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What's the secret of Champions League success?

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Adam Smith

Data and Analysis @AdamDatasmith

Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham prepare for Champions League action, but what can they learn from last year's competition?

Last Updated: 17/09/19 8:05am

Liverpool and Chelsea kick off their Champions League campaigns this Tuesday before Tottenham and Manchester City play on Wednesday - but what lessons can the four English clubs learn from last season?

English clubs have dodged many of Europe's powerhouse teams, with the exception of Tottenham facing Bayern Munich in Group B and Chelsea facing a resurgent, youthful Ajax side.

Home Away Date Chelsea Valencia Sep 17 Napoli Liverpool Sep 17 Olympiacos Tottenham Sep 18 Shakhtar Man City Sep 18

But what can the English teams expect to face in the competition this season? Adam Smith delves into UEFA's advanced stats from 2018/19 to uncover potential strengths and weaknesses...

Goals on the rise

Last season's campaign produced 366 goals, which represented a three-year low. But that dip could prove to be an outlier. The overall trajectory for goals has been typically rising for 13 years now.

Man City: 16 goals Liverpool: 15 goals Chelsea: 11 goals Tottenham: 11 goals

The rise suggests an ever-growing emphasis on attack over defence in European football, in a competition which has traditionally seen teams more reluctant to commit players forward in the knockout rounds.

Late goals rising in number

The graphic below shows the number of goals scored during intervals last term and reveals a rise towards a peak in the final 15 minutes - when teams are forced forwards to salvage results or counter teams who have over-committed.

There were 22 goals in the final 15 minutes of normal time during the knockout rounds - which equates to 25 per cent of all goals scored in those games.

In total, 21 out of 125 matches were won with goals after the 75th minute.

How the goals were scored

Just over one quarter of all goals were scored from crosses or cut-backs, tactics typically deployed by Liverpool and Manchester City respectively.

Liverpool scored the most headed goals with six, followed by Porto on five.

Europe's elite players also collectively notched 59 goals from passing combinations, while another 42 came from corners.

Who scored the goals?

Lionel Messi took centre stage in customary style and claimed the Golden Boot with 12 goals - four more than runner-up Robert Lewandowski.

His showpiece moment came in Barcelona's 3-0 win over Liverpool, curling a free-kick beyond Alisson with pin-point accuracy to notch his 600th goal for the club.

His returns defy description. According to UEFA xG data, the Argentine scored six goals more than expected,

If Lionel Messi scores against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, he would equal the CL record for different teams scored against, set by Raul (33 clubs).

Among the players who netted five or more, Mohamed Salah was the only player to scorer fewer than expected and register a single-digit conversion rate - with his shot count of 52 only surpassed by Messi's 54 attempts.

Who stopped the goals?

Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Borussia Dortmund stopper Roman Burki shipped the fewest goals per game and kept the best clean sheet ratios, followed by Alisson and Juventus stopper Wojciech Szczesny.

At the other end of the scale, Schalke stopper Ralf Fahmann, who signed for Norwich on a season-long loan this summer, shipped the most per game - conceding 10 across two legs against Manchester City alone.

Lyon's Anthony Lopes and Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois also leaked an above-average number of goals - but the xG stats indicate both stoppers actually prevented more goals than expected, suggesting defences could be at fault here.

Attacking teams

City's sensational 10-2 aggregate scoreline over Schalke in the Round of 16 also ensured City were the competition's most prolific side, netting three per game on average. But PSG were arguably the most clinical team.

Thomas Tuchel's side averaged 2.5 goals per game and recorded league-topping stats for shooting accuracy and conversion rates.

Several top clubs recorded disappointing, single-digit conversion rates and scored fewer than expected, including Liverpool, Juventus, Manchester United, Inter Milan and Napoli.

Divock Origi had no problems with accuracy, scoring all three of his shots in the competition and became the fourth successive substitute to score in the Champions League final.

Other clubs with below-par results included PSV, Schalke, Valencia, Galatasaray, Lokomotiv, Young Boys, AEK Athens and Monaco.

Bayern, Atletico set-piece danger

Manchester City were the most successful English side from set-pieces, scoring five from dead-ball situations (excluding penalties), followed by Liverpool (four), Tottenham and Manchester United (two each).

But, in terms of overall goal ratios from dead-ball situations, teams competing against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid should be wary: nearly 40 per cent of the two teams' goals came from set plays.

A bulk of these goals come from corners and Porto top the pack for returns here, scoring from 10 per cent of their corners - but the Primeira Liga runners-up will not be competing in the Champions League this season.

Again, Bayern and Atletico were the next most prolific sides for converting opportunities fired from the corner flag, followed by Red Star and Ajax.

At the other of the pitch, Atletico should be able to expose Lokomotiv's weaknesses at defending corners, while teams in Group G will be aware of Benfica's poor defensive record in these situations, too.

Manchester City could enjoy success from corners against a lacklustre Shakhtar Donetsk side, while Tottenham's poor record at clearing danger will be under serious threat when they face corner kings Bayern in October.

This is the third successive season in which Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk have been drawn in the same CL group.

Real Madrid & Man City possession kings

The top seven clubs for possession all made the Round of 16, with Manchester City and Real Madrid topping the pack with an average of 60 per cent - but Real edged City slightly with their share in the attacking third.

