A Data History of the European Cup: 2009, Barcelona 2 - 0 Manchester United

We’ve reached the 21st century in this week’s edition of our history of the European Cup, as we take a look at the 2009 final between Barcelona and Manchester United. Nearly a decade and a half on from the last one we covered, this is now recognisably the football of the modern age.

This is the fifth entry in our series.

We’ve already analysed:

- 1960: Real Madrid 7 - 3 Eintracht Frankfurt

- 1972: Ajax 2 - 0 Inter Milan

- 1989: AC Milan 4 - 0 Steaua Bucharest

- 1995: Ajax 1 - 0 AC Milan

There were some familiar faces from some of those finals in this one. Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van de Sar had started for Ajax in 1995; Patrick Kluivert, scorer of the winning goal in that match, was in amongst the Barcelona support; Johan Cruyff, scorer of both goals is the 1972 final, was watching on from a more tranquil post.

Less directly, a then 18-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson had attended the 1960 final at Hampden Park and been left spellbound by the brilliance of that Real Madrid side.

United were the competition holders following their penalty shoot out win over Chelsea in the 2008 final, and had just wrapped up the Premier League title. Barcelona, in Pep Guardiola’s first season as head coach, had already secured a domestic double.

United Start Strong, Barcelona Gain Control

United were considered the pre-match favourites (marginally by the bookmakers; more robustly by the more insulated members of the British sporting press), and began on the front foot with a series of quick-fire attacks that saw them register five shots within the opening nine minutes. Only a sliding block from Gerard Piqué prevented Park Ji-Sung from turning in the rebound from a parried Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick.

With both of their regular full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended, and central defensive option Rafael Márquez also out injured, Barcelona fielded a makeshift backline that featured Yaya Touré alongside Piqué in the centre of defence. Touré played as if he was still in midfield, stepping out, shadowing opponents and taking time to regain his position. He settled in a bit as the match went on, but he was still regularly found in advance of his defensive colleagues.

Not that it mattered all that much because after that initial United flurry, Barcelona took control of the match off the back of a goal from Samuel Eto’o. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi combined through the centre for the first time, Iniesta moved the ball on to Eto’o, and he skipped inside Nemanja Vidic before prodding home in the 10th minute of play.

As in Barcelona’s 6-2 victory over Real Madrid in the league earlier the same month (a match we covered in detail as part of our series on Messi’s evolution), Messi lined up here as a False 9, with Eto’o and Thierry Henry either side of him as wide forwards.

Just as in that match, it was Barcelona’s numerical superiority in the centre of pitch, with Messi essentially at the head of a diamond that had Sergio Busquets at its base, that allowed them to take control. For a while, there were still spaces for United to attack in transition. Piqué obstructed Ronaldo to prevent him getting into the area from a nice diagonal pass from Ryan Giggs. But those opportunities all but disappeared as Barcelona started to string together long sequences of controlled and progressive possession.

This sequence, which ended with a foul on Iniesta, acts as a good example of the way in which Guardiola’s side were able to move the ball and keep it away from United. Iniesta, Messi and Xavi were all heavily involved.

United seemed to have little response. From Barcelona’s opener until the 72nd minute, by which time Messi had doubled their lead, they mustered just three shots, including just one from open play. They got off none at all for almost 50 minutes after Ronaldo’s header wide from a corner on 23 minutes. Their offence was a flatline for over half the match despite the presence of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and following his half-time introduction, Carlos Tevez.

In fact, with Tevez on the field in place of Anderson, United found it even harder to get on the ball, and Barcelona began to close in on a second goal. A lovely piece of footwork from Iniesta began a swift attack that ended in a presentable Henry chance saved; Xavi hit the post with a free-kick from the edge of the area; and then, after a lull, Messi rose to head home Xavi’s pinpoint cross and all but end the match as a contest.

Xavi had an excellent match, as did Iniesta, whose touches left the Spanish commentators purring on multiple occasions. He was a reliable receiver under pressure, and a very able ball carrier. He advanced the ball into the final third more often than any other Barcelona player.

United came close to getting one back almost straight from kickoff following Barcelona’s second goal, but Giggs mis-kicked before Ronaldo had his low effort saved behind by Victor Valdés. From then on, they never looked likely to get back into it. Over the full course of the match, the two teams were evenly matched in terms of chances, but the timing of that first goal changed the complexion of the contest. From then on, Barcelona were in charge.

