StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Lyon vs Juventus and Real Madrid vs Manchester City
Why yes, you can have a little more Champions League as a treat.
Lyon vs Juventus
There are questions about exactly how good Juventus are this season, but they won’t get answered in their Round of 16 match against Lyon. The French side are comfortably the worst team remaining in the tournament and sit in seventh place in Ligue 1. It’s true that their position slightly underrates their underlying numbers, which are the fourth-best in France, but only slightly.
There’s nothing wrong with being a pretty good team in Ligue 1 having a slightly down season, but it’s not going to do much for you in the Champions League knockout stages. And it’s not only that they’re not all that good, it’s also that they aren’t all that interesting. For a team that until this year had been tremendous fun, the outgoing transfers are taking their toll. Tanguy Ndombele is no longer running the midfield. Ferland Mendy has been replaced at left back, and Nabil Fekir is gone in attack. There’s only so much attacking talent a team can lose before they start to look like, well, like this.
Defensively the side is stable and dependable. They concede only 0.88 expected goals per match, the third-best in the league. They’re admittedly very tough to break down, and they remain steady in a fairly unique way. They counterpress high when they lose the ball deep in enemy territory, and otherwise defend very deep, leaving the entire middle of the field to their opponent's control.
Overall there’s nothing precisely wrong with this team, it’s just that there’s nothing about them that suggests they’re going to be difficult for a team like Juventus to handle.
Specifically, a team that cedes the midfield is going to be music to Maurizio Sarri’s very Italian ears. Juventus is perfectly happy to simply keep the ball. They have the highest pass percentage in Serie A at 87% and they virtually never play long; only Napoli play the ball shorter on average than Juventus’s average keeper pass length of 30.28.
But, despite the fact that they're comfortable keeping the ball, they aren’t particularly aggressive at moving it into the penalty area. Six teams in Serie A play more passes into the box per match than Juventus, and Atalanta, Roma and Lazio all complete more passes per match within 20 yards of their opponent’s goal as well.
There are reasons to question whether Juventus’s approach of keeping the ball forever, taking lots of shots (their 17.36 per match is third in the league) but being relatively conservative when it comes to moving the ball into the penalty area is a solid approach against better teams. It leaves them somewhat prone to bombing away from distance with mediocre shots, and their 0.09 xG per shot in Serie A is a decidedly average eighth. But, against Lyon, who won’t bother to contest midfield or try to keep the ball, or do much of anything besides kick it long and drop back and defend, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Real Madrid vs Manchester City
Real Madrid are good. It’s a testament to the turmoil of the last year that this is surprising. Following last season when they sold Cristiano Ronaldo and didn’t replace him, and also tried to replace Zinedine Zidane as manager and failed at that, it seemed like Madrid were going firmly in the wrong direction. But two managers and two-thirds of a season later, Zidane returned and lifted the team back to the top tier of European football.
Interestingly, however, that’s not because they’ve replaced Ronaldo’s attacking production. High priced acquisitions Eden Hazard and Luka Jović have failed to make much of an impact this season. Rather Zidane has artfully mixed and matched from a deep pool of attacking wingers while featuring Karim Benzema at striker.
But the real master strike from Zidane was compensating for the ageing duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić by easing the latter into a more limited role and featuring the younger and much more active Fede Valverde instead. Valverde’s inclusion in the squad means that, alongside Casemiro, there are now two more rugged midfielders in the side at any given time. This has turned Madrid into the best defensive team in La Liga with only 0.70 xG conceded per match.
The question, however, is whether that defense can hold against a Manchester City side that is legitimately one of the best in the world. Lost in the historic nature of Liverpool’s season is the fact that City’s underlying numbers are actually better than the runaway presumed champions. They are an absurd attacking team. The side’s non-penalty xG of 2.21 is testing the outer limits of the possible and is almost an entire half goal better than their closes attacking competitor, Liverpool.
This isn’t to say City are perfect. They aren’t quite a vintage Guardiola team, and are vulnerable to the counterattack in a way that the best sides Guardiola has coached over the years have not been. Their defense is still very good; they simply have the ball so much, and are so aggressive at winning it back when they lose it that they concede very few shots. But when counterattacks do happen, they can be exposed.
The main question of this match then is how much will Madrid cede possession. City are so high powered that going toe to toe with them is probably a losing proposition, even for a team like Madrid. But, a cagier approach, one which relies on withstanding some degree of pressure before punching back hard, well, that could conceivably work.