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Dress to Progress: Champions League Quarter-Finals Explained in Style

By: Kevin Chroust

Everyone loves watching Atalanta, so we’re going to show you why your visceral reaction makes numerical sense. Everyone thinks Bayern Munich or Manchester City will win the Champions League, and we’re going to show why that too is logical.

There are many ways to do deep analysis on each of the Champions League quarter-finalists and the players involved. But here, with the ability to measure it, style is always substance. Except when it’s not. But we can measure that too.

So first up in a Champions League last eight for which UEFA are sending us to Lisbon and doesn’t include the newly-crowned Spanish, Italian or English league winners are the French champions:

PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN

PSG have been different and much more ordinary in the Champions League than they were in Ligue 1, and the data you’re presently looking at is a good representation of how they tend to fall short in the Champions League and inevitably face criticism for not being able to handle the step up in competition. Domestically they are very much used to playing attacking football and they are very much not used to having to go through sustained spells of defending against elite competition.

Maintenance is essentially possession in the defensive half, and there isn’t a drastic drop off for Thomas Tuchel’s team from domestic to continental play. The drop comes with that more substantial possession of build up and sustained threat. And while they unsurprisingly lead Ligue 1 in sustained threat, they’re 15th in the Champions League among teams that qualified for the knockout phase ahead of only Valencia. That goes for crossing as well where they fall to 15th ahead of only Barcelona.

This was also the case last year when PSG lost in the round of 16, but the disparity between domestic play and European play is more drastic this season. And while Atalanta might seem like a side, by size at least, that PSG can continue attacking against, you’ll want to read on because Atalanta change for no one…

ATALANTA

Remember last year when everyone who didn’t have their team in the last eight were rooting for Ajax to win the Champions League? That’s Atalanta this season. And not just in the underdog role.

Atalanta are the eager kid who just doesn’t know any better. The data supports either that backhanded compliment or the thought that they’re actually more imposing that we give them credit for. They play something resembling a mild version of total football, and that is replicated across competitions. Gian Piero Gasperini’s players don’t mess around with the ball at the back, as is seen by their league-average maintenance in Serie A and below average UCL maintenance. However, they hold more consequential possession with their build up and sustained threat above UCL average. That’s very Ajax 2018/19 of them, and not to worry – Tottenham have already been taken care of by…

RB LEIPZIG

Leipzig aren’t much above an average crossing team in Bundesliga, but put them in a Champions League environment and that spikes to 37% above the competition average, which is third among teams to qualify for the knockout phase and results in more than half a goal per match.

There isn’t a heavy countering club left in the tournament, but Leipzig are the closest there is. Their 5.1 possessions involving counter-attacks per match in the competition is the highest among the remaining teams (Liverpool were at 7.0 per match for comparison’s sake), but Julian Nagelsmann’s team need to prove they can score off those. They don’t have a counter-attack goal in the competition, but their 0.4 per match in the Bundesliga was twice the league average. That said, the big loss is Timo Werner, who contributed 21% of the team’s counter-attack distance dribbled.

If we zoom out a bit and just consider style more broadly, Leipzig have been stylistically more intriguing in the Champions League than in Bundesliga. Their sustained threat is higher, as is their fast tempo. This is going to make for an interesting quarter-final tie because their Thursday opponent also have been a bit more interesting in the Champions League…

ATLÉTICO MADRID

Diego Simeone’s team has already ousted Liverpool, so they have to be taken seriously. Here’s why Atlético might be the Spanish side best fit to win this strange edition of the competition. They’re at surface level a more rousing side in the Champions League than they were in La Liga and, so far at least, that hasn’t opened them up at the back. Notice they’re a bit conservative in Spain with below league average sustained threat and minimal crossing. That goes away in UCL with their sustained threat jumping to +9% of the competition average while crossing goes to +13%, which is kind of cool to see against theoretically stronger competition. What’s even nicer for Atlético fans to see is that while their opponents counter at higher than competition average in the Champions League, it only results in competition average scoring (0.2 goals per match), so there shouldn’t be major concerns about getting caught up. If there’s a team who know how to defend what they have, it’s Atleti.

It should be noted that Atlético play directly more than anyone left in the tournament, and it hasn’t resulted in any direct goals. They scored a third of a goal per match involving direct play in La Liga, however, which is higher than the league average.