A Sign of Things to Come

There were spells in this match in which in contrast with the supple shifting of their opponents, United looked decidedly leaden-footed on the ball. While extended Barcelona possessions often eventually resulted in progress towards goal, United’s longer sequences regularly produced a steadily decreasing possibility of meaningful advancement. The counter-attack was their most dangerous weapon, and Barcelona swiftly neutered it.

This match acted as a preview of the prevailing style clash of the following years. Spain had won the European Championship the year previous, and they and Barcelona set a template that other teams were forced to adapt to. Their approach was dissected and counter-measures created. In La Liga, this 2008-09 Barcelona side still has the best expected goal difference of any in the Messi era. Subsequently, both their and Spain’s use of possession as a means of control became ever-more pronounced.

Not that the intervening couple of years and various demonstrations of ways of potentially countering Guardiola’s Barcelona did United any good. By the time the two teams met again in the 2011 final, the gap between them had widened considerably.

Shot Distances

This match felt like one from the modern era partly because it was the first we’ve seen that featured a reasonable spread of shots of decent average quality. Aside from a few speculative efforts from Ronaldo (after one of which, the sadly recently deceased Michael Robinson noted: “I’m more than happy for him to shoot from there. If it goes in, we’ll take off our hats to him, but very few are going to go in from there.”) and others, it was a set of shots of an average quality much closer to the contemporary average.

Over the last four finals of this series, there has been a consistent decrease in both the average shot distance and the percentage of efforts from outside the area.

The only outlier is the 1960 final, likely because the heaviness of the ball in that age rendered long-range efforts inefficient. The only other relatively contemporaneous match in our system is the 1953 friendly between Hungary and England at Wembley, which had an even closer average shot distance and featured a lower percentage of efforts from outside the area.

Germany 1-1 England (AET), Euro 1996 Semi Final

A penalty shoot out was required for England to get past Spain, and set-up a semi-final clash with old rivals Germany. ITV Sport continue to show these games and this is the fifth and final episode in our series, see parts one to four here: England 1 v 1 Switzerland England 2 v 0 Scotland England 4 v 1 Netherlands England 0 v 0 Spain So this was it. Germany again. Could England put away the memories of Turin in 1990 or were they to succumb once again to the relentless German appetite to win? The game was as close as the final score suggested. Two early goals parked the sides at 1-1, a scoreline that persisted to the end of extra time. England had not one but two huge chances to win the game late on. Darren Anderton hit the post with the net gaping, as he tried to turn a ball that had trickily landed behind him, then famously Paul Gascoigne failed to connect with a cross that seemed easier to finish than not. No touch, no shot and therefore no mention in the sequence: As we can see this was not a game of high quality chances. Apart from Anderton's miss, Alan Shearer's 3rd minute opener was the only shot significantly in advance of the penalty sport for either side. England once again tweaked their formation in this game, with three centre backs in a nominal 3-5-2 system, with wingers rather than traditional full backs placed in the wide slots: Unusually England did not make a substitution during the whole game, which gives us a unique opportunity to compare the first and second half pass positions without the interruption of replacements: Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton kept to their wings in the first half, but were far more flexible in the second half. Gascoigne too saw a change in role from half to half, as he moved forwards as the game went on. Territory wise, England had far the better of it. Six players attempted over twenty passes in Germany's final third, while no German player attempted more than fifteen at the opposite end. David Platt in particular was neat and tidy with 94% passing, while unusually for a forward, Teddy Sheringham got through the most volume; 75 passes in total. In the end though, they couldn't make it pay and the game went to penalties. Eleven penalties hit the back of the net before Gareth Southgate stepped up to take England's sixth, and missed. Once more it was not to be England's day, and the German team went on to the final, in which they conquered the Czech Republic to win the tournament.  

