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Champions League. Is defence the best form of attack?

Is the team with the best defence always winning the Champions League?

Champions League. Is defence the best form of attack?
Champions League. Is defence the best form of attack?

Is the team with the best defence always winning the Champions League?

FC Barcelona Champions 2009
© Getty Images #88019971

After the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals, none of the favourites have really made a step towards the next round, as Real Madrid lost in Germany (2-0 in Wolfsburg), PSG drew at home against Manchester City (2-2) and Bayern and Barça had a hard time beating respectively Benfica (1-0) and Atlético Madrid (2-1), both at home. In each scenario, the team that was playing away from home - except for Wolfsburg which was playing in the Volkswagen Arena - offered a quite defensive facet, waiting for the breaks, to hit strong and hit hard. For the Germans, galvanised by the presence of their fans and novices at this stage of the competition (their first quarter-finals ever in the Champions League), it worked perfectly. Real Madrid were surprised by a very organised team, brillant on the counter. Atlético almost successfully pulled the same trick but Fernando Torres cost them a lot of energy by getting sent off and Barça turned it over. As for Benfica and City, they took advantage of a poor performance from their opponents (Bayern and PSG) to keep hope in Benfica's case, or to get in a good position before the second leg in City's case. Why risking a goal feast when you can patiently, methodically wait for your opponent's mistake and punish them?

Some might call it anti-football, or boring football, but what happened in Wolfsburg, or in Camp Nou in the first half was far from being tedious. At every stage of the competition, even more when the road to the final comes to its end, attack and defence-based football face each other. But which is the most efficient? Is having a good defence a guarantee to get a shot at lifting the trophy? Here are some elements to answer those questions.

Stat: in the past 10 years, only one team with over 1 goal conceeded per game won the trophy (Milan AC - 2007)

This is quite self-explanatory. Some might be tempted to apply one of the golden principles of NBA to European football. Titles are won with defence. Logically, it is hard to imagine a team going all the way to the final with a defence having bigger holes than the ozone layer. But still, conceding less than 1 goal per game can be a true challenge in the Champions League, Europe's best plateau. From the madness of the first round to the tension of the semi-fianls and the final, there are many opportunities for a goalkeeper to go get the ball in the back of the net. Therefore, a solid defensive basis is essential not to crush the dream of a final victory. Apart from Milan in 2007 (1.3 goals/game) - quite ironic for an Italian team as Italians are known for catenaccio, a very defensive style - no team has won the Champions League while conceding over a goal per game. Some made of their defence an unpenetrable fortress like Ferguson's Man U in 2007-08 (6 goals conceded - 0.46 goals/game) or Mourinho's Inter in 2009-10 (9 goals conceded - 0.69 goals/game).

This is not due to luck or 'hot balls' during the draw. It is often said that to win a competition, it is essential to beat all the best. In the Champions League, it is almost always the case. Therefore, Manchester United in 2007/08 had to come over obstacles named Olympique Lyon, AS Roma and FC Barcelona. In 2009/10, although it was not the most spectacular team, Mourinho's Inter beat the very best, notably Chelsea and Barcelona. However, being the best in a specific part of the game doesn't mean being the best overall, and often the final winners are the ones who have more than 11 players dying with the desire to touch the trophy. Thus, they are more than just great defences or immense attacking forces. Indeed, of the last ten competitions of the Champion's League, the closest a winner has been to being the best defence of the competition was Manchester United (3rd in 2007/08). It is mainly explained by the fact winners play more games than the teams that end up being the best at keeping their goal safe. But there is also a balance absolutely necessary at the very highest level to claim a final win in such a competition. Attack is nothing without defence, and vice-versa.

Stat: 9 out of the last 10 winners had an average of over 1.5 goals per game

Mourinho's Inter was the only exception. We might even said that what Mourinho did with the Italian champions was the greatest achievement of the last 10 Champions League winners. His rock defence wasn't a guarantee for the title. But the way he managed to get the whole of this players united - we all have the image of Eto'o playing as a full-back in mind - and the opportunism (sometimes luck?) his players used eventually led Mou and Internazioale to lift the trophy.

