Exactly five years ago, Robert Lewandowski scored four times in a Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. He played for Borussia Dortmund that season and a manager who stated early on that his club would prioritise Champions League play above repeating as Bundesliga champions.
It almost worked. Dortmund finished 25 points back in the league yet reached the UCL final, only to lose to the same team that took back the league title and eventually took Lewandowski. But what exactly does it mean for a club to establish such a differentiation in priorities? It almost certainly has something to do with a change in tactics from one competition to the other, which we can now objectively measure with STATS Playing Styles.
Lewandowski is back at that stage with a club that’s not going to settle for one trophy or the other, yet Bayern Munich still undergo noticeable changes between domestic play and continental competition.
The last four of this Champions League works as an interesting study in such deviation. The first tie is among clubs that, given their quarter-final opponents, were no longer supposed to be this busy in the middle of the week in late April. The second is among two that spoil their supporters by reaching this stage so frequently. What they share is all four have arrived with at least a slightly altered identity in the continental competition compared to their domestic selves.
The reason Liverpool and Roma remain is they found ways to adapt and eliminate two of Europe’s giants – Manchester City and Barcelona. They did it while employing various styles they might not be entirely used to in their domestic leagues, which we showed prior to their first leg. Here, we’ll use STATS Playing Styles and the contextualised data behind it to assess how Bayern and Real have reached this stage compared to how they’ve gone about Bundesliga or La Liga campaigns.
The graphics you’re about to see display the given styles of each club relative to each competition’s average, which is represented by the line at zero percent. The Playing Styles wheel on the left considers how they’ve performed in the UCL with respect to the comprehensive data gathered for every match since the start of group stage, not just the team in question’s direct competition. The other considers how they’ve performed domestically among data gathered for every match played in that particular league this season.
First, Bayern, saving the twice defending champions for last.
When Traditional Build Up Won’t Do, Crossing Might
Bayern Munich embody the kind of stylistic leveling out we might expect when a club goes from domestic play to the world’s top continental club competition. They have a hold on more categories in their league than any of the other semi-finalists, leading the Bundesliga in every possession-based playing style as well as crossing and high press.
Unsurprisingly, they come back to the pack in the Champions League, ceding plenty of their build up and fast tempo play against the UCL’s consistently difficult competition. This results in their overall possession coming down from +26 percent of the Bundesliga average to +12 percent of the UCL’s.
How do they seem to compensate in UCL in order to work the ball into favourable attacking positions? Bayern’s crossing spikes from +49 percent of the Bundesliga average to +71 of the UCL average, which trails only their semi-final opponents Real Madrid.
This comes as no surprise for these two clubs given the presence of players such as Joshua Kimmich, James Rodriguez, Marcelo and Marco Asensio, all of which are among the UCL leaders in crosses made per 90 minutes. It’s Kimmich who leads all remaining players in crosses delivered with 10.1 per 90 minutes, which trails only Besiktas winger Ricardo Quaresma throughout the competition.
Further adaptation may be necessary in the semis because Real Madrid stick to their style more than any of the Champions League’s remaining clubs.
Sustain Threat, And When You Can’t, Counter
A recurrent discussion this campaign is centered around how Real Madrid have flourished – again – in the Champions League despite an ordinary season in La Liga.
The answer is probably that there’s no remaining team that imposes their style on the Champions League more than Real Madrid. That may have something to do with why they’ve been able to win the competition in consecutive seasons.
While Barcelona lead Real in maintenance, build up and fast tempo in La Liga, Real surpass their Spanish rivals and every other club in fast tempo in Champions League play. In terms of sustained threat, Barcelona’s percentage drops from +66 in La Liga to +38 in the Champions League. That’s something Manchester City also experienced, dropping from +71 percent domestically to +49. Real’s sustained threat actually increases slightly from +90 in La Liga to +92 in the UCL to easily lead the competition. This is supported by the sustained threat involvements of Isco (22.8 per 90 minutes) and Marco Asensio (22.4) ranking second and fourth in the entire competition among Arjen Robben (25.0) and Leroy Sane (22.6).
Real play directly less than any remaining UCL side, but they counter considerably more. And they counter 21 percent more in the Champions League than they do in La Liga. It’s a striking accomplishment when properly considered – a club that sustains threat more than any club in the competition is also countering more than any club. Essentially, Real are almost always finding a different avenue to get to goal, and they’re doing so more prolifically than the rest of the UCL. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they’re back in the semis during a forgettable La Liga campaign. They play better football in the Champions League than they do domestically, and measurably so with STATS Playing Styles.
Not only do they have more of a consistent counter threat than other teams, they also have a solid disruptor at the other end. Casemiro’s 1.48 counter attack regains per 90 minutes lead the UCL. Notable positional counterparts Fernandinho (0.64) and Sergio Busquets (0.57) don’t reach that mark combined.
Casemiro was 21 and yet to break into Madrid’s senior side in 2012-13. Such a disruptive presence might help this time around against a certain prolific striker.