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Spain 0-0 England (AET), Euro 96

After a slow start to Euro 1996, England's 4-1 victory against the Dutch offered the promise of a deep run into the tournament. Next they faced a solid Spain side. ITV Sport continue to show these games and this is the fourth in our series, see parts one to three here: England 1 v 1 Switzerland England 2 v 0 Scotland England 4 v 1 Netherlands Spain had arrived in the quarter finals unbeaten in their group. They started off with two fairly quiet draws against Bulgaria and France, but came to life in their final game, much as England had, by beating the Romanians in a 2-1 victory that was more convincing than the scoreline suggested. Romania didn't even have a shot in the second half: This game would be different though, up against an English team who top scored in the group stages. In the event the game was fairly cagey and even. Both team attempted around 600 passes and completed them at a percentage in the low 70s and while the shots were frequent, good chances were few:   Did England tire? Surely they didn't try and hold for penalties? Regardless they had no shots in the second half of extra time. Overall, Spain outshot England 21 to 17 but their shot quality and accuracy was poor; just one shot on target and a lot of efforts from long range: And so penalties took centre stage, with memories of England's 1990 World Cup still fresh.   Shearer scored with aplomb, Fernando Hierro--who had taken the most shots in the game-7-with no success, failed again as he crashed the ball against the bar. David Platt scored, as did Guillermo Amor. Stuart Pearce stepped up next, like Platt he'd taken a penalty against Germany six years before, however unlike Platt he'd missed. Time for redemption? A trademark powerful strike answered that question with a resounding "yes" and the Wembley crowd responded wildly. Alberto Belsué scored to temporarily quieten them, Paul Gascoigne scored to raise the noise levels once more. Lastly Miguel Ángel Nadal stepped up, put the ball to David Seaman's left and the keeper guessed correctly. The semi-finals and Germany beckoned for England.

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Netherlands 1-4 England, Euro 96

England marched into the quarter finals Euro 96 after a 4-1 destruction of the Netherlands, a game that was shown again on ITV Sport.

This is the third part of our series, see parts one and two here:

England 1 v 1 Switzerland

England 2 v 0 Scotland

The main story of the game statistically was that England created and converted higher quality chances, while the Dutch struggled to turn shot volume into genuine goal threat:

After experimenting with formations against Scotland, England changed again, with a nominal 4-1-4-1, with a stark balance between attack and defence. We can see Paul Ince in ahead of the centre backs and the rest of the midfield and attack pushing up:

1-0 up at the half thanks to an Alan Shearer penalty, the goals came thick and fast for England in the second half.

Firstly, Teddy Sheringham found the tiniest gap and headed in from Paul Gascoigne's corner. The difficulty to beat so many players and his man in a duel for the ball is reflected by the expected goal value of 0.03. This was a hard chance. No wonder he celebrated so gleefully.

Then the most famous goal from the game, Shearer's back post finish after being teed up by Sheringham. Intriguingly, Sheringham has been quoted "if I shoot there I have a six out of ten chance of scoring" while if he rolls the ball to Shearer he has "an eight out of ten chance". Modelling probabilities via expected goals allows us to put real numbers onto this likelihood and we grade Shearer's chance at a shade over four out of ten (0.42)--that's still a great chance in terms of shot quality, but we suspect that a premium goalscorer such as Shearer would agree more with his teammate's assertion than our own.

Sheringham's second goal made it 4-0 and came after the Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar could only parry a long range shot from Darren Anderton. Outside of Shearer's penalty it was the best chance of the game grading out at 0.46:

Patrick Kluivert pulled one back late on to make the final score 4-1, but it was England's day. They topped the group and set up a meeting against Spain in the quarter finals.

Come back to see our review of that game on Saturday.

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A Data History of the European Cup: 1995, Ajax 1-0 AC Milan

Our history of the European Cup continues with the 1995 final between Ajax and AC Milan. We are only six years on from the match we covered last time out, but there have been some significant changes in the meantime. The offside law has been altered, the back-pass rule has been introduced and the European Cup has been rebranded as the Champions League.

This is the fourth entry in this series looking at a final from each decade of the European Cup. We’ve already covered:

- 1960: Real Madrid 7 - 3 Eintracht Frankfurt

- 1972: Ajax 2 - 0 Inter Milan

- 1989 - AC Milan 4 - 0 Steaua Bucharest

This time around we have a contest between Louis van Gaal’s young Ajax team and an AC Milan side appearing in their third consecutive final, and their fifth in a seven-year stretch beginning with their victory in 1989 that yielded three triumphs. They were already well-acquainted, having met twice during the group stage, with Ajax victorious on both occasions.

Differing Styles, Similar Results

The last two finals we covered both featured winning teams who established territorial dominance with a high press. Both Ajax in 1972 and Milan in 1989 were able to pen their opponents in and seriously inhibit their ability to advance into dangerous positions. In contrast, this match was a much more even contest between differing yet equally valid approaches.

