I can watch a team for weeks without processing much until I know something more specific to look for. I’m not a guy who can watch 15 minutes and determine everything a team is trying and able to do. That’s why I nose around in the stats like a old man reaching for his contacts. When I do find one of interest, that often makes watching games clearer and more enjoyable. Gladbach of recent vintage never made much sense to me until I found out no one in Europe was better at completing passes in the mess around the opposition goal. Then suddenly their entire style of play was easier to pick out and the beauty of Raffael more fully appreciated. Ingolstadt were just another ugly mid-table side until I saw their opposition passing numbers and now enjoy watching their team-wide pressure, Torino a side I would never watch until I saw stats showing how uniquely they pass in their own half, Rayo just a hipster name on a page until I saw their ridiculous high-press, soft-belly defensive numbers, etc, etc. Often times a single number can illuminate an entire team and make me watch in a new way. With 8 teams remaining in European competition and all in action this week, I found something each was near the top of Europe in to help explain their season and to provide a focus to watch the next two weeks. We start with the Europa League… Europa League Villarreal-Liverpool No one forces opponents to play out to the wings more than Villarreal. It’s not a one year fluke either, last year they led Europe by an even greater margin. At this point we can say that this is at the core of manager Marcelino’s philosophy on how to play. He wants to force teams to the more controllable, less dangerous parts of the pitch where he gets a free extra defender in the sideline. It’s Schmidt-ball in their own half (Leverkusen funnel the ball to the sidelines when teams are building up and then crank up then swarm in the restricted space). It’s worked beautifully this season as Villarreal have a 6-point edge on Athletic Bilbao in the race for Champions League and their defense to thank. Only Atletico and Barcelona have allowed fewer than Villarreal’s 31 goals conceded. courtesy of Managing Madrid‘s blog. This sets up a fascinating battle as Liverpool (and Klopp in recent years) play to the center more than almost every other team in England (and Dortmund did). Alberto Moreno might have even more space than normal ranging up the wing, can he make something of it without leaving an opening for Villarreal? Liverpool There is tons more on Liverpool here but for now I’ll point out how stingy they have been since Klopp took over. Only Bayern and 2 Italian teams in Juve and Lazio have been less generous with dangerous completions allowed (and Italian teams in general see fewer across the board). Villarreal will probably not see more than a handful of dangerous chances (they are outside the top 10 in time spent in front of goal in Spain and dead last in shots), so they will need to take advantage via a Bakambu goal or a Liverpool individual mistake. With at least one of Skrtel, Lucas and Toure seemingly sure to start Liverpool fans can surely rest easy. Sevilla vs Shakhtar It’s the shot quality derby as 2 of the teams who have led the way in Europe as far as avoiding those derided outside the box pot shots will match up. In both the Champions and Europa League, Sevilla and Shakhtar have been right at the top. Skenderbeu fans, I’m sorry but your team sullied the storied name of the Europa League with their performance this season, read this and try again. In La Liga, Sevilla are #1 again, with a similarly low rate. Many stat-heads should enjoy the decision making on display in this tie, though I’m semi-ambivalent for the most part about long bombs. Variables like pressure, passing options, angle, and ball movement are so quickly changing and influence a possession so much that I find it difficult to think most 5% shots with some non-negligible chance of a rebound/corner are disastrous. Plenty of times your possession is just out of options or the best other one is a difficult pass to someone way on the wing hoping they can play in a cross and ending it with a 6% chance at a goal is optimal. With nothing else much to add here, I’d like to call attention to the season Metalurg Zaporihzia had in the Ukrainian Premier League. They were outscored 50-7 while nabbing 3 points (all from draws) from their first 16 games. They’ve since forfeited their last 7 due to the club declaring bankruptcy and at this point, it’s going to be tough to climb out of the relegation places. Aston Villa fans, it could be worse. Champions League Atletico Madrid v Bayern Munich Bayern stop you by refusing you entry into their danger area, not by limiting danger when the line is broken. The high line compresses play and forces long passes often born out of desperation. Those long desperate balls are mostly harmlessly intercepted by Bayern, but when you actually get through, the chances of a shot are higher against Bayern then anyone else. This has been true for the entire Pep-era. Bayern have a larger “lead” in this stat year after year than any other team in any other stat I’ve compiled. If you get a man with the ball in a dangerous area against a Pep side, he will likely be alone (so without the thought of passing options to improve the attack) and the defense is likely to be stretched to where a shot looks quite enticing. Atletico will likely look to recreate their Barca plan by generating just a few situations where they can get a man with the ball closing in on goal. If they create that situation vs Bayern, they are more likely to get a shot off than vs any other team. And yes, I realize this isn’t exactly doing something “well” but it’s a hard article to write a title for, ok? Atletico Only Juventus nears Atletico when it comes to making opponents struggle with the ball to advance to dangerous areas. It takes on average 114 completions for the opposition to get one in the high-danger zone right around goal. We saw how this worked to perfection against Barcelona in the 2nd leg: A lot of blue all over the pitch except for the most crucial areas. It figures Simeone will set his team up that way again against a semi-sputtering Bayern. There is plenty more about Atleti’s defensive set-up here. Real Madrid-Manchester City Way on the right is not where you usually find teams with Real Madrid’s budget but here we are. Only Koln, Everton, and a few Italian teams are softer to play against than a team in the UCL semifinals. Aston Villa and Sunderland are just to the left of them for crying out loud. Such a glaring flaw hasn’t gone unnoticed of course, and in some pockets of the stats-heavy internet it’s probably led to Real Madrid being underrated. I’m even feeding into that here, the temptation to point out bizarre stats like this generally outweighs another boring stat about Ronaldo averaging 8 shots or something insane. Madrid play sloppily, provide minimal resistance to the opposition and basically perform like a quickly-thrown together all-star team. These are often taken to mean they can’t compete with the best, but clearly they can. Tons of ugly flaws can be covered up by the Monster of Shot Volume, which Real Madrid can control to an extent unmatched across Europe. Man City It’s become somewhat fashionable to highlight Leicester’s direct long ball style as an adjustment that has fueled their rise to the top of the table but I’m of the opinion that their mix is something special like grandma’s meatloaf. You’re not exactly sure how such a generally disagreeable mix of ingredients turned out to taste amazing, but you aren’t going to waste your time trying to replicate it to almost assuredly disappointing results. If you want to please your guests, don’t serve them meatloaf, buy them Popeye’s Chicken, and if you want to be a great attacking team, don’t try to copy Leicester’s long balls, get enough people forward so you can create intricate interplays and overloads. Man City, Barcelona, and Arsenal will likely have great offenses again next season as they have the bare-bones right. If City can get ahold of the ball, there don’t seem to be many obstacles in their way to racking up a large amounts of chances in this tie. Real Madrid allow the shortest average pass distance in the danger zone in Spain along with the 2nd-highest completion% allowed in the league. City are up near Arsenal miles ahead of #3 in England when it comes to completion% for in the danger zone. Put all that together with the Monsters of Shot Volume on the other side and this tie has the potential to be one of the best to watch for action-loving neutrals ever. If you are trying to win over a basketball fan to soccer, make sure you tune in with them to City-Real Madrid. Enjoy the games!