Be Quick, Press High, Cut Back: How to Score in the Champions League

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MANCHESTER, England — Every year, on the day of the Champions League final, European soccer’s governing body gathers a handful of coaches, former players and all-purpose grandees to reflect on that season’s competition: the patterns, the trends, the developments, the warning signs.

This is UEFA’s technical committee, and it is made up of a dozen or so experts from across the continent — Ryan Giggs, Roberto Martínez, Cristian Chivu and Gareth Southgate have been members in recent years — and supported by data from the analytics firm Stats Zone. Together, they try to map out where club soccer’s showpiece tournament stands, and where it might be going. And then, just for fun, they pick a goal of the season.

A few months later, UEFA publishes the committee’s findings in a report: part review of the previous year’s Champions League, part glossy blueprint for the state of European soccer on the field. It is rife with graphs and data points, designed to be flicked through by specialists, rather than consumed by a mass audience.

As Europe’s elite churn through the knockout stages of the Champions League, though, it is a valuable resource, filled with clues and hints and tips as to what sort of ingredients are required to master club soccer’s most exclusive tournament. Reading through the last few editions, in fact, offers not just an insight into what sort of style brings success, but how, precisely, teams should be focusing their energies when it comes to scoring goals.

It is possible to read the last decade or so of soccer history, at the elite level, as a contest between two ideas: the possession-oriented philosophy espoused by Pep Guardiola, among others, on one side, and the suffocating, energy-intensive, high-pressing approach made famous by Jürgen Klopp.

These things ebb and flow, of course: Liverpool has been forced to adapt so that it is more comfortable with and creative in sustained possession; Manchester City knows how to constrict the air from an opponent. As things stand, though, it is the high pressers who are ascendant.

“We are certainly seeing an evolution,” Fabio Capello, the former Real Madrid manager, said after the 2017 final. “The teams who opt for the Barcelona possession-based style that set the trends a few years ago now seem to be running into difficulties. This is normal.”

Capello was right. Since then, more than half of all goals scored in the competition have come from so-called final third regains: winning the ball as close to the opponent’s goal as possible.

That has dovetailed — as is logical — with a stark drop-off in the number of goals scored by what coaches refer to as “playing through the thirds,” which is what others might call “building from the back.”

UEFA noted in its report last season that these figures should be read in their proper context: Namely that even high-pressing teams have shown a tendency, in the last couple of seasons, to relent after scoring a goal or two, as they try to conserve energy and maintain control of the game. That skews the numbers a little and perhaps means they do not reflect just how fruitful pressing high can be.

It is interesting, though, how reliant these two approaches are on each other. It is no surprise that there has been a parallel increase in the number of goals coming from loose passes or errors made by goalkeepers while in possession: as many as six in the knockout stages alone last season. Pressing teams do need someone to press, after all.

Massimiliano Allegri, the former Juventus coach, has been watching a lot of Liverpool this season. He is, he said in Milan late last year, full of admiration for the way Klopp transformed his players into the most effective — and arguably the most complete — team in Europe: built on solid foundations, but frighteningly quick on the counterattack. “Seven seconds to score a goal,” he said, puffing out his cheeks.

Allegri is right: Liverpool has reached two Champions League finals in a row thanks, in no small part, to a stripped-back ruthlessness on its goals that no team can match. On average over those two years in Europe, it has required only 7.6 seconds between winning the ball back and wheeling away in a celebration.

Several commentators — most notably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Manchester United manager, and Sam Allardyce, the former manager turned radio personality — have risked opprobrium for suggesting Liverpool might be “direct” in recent weeks. Direct is a loaded word, of course — with its implications of a lack of thought, of simply belting long passes in the general direction of a tall striker — but there is no question that Liverpool does not take the circuitous route. On average, Klopp’s team has scored its goals in Europe after moves lasting only 2.51 passes.

That creates the impression, of course, that speed is king, but the evidence of the last couple of years suggests something else. In recent years, the average time between winning the ball back and scoring by all teams has increased: from 10.58 seconds three years ago to 12.50 seconds last season. Teams are taking slightly more time in possession than previously.

What is more steady is the average number of passes in a goal scoring move, which has been stable at around four for several years. Speed, it turns out, is not quite as important as straightforwardness.

The parabola of Lionel Messi’s free kick against Liverpool in last season’s semifinal provided one of the year’s most memorable images, a virtuoso crafting one of his masterpieces. Such moments are, though, increasingly rare. Direct free kicks might feel dangerous. Fans may shuffle forward on the edge of their seat as the ball is struck. But confirmation bias is a dangerous thing.

Messi’s free-kick goal last season was one of only three such goals scored in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Lasse Schone of Ajax scored one of the others in his team’s remarkable win in the round of 16 against Real Madrid, but it is harder to argue that he definitely meant to do so.

The year before, there was not a single goal from a direct free kick from the quarterfinals onward. There were only two in the knockout stages of the 2016-17 campaign. UEFA’s technical committee in 2018 had a theory as to why this might be: rather than a failure of technique, the sophistication of modern scouting means goalkeepers are far better educated as to where an opponent is likely to place a shot.

Whether that is true, the fact remains that the perception of how dangerous a direct free kick is differs wildly from its likely impact. Except, perhaps, when it is Messi standing over the ball.

By 2018, UEFA’s observers were starting to assume that goals from corners — at least in the highest levels of the game — were starting to die off. Corners accounted for only 7 percent of all goals in the tournament that year. Those working in analytics at most of Europe’s clubs would not have been surprised by that conclusion. As Chris Anderson and David Sally pointed out in their book, “The Numbers Game,” corners have always been a startlingly inefficient way of scoring goals.

Last season, though, something odd happened. Though goals from direct and indirect free kicks are falling, the efficacy of corners suddenly shot up: 14 goals came that way in last season’s knockout rounds, with Bayern Munich and Liverpool especially effective.

UEFA’s explanation lay in the development of sophisticated “blocking” patterns, whereby attacking teams prevent their opponents from marking one specific player: the technical committee noted, as evidence, goals scored by Matthijs de Ligt, then of Ajax, and Juventus’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

In England, it is known, by now, as the Manchester City Goal: working the ball to the touchline and cutting it back, low, to a striker waiting in front of the net for a tap-in. The numbers suggest it is well worth following that template in Europe, too: For the last two years, more than a quarter of goals in the Champions League knockouts have come from deliveries from wide areas.

That is, perhaps, testament to how much better organized defenses are across the elite. The idea of a playmaker’s splitting a back line with a threaded through ball certainly seems old-fashioned in comparison, and the idea of a wide player dancing around opponents is essentially obsolete. In the last two years, only five goals in the knockout stages have been classified by UEFA as “solo runs.”

That, then, is the final ingredient for all the teams left in this year’s final stages, a recipe for success in the biggest club tournament in the world: win the ball back high, and in the space of no more than four passes and less than 12 seconds, get it wide and deep for a cutback.

And if that does not work, make sure you win a corner.

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