Ajax held the lion’s share of possession (61%) and sought to patiently construct play from the back with a ball progression scheme that was far more systemised than any we’ve seen in the previous finals in this series. Their 3-4-3 system with a diamond midfield provided a central column of reference points around whom the rest of the team could triangulate.

Danny Blind, Frank Rijkaard and (until he was moved back into midfield) Ronald de Boer frequently acted as pivots to change the angle of attack -- often with back-to-goal layoffs in the case of the latter-mentioned pair. Van Gaal’s side were highly methodical in working the ball from side-to-side in search of openings, and Rijkaard was the brains of the operation.

Blind and Rijkaard were the experienced figures in an otherwise young team. The remainder of the starting XI were all 25 or younger, while the two substitutes, Nwankwo Kanu and match-winner Patrick Kluivert, were both 18. Six of the starting XI, and seven of the 13 players used were academy graduates. This side provided the spine of the Netherlands teams who reached the semi-finals of both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

The degree to which Ajax’s ball use was structured was made clear by how quickly they paused counter-attacks to reset their positions once initial progress had been slowed.

That was exactly what happened on their winning goal. Ronald de Boer burst forward out of defence into midfield, only to halt as options ahead of him narrowed. From there, the ball was worked out to the left, across to the right, back to left, and from there into the centre, where Rijkaard found Kluivert to prod home from inside the area.

This Ajax side utilised possession as a means of control. They denied it to the opposition, and moved the ball in such a way as to leave themselves adequately positioned to win it back once lost. It was almost more of a defensive tool than an attacking one. Ajax kept eight clean sheets across their 11 matches in the 1994-95 competition, including four in their five knockout round matches. It was the same story the following year, when they lost on penalties to Juventus in the final after recording eight clean sheets in 10 matches to get there.

To a degree, Milan were content to allow Ajax the ball and then drop off to form a solid defensive block. They didn’t regularly contest possession chains and leaned on their experienced and well-organised backline to defend their area. Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paulo Maldini were still in place from the 1989 final.

In total, they lined up together in four of the five finals Milan contested in this period. The only time they hadn’t was in the previous year’s final. With Costacurta and Baresi unavailable, Milan chose not to rely on defensive stability and instead took the game to Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. The result was a convincing 4-0 victory.

That didn’t seem to alter Fabio Capello’s underlying thinking. This late-era Milan side lacked the sheer offensive might of the earlier incarnations, and a cautious approach probably played better to their strengths. This was a much flatter 4-4-2 than the one we saw in the 1989 final, with only Zvonmir Boban’s movements infield from the left upsetting the symmetry.

Milan’s comfort in their game plan was illustrated by Capello’s level of inactivity on the sidelines. Van Gaal was by some distance the more animated of the two coaches, and there was a reminder that his dramatic reenactments of on-pitch incidents weren’t exclusive to his spell at Manchester United.

For much of the match, there was very little to separate the teams. Ajax moved the ball and moved the ball but struggled to penetrate. Marc Overmars completed just two of his 10 attempted dribbles from the left. Milan were much more direct in the way in which they moved forward, with longer balls through the centre and into the channels, but the majority of their efforts were just potshots.

Neither team created all that much. The final shot tally of 21 was a full 14 less than in any of the previous three finals in this series. The xG sum of 1.65 was also the lowest so far. Ajax generated the clearest opportunity and took the spoils, but it was a match that could easily have gone either way.

Edwin Van der Sar

Edwin van der Sar was somewhat of an early template for the modern-day goalkeeper. He was certainly not the first custodian to show proficiency with the ball at his feet, but he was one of the most prominent examples of a goalkeeper with that skillset in the years directly following the outlawing of the back-pass in 1992.

That was evident here. He very rarely went long without reason, and while he wasn’t quite as slick in his execution as many of the goalkeepers of today, he was willing to take a touch to open up an angle for a pass or draw a degree of opposition pressure. There were a couple of awkward moments when he was directly pressed, but he otherwise used the ball in exactly the manner Ajax’s system required of him.

His completion rate of 79% was comparable to those of Alisson or Manuel Neuer in last season’s competition, but was also achieved with a longer average pass length. It’s worth noting, too, that a greater proportion of his passes were attempted under pressure. That completion rate dropped slightly over a larger sample size for the Netherlands at Euro 96 but was still within the range of some of the modern game’s most competent distributors.