Atletico typically had an inferior share of the ball, but, when in possession, rarely kept the ball in their defensive third and matched La Liga rivals Real with their proportional share in attacking areas.

However, the stats also reveal which teams either backed off or were hemmed in, with Red Star recording nearly half of their possession in the defensive third, followed by PSV, Inter Milan, Viktoria, AEK Athens, Bayern, Benfica and Schalke.

Dortmund & Barcelona pass masters

Perhaps surprisingly, Dortmund surpassed Barcelona for the average number of passes per game, with Napoli ousting Real Madrid and Manchester City.

However, Messi and co were the most incisive, with passes bypassing 501 opponents typically per game.

Interestingly, the top nine clubs for long balls did not qualify for the competition this season, with Club Brugge being the most prolific side for long distribution among those that did secure a spot.

Youth delivers distance

Liverpool's running stats went off the chart during Klopp's first months in charge at Anfield before stabilising in recent seasons - recording average distances covered during their European campaign last term.

The graphic below reveals a clear correlation between average age and distance covered, with more youthful teams covering far more kilometres.

Three PL players recorded the fastest speeds last season.Virgil van Dijk: 34.5km/h.Leroy Sane: 34.4km/h.Kyle Walker: 34.2km/h.

Shakhtar were the prime outliers with a competition-high 116km covered per game - despite having an above-average age of 27.5, while Roma also bucked the trend.

CSKA and Lyon were the youngest sides to compete, compared with the eldest teams of Viktoria, Lokomotiv and Galatasaray - with the latter running nearly 4km fewer than any other side.

Player Club Metres per min Marcelo Brozovic Inter 137.3 Matias Vecino Inter 137.0 Marek Hamsik Napoli 136.2 Christian Eriksen Spurs 135.5 James Milner Liverpool 135.0 Maycon Shakhtar 134.8

One year on, and with few youthful additions this summer, Juventus will now be one of the eldest sides but still out-runned Group D rivals Atletico last season.

Can the Premier League rule again?

Tottenham struggled during the opening weeks but found their groove against Crystal Palace at the weekend and will need to stay alert when defending set-pieces in Group B.

Bayern are clinical from these situations, while Lewandowski was the most accurate striker to have scored five or more goals in the competition last term.

Interestingly, Bayern and Red Star both play deep in their own half, and Spurs may attempt to press in these attacking areas for high turnovers or back off to prevent counter-attacks and conserve energy.

Manchester City face an energetic but ageing Shakhtar side in the group stages for a third year running and could look to exploit defensive frailties - but the Ukrainian side are likely to play in a similar style to City, patiently passing forwards.

Guardiola will be quietly confident, with Dinamo Zagreb visiting the Etihad in October before hosting Serie A wildcards Atalanta, who are embarking upon their maiden Champions League campaign.

Liverpool face Napoli for the third time in a year and Klopp will be keen to set the record straight after a 3-0 pre-season defeat sparked early alarms.

The reigning CL champions have not lost their opening CL game the following season since AC Milan in 1994/95 against Ajax.

Napoli will want to fire more shots on target to compete against a Liverpool side who frequently shoot on sight, while the Italians will look to out-pass the champions - typically attempting 140 more passes than Klopp's side per game.

Napoli players were among the elite for average sprints per game last season:Dusan Tadic (Ajax): 62.25Jose Callejon (Napoli): 55.83Sadio Mane (Liverpool): 54.38Dele All (Spurs): 53.75Ivan Perisic (Inter): 53.17Raheem Sterling (Man City): 51.70Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli): 49.33Mario Rui (Napoli): 49.17

Arguably, out of the English clubs, Chelsea have the toughest group with all four teams fairly evenly matched on paper - with Lampard's side and Ajax being likely favourites.

Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud was the top goalscorer in the Europa League last season, with 11 goals in 14 appearances.

Ajax were one of the youngest sides last year but still managed to reach the semis, but the Dutch champions would have learnt innumerable lessons after ceding their three-goal advantage to Spurs.

However, it will be interesting to see if Erik ten Hag can blood fresh youngsters to replace the talismanic qualities of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Kasper Dolberg after all three sought pastures new during the summer window.

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Liverpool could become the first English side to successfully retain the trophy since they, and Nottingham Forest, achieved that feat in the 1970s.

Chelsea's youthful side will be tested on the grand stage, while City crave this trophy to truly crown Guardiola's success and Spurs still need that elusive piece of silverware under Mauricio Pochettino.

Can English sides dominate Europe again? It all kicks off on Tuesday.

Home Away Date Inter Milan Slavia Prague Sep 17 Lyon Zenit Sep 17 Chelsea Valencia Sep 17 RB Salzburg Genk Sep 17 Napoli Liverpool Sep 17 Ajax Lille Sep 17 Benfica RB Leipzig Sep 17 Borussia Dortmund Barcelona Sep 17 Brugge Galatasaray Sep 18 Olympiacos Tottenham Sep 18 Bayer Leverkusen Lokomotiv Moscow Sep 18 PSG Real Madrid Sep 18 Bayern Munich Red Star Sep 18 Atletico Madrid Juventus Sep 18 Shakhtar Donetsk Man City Sep 18 Dinamo Zagreb Atalanta Sep 18


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