1.5 goals/game might not seem as an incredible number, but it means that there is virtually no game in which those Champions League winners haven't scored. A striking reliability that tend to take part of the tension away, and give more force to clubs in delicate position (just like Real Madrid will be tonight). Obviously we find some of the best scorers of the different editions to be part of the winning team, but not exclusively. It happened 6 times out of 10 (Kaka with Milan in 06-07/ CR7 with Man U in 07-08, with Real Madrid in 13-14 and Messi with Barça in 08-09, 10-11 and 14-15). The collective is clearly an essential element on the road to the victory. Well divided tasks and an homogeneous threat are lethal in Europe's most prestigious club competition. Just like a mental toughness. Inter weren't the most unbeatable team ever seen, they were just convinced - because of Mourinho's work and aura - that there was no one that could prevent them from going all the way. A challenging run can be very interesting to keep all players concerned and competitive, but the breakdown is often near. Consequently, being solid from the start is one reason more to believe in the title.

Stat: 9 out of the last 10 winners were first in their group

For outsiders that dream of an improbable run, glorious after every win in the group stage, ending this first stage at the first place mostly means avoiding a (too) tough opponent in the last 16 round. For the big guns, for which being first is close to an obligation, winning the group is one opportunity to send a message to the rest of the candidates, and future opponents: "you can't stop us". In its most recent format, Champions League often led to intereting groups, with one or two very powerful teams, one or two outsiders and an underdog. Of course, the underdog can rebel and surprise everyone, like Wolfsburg did this year, or Málaga, CSKA, APOEL, Marseille or Villarreal. But generally, hierarchy of the UEFA ranking is respected and a whole other competition starts as soon as in February. That is the moment of truth, when clumsy aspirants and true competitors are being told apart.

A boost of confidence is another weapon to face the terrible last 16 trial. This year, it seems like the domination of the first of groups might be in jeopardy. Of course, it all depends on tonight's (and tomorrow's) results. Barça, Real Madrid, Man City and Bayern could all be out, as well as they could all keep going. This uncertainty of things is what make football such a great sport to follow, and to fall into. Beyond figures, numbers and patterns, there is an non-quantifiable influence that can decide of your fate. The only thing to do use those leads as precepts and firmly believe that luck will be on your side. In the end, if there was a lesson to be learned from those several statistics, it is that a great defence in European football is nothing without a decent attack, and vice-versa. A team that wins the final is a team that has won before, and luck likes strong sides, mentally as well as on the pitch. It would be hard to determine a winner right now for all the reasons stated above, but we can get a clearer idea of who is really favourite to win. Here is our conclusions.

Champions League 2015-16 remaining teams

Atlético Madrid - 1st of group C / 4W, 3D, 2L / 12 goals for, 5 goals against / 1.33 GF, 0.56 GA

FC Bayern - 1st of group F / 7W, 1D, 1L / 26 goals for, 7 goals against / 2.89 GF, 0.78 GA

FC Barcelona - 1st of group E / 7W, 2D, 0L / 22 goals for, 6 goals against / 2.44 GF, 0.67 GA

SL Benfica - 2nd of group C / 5W, 1D, 3L / 13 goals for, 10 goals against / 1.44 GF, 1.11 GA

Manchester City - 1st of group D / 5W, 2D, 2L / 17 goals for, 11 goals against / 1.89 GF, 1.22 GA

PSG - 2nd of group A / 6W, 2D, 1L / 18 goals for, 5 goals against / 2.00 GF, 0.56 GA

Real Madrid CF - 1st of group A / 7W, 1D, 1L / 23 goals for, 5 goals against / 2.56 GF, 0.56 GA

VfL Wolfsburg - 1st of group B / 7W, 0D, 2L / 15 goals for, 6 goals against / 1.67 GF, 0.67 GA

According to the stats stated above - and purely based on those - we could put PSG and Benfica out of the equation as for winning the title. Although Real Madrid are not looking good in their draw against Wolfsburg, their offensive force could get them to the next stage. Moreover, despite the bad performance of the first leg in Germany, they have the best defence of the competition. The comeback is not just a dream, it could be real. Manchester City are unexperienced at this stage, and PSG recent performances in the competition could give them an edge, but the Citizen keep a slight advantage in the confrontation (2-2 on aggregate). If they pass this stage though, their run could stop in the semi-finals. The last draw is the most difficult one. Barça are among the favourites to win the trophy, that would be their second in a row. Yet, this performance hasn't been made since the European Champions Clubs' Cup became the Champions League. Atlético, who have also the best defence in the competition, suffer in attack, and only scored 12 goals. That could be what prevent them from coming back in the draw. Based on those obsevations, the semi-finalists could be:

Real Madrid / FC Barcelona / Manchester City - FC Bayern

Once again, predictions are not universal truths, and the best way to find out who will win is to watch the entire competition which is,  this year again, fascinating.