Van der Sar was not the most aesthetically pleasing goalkeeper, never quite seeming to be in complete control of his lanky frame. He had at least a couple of particularly flappy moments in this match. But he enjoyed plenty of success over the course of his career and was an early indication of the direction in which his profession was heading.

Demetrio Albertini

It is worth highlighting the importance of Demetrio Albertini to this Milan side. He was a consistently progressive passer in transition, the Milan player who most often moved the ball into the final third, and he also created more chances in open play (three) than any other player. His clipped pass into Daniele Massaro for one of the striker’s patented swivel shots just past the hour mark was particularly well-executed.

He also got through a ton of work off the ball, leading his team in interceptions, tackles and pressures.

Albertini had played alongside Rijkaard, his opposite number four, at Milan, and they would later join forces once more when Rijkaard, then head coach at Barcelona, signed him in 2005 to see out of the final few months of his career at the Camp Nou.

Scotland 0-2 England, Euro 1996

After a mediocre 1-1 draw against Switzerland, could England get back on the right track back in a familiar role as the "Auld Enemy" against Scotland? Terry Venables' 4-4-1-1 from the Switzerland game gave way to something a little different. With full backs Gary Neville and Stuart Pearce flanking Tony Adams in a back three, Gareth Southgate stepped into midfield alongside Paul Ince, with Paul Gascoigne tasked with being a central creative outlet. Teddy Sheringham continued working off Alan Shearer up front, while Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman rotated frequently between the wings. As such the first half pass networks appear congested; but this is merely a reflection of the positional flexibility the England team played with:

First half passing network
It didn't work. The first half was a tepid affair with very few chances--and none of any great value. The Scots looked more comfortable on the ball and with a talented midfield including Gary McAllister, John Collins and Stuart McCall, were a match for the English: England made a key change at half-time, Jamie Redknapp came on for Stuart Pearce. This meant Southgate could move back to his more usual position in the back line, and Redknapp's passing range could allow England a little more control in the middle of the park. The opening minutes of the second half saw England come to the fore, Sheringham missed an open header deep inside the box and 2 minutes later they were rewarded when Shearer opened the scoring with a far post header from Neville's cross. However, it was Steve McManaman who set the tempo here, moments before freeing Neville to make that cross he'd advanced from halfway before whistling a left foot shot past the post. Indeed, McManaman's ball carrying was a notable plus again in this game, and he saw more of the ball (48 passes, 22 in the final third) than anyone else on the pitch with good retention (86% completion) for a wide player. Here we see how he carried the ball effectively, a series of long runs deep into Scotland's half.  
McManaman's ball carrying was a successful route in which England moved the ball upfield in both their opening Euro 1996 matches
At 1-0, Scotland had their best period in the game; England failed to muster a shot in the period between the hour mark and McAllister's penalty in the 78th minute. As clear a decision as they come, Adams slid in to clear and got none of the ball and all of the man, namely Gordon Durie. McAllister stepped up, David Seaman parried and within a minute the defining moment of the match had occurred. Gascoigne had been quietly effective in the Switzerland game before tiring and being substituted; here however, he was not having a good game at all:  
Paul Gascoigne, failed events vs Scotland, Euro 1996
Failed tackles, cheap giveaways, miscontrols, errant passes, often in his own half... At this point Gascoigne has still to complete a pass into the opponent's box in open play (he did create Sheringham's header from a free kick). Yet the iconic moment came in the 79th minute. Gascoigne had spotted space in midfield and charged into it. Anderton lofted a pass into his direction and within two touches, one with his left foot, one with his right, Gascoigne left Colin Hendry in his wake and slotted past Andy Goram to make it 2-0, the game was over. By the end of the game, England were good for their win. The penalty had been Scotland's only good quality chance in the game and England's shot count and expected goals were superior: The change of personnel at half time appeared to be effective and the second half shape of the teams was more forward inclined for England than in the first half, Gascoigne especially found himself higher up the pitch and with Southgate back in the back line, the three central midfielders occupied distinct roles, while the wingers remained in more fixed roles with Anderton left and McManaman right. Scotland struggled to get real width high up the pitch:  
Second half passing network
This victory meant that England had their group fate in their own hands ahead of a match against Holland. Could they top their group with a win?  

  If you enjoyed this look at Euro 1996 through a modern lens and want to learn more about how data can evaluate and describe football, you may enjoy our Introduction to Analytics course. Suitable for everyone from interested amateur right up to football professionals, it gives an accessible, fun and informative route into the world of data and football. Sign up here!

