Champions League Round Of Sixteen Preview – Part One
The world’s most watched competition is back, with a splendid series of knockout matchups. In this piece, we preview the first two ties of the most important tournament in club football: the Champions League.
Article by José Pérez and K.T. Stockwell.
Atlético Madrid – Liverpool
Tyrannical dominance of the Premier League, current Champions League and Club World Cup holders. At this point, we shouldn’t need to explain why Liverpool are the best team in the world, with an incredibly versatile 4-3-3 formation that we know by memory now.
In defense Liverpool can sit deep, play in a medium block or press high, supported by Virgil Van Dijk’s inhuman radius of influence, their incredibly intense midfielders, and hard-working forwards.
In attack, they can take down opponents through devastating counterattacks, but they can also break down set defenses. By combining the outstanding playmaking capabilities of their fullbacks, central midfielders who drift wide to create passing combinations, and the massive scoring threat of Sadio Mané and Mo Salah, Liverpool can take down anyone. And in the middle of this red orchestra lies Roberto Firmino as the unlikely conductor, enabling the team’s attacking structure.
For a second year in a row, Liverpool are one of the big expected goal (xG) The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. overperformers in the league, scoring above their xG created by 25 percent. A lot of this overperformance comes from their improved and incredibly efficient set piece game. At the back, an already strong defense is guarded by a near impassable Alisson, who helps his team outperform expected goals conceded by a shocking fifty per cent. A run of 42 undefeated games surely has a significant element of luck to it, but at some point, even the most rational among us will wonder if it’s “just luck” or if Liverpool knows something that the model does not. Even more amazing is that Liverpool outperforms xG created more strongly when they are behind in the score line or tied, and they outperform xG conceded more strongly whenever they have to protect a lead. In other words, not only do Liverpool outperform the xG model, but they have done it when it matters the most.
This #BoxingDay we have a matchup between the two big expected goal overperformers of this 19/20 EPL season, #LiverpoolFC and #LeicesterCity.— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) December 26, 2019
Schmeichel, Vardy, Alisson, Mané have all enjoyed particularly good streaks.
Data source: @fbref, @StatsBomb pic.twitter.com/WxeynbLV3t
Key injuries and/or suspensions: None.
Atlético are suffering from a strange season. They are scoring the fewest goals and getting the worst results of the Simeone era, but expected goals tell a different story. Despite the huge changes in the squad over the summer, Simeone built a team that defended better than in previous seasons while creating more chances. However, with the departure of Antoine Griezmann it looks like no one in Atlético’s forward line can convert those chances as efficiently as before.
#AtleticoMadrid drops to 5th place in #LaLiga but the xG trends remind us that Atleti are not playing worse than in previous years.— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) January 26, 2020
Before, Griezmann's clinical finishing got good results even if Atleti played poorly. Current front line of Morata/Felix/Correa are not so clinical pic.twitter.com/dZxVtJQNzf
From this situation arises an understandable negative feedback cycle: even though the team played well, their failure to capitalize on chances demotivated them, and their collective strength and underlying numbers decreased over time. To make things worse, many of their regular starters have struggled with injuries over the last month. Giménez, Koke, Morata, and Costa have managed to recover in time for the Liverpool game, but Trippier, Herrera, and Félix are still out.
Key injuries and/or suspensions: Kieran Trippier, Héctor Herrera, João Félix.
With the first leg happening in Madrid, the first fifteen minutes of this game might be the most decisive of the entire tie for Atlético. Throughout the Simeone era, it has become common for Atlético to start European knockout games in their home stadium with an extra-intense initial pressing phase. The objective of this plan is to recover the ball higher up the pitch – at the expense of more defensive risk – create more chances, get a goal, and then retreat into a deeper block for the rest of the game. However, even if Atlético manage to dominate, their conversion efficiency problems might hinder them yet again. There’s also a chance that Atlético won’t even resort to a pressing phase and just choose to defend deep throughout the entire game.
