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The most difficult football competition to analyse

Atletico score against Liverpool in Champions League (Getty) Champions Liverpool were one of three English teams who failed to score in their last-16 first legs (Getty)

March 1, 2020

Two goals. That was all the English teams could muster in their first legs of the Champions League last-16 stage. Manchester City’s comeback against Real Madrid saved England the ignominy of having all four of their sides lose and score no goals at this stage of Europe’s premier club competition. Tottenham, Liverpool and in particular Chelsea face uphill battles to have a chance of going through to the quarter-finals.

In comparison, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich all won their first legs with stellar performances. They scored a collective six goals and conceded just one. As with everything in football and perhaps in life, recency bias plays a huge role in people’s opinions. The question now being asked by many fans and pundits is whether this is indicative of Premier League teams, apart from Liverpool and City, being low on quality? Was the instance of seeing the two European finals last season having four English teams just a freak occurrence?

In the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, England had a collective of just two representatives in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the form of City and Leicester City. Compare that to the years between 2007 and 2009, all of the Premier League’s four qualifiers made it to the Champions League quarter finals. Last year’s exploits, which included Manchester United making it to the last eight, gave everyone in England hope that their teams would now go on to dominate like they had done in the past.

But with it being seemingly likely there will be two English teams to exit the Champions League at the first knockout stage (Liverpool will still be confident of overturning their deficit versus Atletico Madrid), is there a way to see trends with Champions League results? Or is it a unique competition which has very few patterns and it is almost useless to try and predict anything with regards to the Champions League?

A simple way to measure how strong is a country is in the Champions League, with regards to its representation, is to see the teams that have made it to the last-16 and quarter finals. The 2003/04 season was the first season, since the European Cup was rebranded to the Champions League, which featured a last-16 stage, a last eight stage and so on. When we look at the number of teams from each country who made it through to these parts of the competition, it is clear to see that England and Spain have been the dominant forces.

For only two seasons, between 2010 and 2012, has England not had at least three teams making it through to the first knockout round since 2003. In fact, for the 2017/18 season, England had five qualifiers to the tournament as United won the Europa League the season before. And all five teams made it through to the last 16 that seasons. The last English team to not successfully make it through the group stage of the Champions League was Tottenham in the 2016/17 season, when they finished behind Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in their group.

Spain has had at least three representatives in the last-16 of the Champions League for every season since 2012, and that links to their supremacy into 2010s. Between 2012 and 2018, every season saw three Spanish sides reach at least the quarter-finals and in the case of Barcelona and Real Madrid, they shared the Champions League crowns every year between 2014 and 2018. Atletico Madrid also made two finals during that time.

Germany and Italy have been the next most successful countries in the competition since 2003, and now regularly have two or three sides that qualify from their groups to the first knockout stage. However, other than the obvious increase in chances of winning by having more teams in the knockout, there is no insightful trend we can use to predict winners. Italy had three teams in the quarter-finals in the 2004/05 and 2005/06 seasons, but they did not win the tournament in those seasons. They had a winner in the form of AC Milan in 2007. Inter Milan won in 2010, but they were the only Italian side in the quarter-finals. England had two teams in the last eight of that season.

So while there is not a trend with the number of teams making it through, there does however seem to be a pattern elsewhere. If we look at the points gap between the winners of the top five leagues and the last Champions League qualifying spot in those leagues, it gives us another barometer to look at. For example, the English teams in the second half of the 2000s are always looked at with great fondness for their quality. The points gap between first and fourth place between the 2003/04 and 2006/07 seasons were 30, 34, 24 and 21 points respectively. In these seasons, England had two, two, one and three representatives respectively in the quarter-finals.

Compare that to the seasons between 2012/13 and 2016/17, where a collective of just four teams made it through to Champions League quarter-finals. The points gap separating first and fourth place in those seasons were 16, seven, 17, 15 and 17 points respectively. This trend is shared across the leagues except in France, where the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Lyon are still in search for sustained Champions League success. Spain had at least a 20 point gap separating their Champions League places in the last decade, and they were the most successful country in the competition during that period. Italy has seen more ups and downs and provide one of the outliers because in 2016/17, when Juventus made the final, the points gap between first and third place in Italy was just five points. But by in large, there does seem to be a trend of more success when there are more points separating your Champions League qualifiers in the league the previous season.

There are many possible reasons for this trend. One of the key reasons could be that the league winners, by being so many points ahead, are improving the standards in their countries. Teams know that to get closer towards the top of their league, they need to significantly improve and that in turn leads to them improving across all fronts. Standards that were set by league winners seem to enable teams that join them in Champions League the following season to play better than expected.

The interesting thing to note is that this points gap last season for England, Spain, Germany and Italy was 27, 26, 20 and 21 points respectively. France saw a 19 point difference, so it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top this season in the Champions League. But there is a caveat to all this points analysis. As Pep Guardiola said this week, the margins are so fine in the Champions League and if we think the winners are brilliant and everyone else is pathetic, it does not make sense. Late goals, refereeing decisions, and genuine edge-of-the-seat drama makes the Champions League perhaps the most difficult competition in football to predict. That is why we should maybe refrain from making quick judgements, like saying English teams are on the way down because of a few poor performances, and wait till the end of the second legs.