England 1-1 Switzerland, Euro 1996

Euro 1996 relived through a modern lens. StatsBomb have collected Euro 1996 data and will be alongside England as this tournament progresses once again via ITV Sport.

England got their Euro 1996 campaign started with an underwhelming 1-1 draw against Switzerland. Alan Shearer's thumping finish saw the hosts take a lead into half time, but they failed to create anything of note in the second half.   The Swiss snatched a deserved draw late in the game after Kubilay Türkyilmaz dispatched a penalty given for a handball against Stuart Pearce.

The penalty skewed the expected goals count towards the Swiss, but the game featured few high quality chances:

Via the pass network, England's formation resembled a 4-4-1-1 with wingers pushing high and Teddy Sheringham dropping off the front line to link play. For Switzerland it was more a game of two halves, with the second half seeing their front line push high up the pitch (substitutes included):

For England, Steve McManaman was a ready outlet in a disciplined role on the left flank and completed six of ten dribbles, reliably carrying the ball forward:

England manager Terry Venables noted his players tired as the match rolled on, and the shape of the game reflected that. England also recorded few pressure events throughout:

Paul Ince led the way with 13, Paul Gascoigne next with 10 while centre back Tony Adams hinted at the kind of front foot defending that he was renowned for with 9. For pass volume Ciriaco Sforza led the way for Switzerland with 55 attempted passes, 17 of which were in the final third, Gascoigne and the two English full backs saw the most of the ball for England, but neither side managed to contribute a good volume passes from open play into the box. Gascoigne had a limited influence on the game in the final third and was replaced in the 77th minute by David Platt. His main work was in buildup:

England face Scotland next with a win paramount to improve their chances of progressing.


A Data History of the European Cup: 1989, AC Milan 4-0 Steaua Bucharest

Next up on our journey through the history of the European Cup is the 1989 final between AC Milan and Steaua Bucharest.

In front of a largely partisan crowd at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan secured the first of their two consecutive triumphs. In the first part of the series, we covered the dominant Real Madrid side of the early years of the competition in the context of their victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960; last time out, we looked at a clash of styles in the 1972 final between Ajax and Inter Milan.

After three consecutive victories for that Ajax side followed by three for Bayern Munich, English teams then dominated the competition, winning it six times in a row between 1977 and 1982 and seven times in eight, including four for Liverpool, if that end date is extended to 1984. But in the five years prior to the 1989 final, from the last of Liverpool’s wins through to PSV Eindhoven’s triumph in 1988, teams from five different countries lifted the trophy. Milan Dominance This match didn’t last long as a genuine contest. Milan had already opened the scoring and taken 10 shots before Steaua even mustered their first attempt. By half-time, Milan had added two more goals. A fourth arrived in the opening minute of the second half.

Milan pressed high -- their average defensive action was performed further away from their own goal than the average of any team in last season’s competition -- and kept Steaua at arms length. Their pressure heat map shows a distinct tilt towards the defensive left, primarily because Steaua consistently sought to work the ball out of defence to that side.

This was a very good Steaua team. They had averaged 2.75 goals per match on their way to the final, had reached the semi-finals a year earlier and were only three years removed from lifting the trophy in 1986. They had just wrapped up the fifth of five consecutive Romanian league titles, the latter three achieved without losing a single game. In that time, they put together a 104-match unbeaten run that remains a European club record. In this match, Steaua consistently tried to play out short from the back. Silviu Lung’s average pass length of 24.81 metres was far shorter than that of any goalkeeper in last season’s competition.

There were glimpses of their quality in some of the sequences in which they were able to work the ball around the Milan press and advance. Captain Tudorel Stoica showed himself to be a calm head under pressure. But they were unable to establish any sort of regular presence in attacking areas against a compact Milan side with a legendary defensive four of Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. Only four of Steaua’s 12 shots were from in and around the area, and the best chance they created was a blocked 0.14 xG opportunity when the game was already long lost.

It is interesting to note that the two teams completed exactly the same number of passes (401) over the course of the 90 minutes. The difference lay in what they were able to do with them. While Steaua struggled to penetrate, Milan’s attacks were rapid and incisive. Fifteen of their 27 efforts on goal came directly after winning the ball back in opposition territory. Four or five is considered a lot these days. They created a good volume of high-quality shots.

