Overthink It: Predicting the Champions League Quarter-finals
Soccer

Overthink It: Predicting the Champions League Quarter-finals

Three English sides, three Spanish, the Germans you’d expect, and the Portuguese you may not. Those are your last eight in the 2021-22 Champions League. No Italian teams, just like the World Cup. Here are the predictions, rankings and a few deeper numbers to consider for the first legs of each tie.


Manchester City-Atlético Madrid

Global rankings: Manchester City 1st, Atlético Madrid 10th

First-leg win probability: Manchester City 83%, draw 11%, Atlético Madrid 6%

Chances of winning the Champions League: Manchester City 32%, Atlético Madrid 1%

One more number: 35.7

Manchester City have the highest average sequence time (15.11 seconds) in the competition, while Atlético Madrid have the lowest (7.3) among the last eight. City’s opponents have the deepest average start distance for their sequences (35.7 metres from their own goal), and Atlético Madrid are right there with Benfica for the deepest start distance (40.0m) for their own sequences. City average 5.17 passes per sequence, Atlético are at 2.85. That’s the longwinded way of saying this tie likely has the most contrast in styles among the quarter-finals:

2021-22 Champions League Playing Styles

Atlético head to the blue side of Manchester having scored nine goals in eight Champions League matches, and given the un-Simeonean defensive record they’ve had in Spain this season, it’s remarkable that’s been enough for this Atlético side to remain in the competition. An even goal difference has gotten them here (nine goals scored and conceded), and an optimist may tell you all it really takes is an even goal difference to keep going at this stage of the competition. Sometimes Diego Simeone gets past English sides in the knockout stages regardless of what supercomputers say, but the reality is they weren’t unevenly matched with Manchester United in the last 16 – home or away. But let’s not settle for that kind of recency bias. They were outmatched in the group stage at Anfield, a 2-0 loss to Liverpool in which Jürgen Klopp’s side had a 3.22-0.25 xG advantage. Yes, Atlético went down to 10 men, but the goals came before that.

To bring this back around to that 35.7 number at the top, Atléti’s sequences started an average of 34.9 metres from goal away to Liverpool, and their 0.25 xG was their lowest in eight UCL matches. Liverpool pressed relentlessly with 4.9 Atlético passes per defensive action. To put that in context, the best PPDA for the competition is Ajax’s 7.4 mark spanning eight matches.

Pep Guardiola has watched that Liverpool-Atlético Madrid match. Pep Guardiola on Monday stated: “I love to overthink and create stupid tactics.” Granted City haven’t pressed like Liverpool throughout the competition, but we’ll take Pep’s statement at face value if City give Atlético space to play out of the back.


Benfica-Liverpool

Global rankings: Benfica 28th, Liverpool 3rd

First-leg win probability: Benfica 14%, draw 25%, Liverpool 61%

Chances of winning the Champions League: Benfica 1%, Liverpool 30%

One more number: 4

It’s not in Liverpool’s nature to play conservative football, regardless of venue or revamped away-goal Champions League structure. Their four away wins in the competition are unmatched this season, and should they beat Benfica this week, then advance and win their away fixture in the semi-finals, they’ll be the first team to win six true away matches in a single Champions League campaign.

The Reds have scored more goals away (12) than their opponents have had shots on target (11) in those games:

Liverpool Champions League Away

Klopp’s players are going to attack in Estádio da Luz, and they’re going to have plenty of the ball. Benfica have gotten here with 40% possession – lowest among the last eight and only higher than Malmö, Brugge and Sheriff in the competition – while Liverpool narrowly trail Bayern Munich and Chelsea at the top. Perhaps that’s what Benfica want: They’re one of two remaining teams to score two goals from fast breaks in the competition. Not bad for a side that’s been limited to nine non-penalty goals in total, but the reality is that bringing up that stat might be grasping at something to make this tie seem interesting. One can’t help but point out that Benfica’s 2.01 xG against per match is over half an expected goal per game more than anyone left in the competition.