As for teams that very much don’t epitomise direct football…

BARCELONA

This is a weird Barcelona team and the truth is it’s been trending this way for a few seasons now, which isn’t a surprise to you, me or Lionel Messi. The disappointment of their last two European exits has been profound, but at least at this point in 2020 there’s no such thing as a second leg.

As for style, Barcelona no longer sustain threat in the Champions League as they do in LaLiga, while their build up play is incredibly ordinary for them trailing Liverpool, Man City, and Bayern among teams to reach the last 16. Their sustained threat is even less prevalent in comparison, ranking 11th among the last 16 which in itself might be grounds for a sacking at Camp Nou. Where they continue to look like Barcelona of old is in fast tempo (thanks in the midfield only to Frenkie de Jong), where they rank first among the remaining teams and trail only Liverpool for the season.

But before we move on, we have to point out that Messi is still there and still very good at football as we saw against Napoli. When on the pitch in the Champions League, he accounts for 15% of their sustained threat, 10% of their fast tempo and 10% of their build up play – which isn’t normal for someone arbitrarily titled a forward – as well as 28% of their counter attack distance dribbled and 39% of their crosses received. He is everywhere, despite seeming to walk leisurely around the right half quite frequently. Because of Messi, Barca remain an efficient side in terms of actually scoring through these styles with 0.8 goals per match involving sustained threat and 0.6 involving build up, which are higher than UCL average but simply not on the level of the next two teams.

What it means in Barcelona vs Bayern is that the best player in Europe is playing perhaps the best team in Europe for a trip to the semi-finals…

BAYERN MUNICH

Bayern Munich have been stylistically unphased on their run to the quarter-finals, which over the past few seasons has been a pretty strong indicator of a deep run in the tournament, as illustrated by Liverpool last season and Real Madrid the year before. However, that was more true in group stage than it was against Chelsea, so we’ll see if it carries through to the quarter-finals.

Bayern lead the Champions League in maintenance, sustained threat and high press regains, so their possession-based style runs the length of the pitch and they waste no time getting it back. Against Chelsea, their possession game dipped some, but their high press spiked to 16.5 per match. They dominate territory, but they’re also second in crossing among the last 16 behind Liverpool.

Robert Lewandowski may have an outside chance at reaching Cristiano Ronaldo’s UCL record of 17 goals in a single tournament, but in 2020 the standout number for Bayern is actually 2.0. This is the number of goals per match scored by them involving sustained threat, which is more than three times the competition average.

But let’s move on because Manchester City are waiting patiently in Portugal with a hand raised after that “best team in Europe” line…

MANCHESTER CITY

So we go from one former Pep Guardiola team to the next to the current. Stylistically, Man City are matched only in this season’s Champions League by Liverpool and Bayern. They play a bit more build up than Bayern and a bit less in sustained threat. They’re consistent with that style across competitions, but they do see a decrease in crossing and an increase in direct play in Europe. But the increase in direct play is a bit misleading because in the Champions League, Ederson accounts for 48% of direct play-involved passes made up from 27% in the Premier League.

Manchester City score 1.3 goals per match from possessions involving sustained threat, which is fantastic but as we’ve seen above, is no Bayern Munich. However, if we consider opponents’ scoring as well, this averages out. While Bayern’s opponents score half a goal per match from possessions involving sustained threat, City’s are at 0.1. The only style from which they allow Champions League average scoring is crossing (0.5 goals per match), so their style is buttoned up to say the least.

The same, though, can be said about their quarter-final opponents…

OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS

That leaves us with Lyon, who just ousted Italian perma-champions Juventus despite a brace from Ronaldo. When comparing their Ligue 1 style to their Champions League style, their possession drops. Lyon and PSG were the only French clubs to be in the top four of maintenance, build up and sustained threat, but in the Champions League Lyon are bang average in those categories. Conversely, they do more crossing and a bit more countering in UCL.

As we noted last week, Rudi Garcia went for a different formation in the games against Juventus than they typically play in the league. We thought that might open them up for countering, but they still haven’t allowed a counter attack goal in the competition and conceded 0.1 per match in France, so Man City’s scoring might have to come from elsewhere. The thing is, the only area from which they allow competition average scoring is build up (0.4 goals per match).

We took this a bit further with the Atalanta vs PSG fixture in video form, which can be viewed here.

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