Passing accuracy is key but effort goes without saying
The Soccer boffin's weekly dose of betting wisdom
What distinguishes the best Champions League teams from the rest? The answer seems to include variety and accuracy, but not effort. The semi-finals are halfway through. In the first legs Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 while Monaco lost to Juventus 2-0. The second legs are tomorrow and Wednesday.
I took stats from this season for all 32 teams that started the group stage. I divided them into three categories – those eliminated in their groups, those eliminated in the round of 16 and those who reached the quarter-finals (which includes those who won there and progressed to the semi-finals).
One intriguing difference was in goals scored with a right and left foot. Of all their goals from shots, teams eliminated at the group stage scored 32 per cent with a left foot, teams eliminated in the round of 16 scored 39 per cent while quarter- and semi-finalists scored 45 per cent.
I am not quite as daft as I look. I know that the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, is predominately left-footed and plays for Barcelona, who reached the quarter-finals. Antoine Griezmann, leading scorer for Atletico Madrid, is also predominately left-footed.
It is possible that teams who have gone far this season just happen to have an unusually large number of good left-footed attackers.
Other quarter- and semi-finalists, though, still scored 42 per cent of their kicked goals with a left foot. I think there may be another possibility as well.
In all competitions more goals are scored from a right boot than a left. This is not because in all competitions the ball just happens to roll more often to an attacker’s right side than his left. It is because most players can kick better with their right foot than their left. The best teams naturally have the best players. It is possible that they are more willing and also more able to shoot with their weaker foot.
Another difference was in passing accuracy. Pass completion rates were 83 per cent for teams eliminated at the group stage and 86 per cent for teams who reached the quarter-finals.
Because their passes were more likely to be successful their moves might last longer, which would mean spending longer with the ball. Average possession per match was 46 per cent for teams knocked out at the group stage, 52 per cent for teams knockout out in the round of 16 and 54 per cent for quarter- and semi-finalists.
Among the semi-finalists are Atletico Madrid and Monaco, who have not often dominated possession in the Champions League or national competitions. But there might be more to those exceptions than meets the eye.
In December I wrote an article in the Racing & Football Outlook saying that last season there was also a correlation generally between possession and progress, but it was strongest for possession in the attacking third.
Atletico Madrid might pass the ball forward quickly, but they then spend a lot of time with it in the final third. Last season, for example, runners-up Atletico spent almost as long with the ball in the attacking third as winners Real.
Passing the ball accurately and spending a lot of time with it near the opposition goal also led to something else: a high proportion of goals scored from inside the penalty area. It was 81 per cent this season for teams eliminated at the group stage, 83 per cent for teams eliminated in the round of 16 and 84 per cent for teams who reached the quarter-finals.
I have noticed that some observers make a lot of stats on distance covered. I think they are meaningless, in the Champions League and in other competitions.
Average distance per match in the Champions League this season has been 111 kilometres for teams knocked out in the group stage, 110 km for teams knocked out in the round of 16 and 110km for teams who reached the quarter-finals.
I am not saying that a team could do just as well if their players stood still for most of a match. What I am saying is that in practice most teams put in about the same effort, which is as much as they can.
The most striking thing about stats on distance covered, to my mind, is how little they differ. This season 25 out of 32 Champions League teams (78 per cent) have averaged between 107 and 113km per match (three kilometres either side of the average). A difference of one kilometre between teams is equivalent to less than 100 metres per player spread over 90 minutes plus added time – roughly one metre per minute.