposition box. Shakhtar were put in a brutal group, they are good enough to advance normally.
Realizing too late the labeling mistake: 1st MUN is Bayern, mid-pack MUN is Manchester United. GLA=Gladbach.
Galatasaray– A disappointing performance in Kazakhstan where they deservedly drew against Astana has Gala behind the 8-ball in terms of advancing but they have essentially played evenly with Atletico at home and Benfica away. The Atletico performance was particularly impressive as they put up the 7th most deep completions any team has on Simeone’s side since the start of last season (out of 51 games). Only Real Madrid, Sevilla x2, Real Sociedad and Barca x2 topped the 36 Gala piled up.
KAA Gent-Had 55% possession away at Valencia and 58% away at Zenit in close losses that could have easily been draws. Were overwhelmed territory-wise at home vs Lyon but played with 10 men for over half the game in a draw. Really impressive for a Belgian side to have 54% possession with the schedule and circumstances they have had in their first 3 games. An extremely soft back line (57% completion allowed in final 30 yards, 3rd worst in Champions League) has led to some worryingly high close shot allowed totals, but overall this looks like a team punching above their weight, and maybe a manager to watch and learn how to spell in Hein Vanhaezebrouck.
The battle for the coefficient
No, not that coefficient. Enough virtual ink has been spilled over the England/Italy battle so lets focus in on the real important stuff: Russia vs. France vs. Portugal for a 3rd UCL spot. When I see I have written sentences like that, I step back and just get really glad we have sports. I hope you do the same. Now, onto the details.
These three nations are locked in a battle for a 3rd Champions League spot (which one league can win) and each have two teams in the league right now. Both Portuguese teams have been solidly average in the early going. Porto hammered Maccabi Tel Aviv and were very competitive in their games against Chelsea and Dynamo Kiev, gaining 4 points even if the performances were very slightly second-best. They are in great position to advance with home games vs Maccabi and Kiev remaining. Benfica have been similar to Porto so far, they top their group and are in a great position to qualify with a home game vs 3rd-favorite Gala. Their performance vs Galatasaray will be telling when it comes to determining if there is actually a big quality gap between the two sides.
Lyon have superficially disappointed. It’s easy to look at their single point and failure to beat a Belgian team playing with 10 men and say “look how awful France is”. That would be the wrong conclusion to make. There have been 13 instances of a team racking up 50+ deep completions so far this season in the Champions League and Lyon has 3 of them. Playing from behind helps some forcing the incentive but they’ve shown an ability to get the ball into dangerous positions that generally only good teams have.
PSG have gone through the motions and will advance, probably in 2nd place. Still clearly the best team of any from these 3 leagues.
The Russian sides have been kind of disappointing. I like watching games in Russia as the games have a distinct feel and it gives the tournament a broader scope to include such a huge and important nation but CSKA and Zenit are not playing on the level of the top Portuguese/French teams yet.
Shot distance is in yards.
So while personally I’d love to see more early games with players wearing gloves with visible breath played in front of Russian PA announcers bellowing at ear-splitting volumes, for the overall quality of the competition France and Portugal still bring more to the table.
Maybe a slightly different Leverkusen press?
To be fair, they have played Barcelona (82% pass completion rate allowed) but also had home games against Roma and BATE and have just managed to bring the total opposition completion rate down to 75% over the 270 minutes. In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen are holding opponents to 65% passing coming into the Wolfsburg game. Even BATE neared that at the BayArena. This isn’t a trend yet, but is more something to keep an eye on to see if Schmidt is taking a different defensive tactic into the Champions League or this is just an unsurprising result of facing better offenses.
They aren’t taking advantage of the sideline on the press like they do in the league either. In Bundesliga play, the circled areas are where teams go to die. Leverkusen destroys you when the ball goes there and they can use the sideline as an extra defender.
*Accurate only to 7 decimal points, I apologize for the sloppiness showing 9.
Changing Pass Length
Playing in the Champions League has a different effect on teams and their average pass lengths which seems to depend a lot on what league they come from:
EPL Average Change: +0.1
La Liga Change: -0.8
Bundesliga Change: -0.6
Serie A: +1.1
Ligue 1: +.9
German and Spanish teams, coming from high pressing leagues at home, see their average pass length drop by nearly a full yard. That is very significant when we are talking about well over 1000 passes per team so far. English teams stay the same while French and Italian teams start playing significantly longer passes. This is very fascinating to me, and seems like it tells us a lot about the background these teams come from and how they adjust. One of those things to look deeper into later on, once the Group Stage is over.
Any ideas or explanations on this let me know in the comments or on twitter @Saturdayoncouch. Hopefully there will be time later to examine this but now it’s time to finish reading this and ready ourselves for the feast of the Champions League over these next two days.
Games with most on the line, Round 4
PSV-Wolfsburg, Man United-CSKA in Group B and Bayern-Arsenal, Olympiakos-Zagreb in Group F are linked together.