Pay close attention to the different little tricks that Atlético’s set defense will use to hinder Liverpool’s attacks. Simeone might surprise us by using Sául as a left back instead of usual starter Renán Lodi, who is considered defensively frail for big games like this one. This would make Vitolo start in the left winger role. Expect Atlético to develop countermeasures against the cross-diagonal balls to Liverpool’s fullbacks, often used by the Reds to disorder defenses. Whenever Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, or Robertson look likely to make such passes, the far-side winger or midfielder of Atlético’s defense will retreat and follow the far-side Liverpool fullback who will get on the end of that long pass. This will effectively turn Atlético’s defensive shape into a situational 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1 (see diagram below).
Intense yet goalless first half, after the break Liverpool take the initiative and dominate the match, pinning Atléti back. Result: small Liverpool victory or draw.
Borussia Dortmund – Paris Saint-Germain
Goals. The word that undoubtedly sprung to mind when Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain’s were paired together during the Champions League knockout round draw. Only to be followed closely by the tantalizing return of Thomas Tuchel to his old club after the two parted on inauspicious terms. These factors alone make for an enticing tie and a first leg expected to be chalked full of offense and played in front of a hostile yellow wall.
The arrival of sought-after young striker, Erling Braut Håland in January has raised Dortmund’s offense to another level. The teenager has barnstormed the Bundesliga – collecting seven goals in four matches – and added another string to manager Lucien Favre’s offensive bow. And yet, underlying the Norwegian’s loud entrance is the acknowledgement that Dortmund’s blustering offense is unlikely to continue – the Bundesliga’s third placed side is overperforming their expected goals by an impressive plus-nineteen (the highest in Europe’s top five leagues).
Unfortunately, there is more concerning news for the inhabitants of the Ruhr Valley, as their defensive woes continue to deepen. In 2020 only three Bundesliga sides have allowed more goals than Favre’s side and despite their potent offense there are genuine concerns as to whether or no Dortmund can remain competitive with such a leaky backline.
Key injuries and/or suspensions: Marco Reus (injured), Julian Brandt (injured), Thomas Delaney (injured).
No team in Europe’s top five leagues has scored more goals than Paris Saint-Germain in 2020. The Ligue 1 champions have slotted home twenty goals in a mere six domestic matches – a testament to the dynamism of Tuchel’s new 4-2-2-2 formation. The change in shape has allowed the German manager to include all his most lethal attackers in the starting eleven – taking the already imposing offense to new levels.
However, the change has come at a cost, which is being paid defensively. Playing in a more traditional 4-3-3 formation to start the year, Paris’ expected goals against through the first five months of the season was just 11.46; in the proceeding six matches the Ligue 1 leaders have already accrued an expected goals against of 7.27 (the fifth worst in France’s top division).
Of course, January has seen PSG forced to manage a number of key injuries to their backline and the hope is that with the return of key defenders such as Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, the numbers will improve.
Key injuries and/or suspensions: Colin Dagba (injured)
In brief, this PSG side is very good and getting results away from home has not been an issue for Tuchel’s side, who have only lost two matches on the road in all competitions this season. The Parisians have the ability to play comprehensive possession football, as well as the propensity to punishing even the savviest of opponents on the counterattack.
This will likely be Dortmund’s stiffest test thus far, as the PSG offense is more than capable of going blow-for-blow with them over ninety minutes. That being said, it’s unlikely Favre’s defense will improve overnight and the German club’s only option may be taking their chances in a back-and-forth style tennis match.
Ultimately this first tie will be another significant test of Tuchel’s managerial skills. The former Dortmund skipper is out of excuses; all of his top players are expected to be healthy for the engagement and Neymar is currently in the best form of his career. What is more, this PSG side has depth on bench in the shape of Pablo Sarabia, Ander Herrera, Leandro Paredes, Julian Draxler and Abdou Diallo. There is a wide-felt expectation that PSG may just travel to Dortmund and lay down a marker. If this side is truly different than previous incarnations, they have to show it in the first leg.
PSG smash Dortmund away and set up yet another expectant second-leg home match.