Villarreal-Bayern Munich

Global rankings: Villarreal 19th, Bayern Munich 2nd

First-leg win probability: Villarreal 21%, draw 26%, Bayern Munich 53%

Chances of winning the Champions League: Villarreal 2%, Bayern Munich 19%

One more number: 5.49

That’s Bayern’s xG against. It’s the lowest not only among the last eight, but it’s still the lowest overall in the competition:

Bayern Munich Champions League xG Against

Scary given they’ve now played two games more than half the field, even scarier given they’ve scored a competition-leading 30 goals with the highest xG for (23.64). If you want more proof of how good Bayern are at finishing, may we present to you Leroy Sané’s assists: He has six. That’s tied with Bruno Fernandes for the most in the competition. Sané’s have come from 1.1 expected assists, meaning his team-mates are finishing well beyond what would be expected of the chances Sané has provided.

But Villarreal aren’t exactly slacking going to goal themselves. Their 16.28 xG is fourth in the entire competition, and their 0.17 xG per shot leads all 32 teams. Bayern’s opponents often settle for longer-range attempts with 25 of 60 Champions League shots (41.7%) coming from outside the box, but that isn’t Villarreal style. Only 23% of their shots are coming from outside the box, which is the lowest of all 32 UCL teams:

Villarreal Champions League xG

It was never on better display than in their 3-0 win in Turin in which they put all three of their shots on target past Juventus.

Arnaut Danjuma has been great with five goals and a competition-leading 11 shot-ending carries, but Villarreal’s attack has had some variety. Ten of Unai Emery’s players have scored non-penalty goals in this season’s Champions League. That’s tied with Manchester City and Chelsea for the most in the competition. How to score against Bayern figures to be a difficult problem to solve, but three of the five goals Julian Nagelsmann’s team have conceded have come on direct attacks, which is more than every team in the competition other than Brugge.


Chelsea-Real Madrid

Global rankings: Chelsea 5th, Real Madrid 4th

First-leg win probability: Chelsea 40%, draw 32%, Real Madrid 28%

Chances of winning the Champions League: Chelsea 8%, Real Madrid 8%

One more number: 3

Chelsea don’t concede at home in the Champions League, Real Madrid hardly concede away in the Champions League. The rematch of last season’s semi-final might be the most likely 0-0 of the week. But that may depend on how Real choose to play. Perhaps you saw Real Madrid turn around their last 16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain. And in that second leg, perhaps you noticed Real Madrid pressing rather effectively. With Ajax out, Real Madrid have scored the most goals from high turnovers among remaining teams (3):

Real Madrid Champions League High Turnovers

Now, it should be noted the press against PSG came in the second leg in Madrid, while Real were criticised for playing conservatively in the first leg away. Will that happen again, or will Carlo Ancelotti look back at the success a few weeks ago and attempt to cause Chelsea’s backline similar trouble?

Chelsea have been more of a pressing side than Real, and Chelsea will be at home, so this feels kind of backward to consider, but here’s why it’s at least an interesting thought: Chelsea have had 87 pressed sequences against, and their 43 high turnovers against are second fewest among the last eight, but seven have resulted in shots (16%). For comparison, just two of Manchester City’s 33 have resulted in shots (6%) and just three of Bayern’s 48 (6%). The counter to that is Chelsea haven’t allowed a goal-ending high turnover in all competitions this season:

Chelsea 2021-22 High Turnovers Against

But Chelsea have allowed a competition-low 15 shots on target, so it seems unlikely Real will get much going if they take the same conservative first-leg approach as they did with PSG, and this could be a way for Benzema & Co. to get a look or two at goal in London. Real have only conceded one away goal this UCL campaign, so maybe it’s time to take that chance and see if they can be the first visitors to score at Stamford Bridge in this Champions League. The other remaining sides have conceded at least three home goals each. Those of us neutrals in search of goals can only hope Ancelotti’s also overthinking just as much as Pep.


Design by Matt Sisneros.

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