Two goals apiece from Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit -- alongside Frank Rijkaard, the trio of Dutch internationals who helped power the side to their successes in this era -- won Milan the trophy. Gullit the Reference Point Milan were relatively direct in their use of the ball, with Gullit the primary reference point when advancing from the defensive half into opposition territory, and from there into central zones inside the final third.

Gullit had a couple of inches on both of Steaua’s central defenders, and successfully received 11 head-height passes from teammates. Given the range of his abilities, he was far from a typical target-man, but he was certainly capable of fulfilling aspects of that role for his side. Donadoni and the Milan 4-4-2 Sacchi is famous for his use of a 4-4-2 formation, but this was far from a flat or boxy version of that alignment. For one, there was clear asymmetry amongst the two full-backs. Maldini largely hung back, while Tassotti advanced much higher down the right.

Interest was also provided by the positioning of Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni, who overlapped a great deal from their respective nominal starting positions of central and left midfield. Their receipt maps show that they both spent a good amount of time in both wide and central areas, although it was Donadoni who more often joined up with the two forwards.

They also did much of their defensive work in similar areas, although Ancelotti did generally appear to be the wider positioned of the pair out of possession.

Donadoni may not have been the flashiest player, but he was an invaluable one. He got through a ton of work on both sides of the ball in this match. In defence, he led the team in pressures and tackles (including a couple of very nicely timed sliding ones); in attack, he set up seven chances, three more than any of his teammates, while he and Rijkaard were the two players who most often moved the ball into the final third.

Hagi Gheorghe Hagi was the most recognisable name on the Steaua team sheet, and with the number 10 on his back, the one expected to carry the majority of the creative burden. Yet he struggled to effect the game. He dropped back into deeper areas to help advance the ball forward, primarily off dribbles and carries:

But he produced very little end product inside the final third. He didn’t set up a single chance for a teammate, and though he led his team in shots, they were all of low quality.

Hagi’s spectacular strikes in the saturated sunshine of USA 94’ are an enduring childhood memory, but it must be noted that they were the result of a consistently optimistic long-range shooter.

Nowadays that is normally coached out of a player, though not always. Check out his son, Ianis Hagi, now of Rangers. The fruit clearly doesn’t fall from the tree.

Corner Variations The previous two finals in this series featured just six short corners between them, and even then, one of Ajax’s two in the 1972 final was simply to keep the ball and run down the clock in second-half stoppage time. Most corners across those two matches were simply swung into the area. There was more variation in this match. Only two of the 10 corners (five apiece) were high deliveries into the area. Milan had twice scored from short corner routines in their 5-0 destruction of Real Madrid in the second leg of their semi-final and again went short in the final. Steaua, meanwhile, had one interesting routine that didn’t quite come off when a low delivery from the right was laid off just outside the ideal path of an incoming player.

Dribble Volume Remains High Just as in the previous two finals we’ve covered, the dribble count in this match was huge by modern standards. There was a slight reduction between 1960 and 1972, and there is again here, to 46 attempted and 29 completed, but it’s still far above the contemporary average.

A Data History of the European Cup: 1972, Ajax 2-0 Inter Milan

We continue our series on the history of the European Cup with a look at the 1972 final between Ajax and Inter Milan. Last week, we covered Real Madrid’s victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960; over a decade on, much has changed.

Ajax are the competition holders following their success over Panathinaikos at Wembley in 1971, while Inter, two-time winners in the mid-1960s, are back in the tournament for the first time since their loss to Celtic in the final of 1967. Ajax’s 2-0 win here would be followed by a third consecutive triumph against Juventus in 1973.

The Ajax Revolution

This match immediately feels more akin to the modern game than the 1960 final did. The formations are familiar: a 4-3-3 for Ajax and a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 for Inter. Ajax are using squad numbers. Passing completion rates are up, there are less long balls, longer spells of possession and more attempts at collective play. The distribution of the two goalkeepers looks much more like that of their contemporary equivalents:

This Ajax side were the early prototype for the press and possess football of today. They regularly contested possession in opposition territory and when the ball was won, moved forward swiftly into shooting positions. The rhythm at which they played and their positional flexibility were unlike anything seen before, although it must be noted that Carlos Peucelle would later argue that River Plate’s La Máquina side of the 1940s were the first template for this style of play. There is some evidence that Rinus Michels, the Ajax coach who got the Total Football bandwagon rolling, was inspired by watching a Millonarios side that featured Adolfo Pedernera, the hub of that River team. It would, though, be fair to say that Ajax and the Dutch national team were its first proponents in a widely televised era.

