The last four of the Champions League is a contrast in expectations. 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.
Part of the reason Liverpool and Roma have progressed 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. Here, we’ll use STATS Playing Styles and the contextualised data behind it to assess how both clubs have reached this stage compared to how they’ve gone about Premier League or Serie A campaigns. We’ll do the same for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich against their domestic form before the first leg of their tie.
The graphics you’re about to see display the given styles of Liverpool and Roma 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, Liverpool, and a manager who’s attempting to reach the Champions League final with a second club after losing the 2012-13 final to Bayern Munich.
Go Forward First, Possess Later
Jürgen Klopp is no stranger to continental success with a side that never really stood a chance at winning its own league. With Borussia Dortmund, he went unbeaten in a true group of death in 2012-13 against Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, then reached the final with a side that finished 25 points back of Bayern in the Bundesliga.
That was a side that knew how to use its pace, and that’s also the case for Klopp’s current group. They just use it differently based on the competition. In 2018, Liverpool are the counter attack kings of England at +33 percent of the Premier League average. Not so much in the Champions League, where their counter ranks 17th among the 32 clubs. It’s one of two styles in which they perform under the UCL average, the other being maintenance.
Yet Liverpool have posted a striking Champions League goal difference, excluding own goals, of +26. Seven players have scored at least seven goals in the UCL, and three play for Liverpool – Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino have each scored eight, while Sadio Mane has seven. Their seven goals against are the fewest of any remaining club, so a side that’s been criticised defensively on the domestic front is doing something right in the Champions League.
Liverpool’s maintenance drops from +21 percent in the Premier League to -8 in the UCL. Maintenance captures possessions on which a team looks to maintain and secure the ball within the team’s own half and the first five metres beyond the halfway line. It’s a possession-based style that often involves a club’s backline. With that in mind, notice the Reds’ direct play increases from -21 to +7. So this means they’re possessing less at the back and sending the ball forward to their energetic attackers. The reversal hasn’t been a bad thing.
It’s something recent opponents Manchester City didn’t do with a +48 maintenance percentage that ranks second in the competition. The top eight maintenance clubs are all out of the competition with other notable absentees Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United among them.
Liverpool’s crossing increases from +7 domestically to +15 in the UCL, and with that, they’re finding Firmino on the receiving end of 2.2 crosses per 90 minutes. Among remaining players in the competition, that trails only Cristiano Ronaldo (2.9) – the only man who’s outscored him.
The Reds’ high press also jumps in the UCL, but the high press leaders among the semi-finalists are Liverpool’s next opponents.
If You Possess Less, Make Their Possessions Troublesome
Roma may be the most interesting semi-final study because they’ve been so adaptable. Eusebio Di Francesco’s side has employed an entirely different brand of football to reach this stage of continental competition than they do in Italy. In Serie A, their possession is +15 percent of the league average. In Champions League, that drops to right at average.
This is evident in each of the possession-based styles as they flip from a ball-dominant team in the league – particularly in build up and fast tempo – to a side that’s below the UCL averages in build up, sustained threat and fast tempo. Note above that Roma’s build up drops from +38 percent of the Serie A average to -6 in the Champions League, while fast tempo falls from +31 to -12.
One might think this could lead a club to playing more directly (like Liverpool) or countering more frequently, but that’s hardly the case with Roma. They actually see a noticeable dip in counter from +24 percent in Serie A to -3 in the UCL. And their direct play deviates only from -18 in Serie A to -16 in the UCL.
High press, however, jumps from third in Serie A at +27 percent to +40 in UCL, which leads the remaining teams and ranks fourth among all 32 sides.
Roma have three players among the Champions League’s top 13 in individual high press regains, and Diego Perotti’s 13 such regains rank second in the competition. That works out to 1.6 on a per-90 basis. He has 14 high press regains for the entire Serie A season for a per-90 rate of 0.8.
That’s just one example of the individual contributions that dress UCL Roma up a bit differently than their Serie A selves.