Ajax’s press in this match isn’t quite as aggressive and chaotic as that of the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup, but they are still quick to close down, and they also step up swiftly to force offsides. When they lose the ball, it doesn’t usually take them long to regain it. They established clear territorial dominance, particularly during a first half in which Inter were penned in. The difference in the locations in which the two teams retrieved possession is striking:

As are the match-long heatmaps of their pressure locations:

Overall, Ajax dominated in terms of territory, possession, shots and expected goals (xG). Two goals from Johan Cruyff, the second a header from a left-wing corner, saw them to victory.

This Ajax team are largely thought of as an attacking one, but their approach was often just as, if not more effective in stifling their opponents. Their three consecutive European Cup triumphs in this era were all coupled with clean sheets. In this match, Inter were barely able to work the ball forward. When they did, it was usually thanks to the astute movement of Roberto Boninsegna off the front and into the channels.

But Boninsegna, Inter’s top scorer for seven consecutive seasons between 1969 and 1976, barely got a sniff at goal, and he and his teammates were only able to muster 0.42 xG from their 10 shots. Sandro Mazzola picked out a couple of nice passes in transition but was largely unable to influence things, partly due to the close attention of Johan Neeskens.

Mazzola and the other holdovers from the Grande Inter of the 1960s still weren’t all that old at the time of this match. Gianfranco Bedin was 26; Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti, 29; and Jair da Costa, 31. Only Taricisio Burgnich, at 33, was obviously past his prime. Yet while their players might not have been, their style of play was certainly made to look so by a trailblazing Ajax side.

Long-Range Shots and Lots of Crosses

Where Ajax’s approach deviated from the modern game was in what happened once they got into the final third. Two of the key early takeaways from statistical analysis of football were that central shots closer to goal are far more valuable than wider and long-range efforts, and that crosses are generally a fairly inefficient means of creating chances.

Clearly neither team got the shots memo:

A shoot-on-sight policy particularly prevailed among the midfielders of Ajax:


Given their territorial dominance, Ajax really struggled to create good-quality chances from open play. Aside from Cruyff’s opener, none of their other 16 shots from open play were even 1-in-10 opportunities. There were even a couple of 1-in-100 swings. Indeed, that Cruyff goal, an easy finish after goalkeeper and defender collided to provide him with an open goal from an otherwise fairly harmless hanging cross, accounted for 58% of Ajax’s open-play xG.



That was also the only effort on goal to directly originate from one of the 29 crosses Ajax swung into the Inter penalty area. For comparison, the highest team average in last season’s Champions League was 14; the competition average, 7.84. Over half of their attempted box entries came from crosses, versus a competition average of 28% in 2018-19. Just two of the 15 deliveries from the right by Sjaak Swart and the ever-advancing full-back Wim Suurbier found their target.

This graphic of Ajax’s box entries shows how infrequently they moved the ball through the centre into the area. There was a cute early pass from Arie Haan and a couple of other incursions but not much given how much time they spent in the Inter half. Neither they nor Inter completed a throughball.

Johan Cruyff

Cruyff scored both of Ajax’s goals in this match, but it doesn’t act as a particularly good example of the idea we have of Cruyff as orchestrator of play. While he did drop back to receive in midfield at times, he attempted more individual actions than collective ones, and completed just 53% of his passes -- only two players, both for Inter, completed less. It was his supple changes of direction and neat burst of acceleration that stood out.

In amongst all of those Ajax shots, Cruyff only set up two, worth a paltry 0.05 xG. Three teammates moved the ball into the penalty area more often than he did. Where he did lead the team was in touches inside the area. Indeed, from this super small sample size of just a single match from a 20-year career he profiles as more of a mobile centre-forward than a playmaker masquerading as one.

Some Random Numbers and Observations

- the players who took part in this match were more ambidextrous than most. There were seven players within a 15% range of an even 50/50 split of passes between both feet. Inter’s Boninsegna had an exact split; Cruyff was only three percentage points off. For comparison, there were only two players within that 15% range in the 1960 final; and just one in 2019.

- the number of dribbles was slightly down from the 1960 final, but the figures of 47 attempted and 30 completed were both still well above those usually seen in the modern game.

- this match featured something we very rarely see these days: an indirect free-kick for obstruction inside the area.