FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model favored Manchester City to win the Champions League for most of the 2019-20 season. The Cityzens were so good, in fact, that they spent 62 percent of the season at the top of the model’s probability table.1 Only Liverpool (the current holders of both the Champions League and Premier League trophies) and Bayern Munich (the German champions for eight seasons running and perennial Champions League contenders) managed to leapfrog City as favorites to win this rendition of club soccer’s elite competition, but neither spent more than 22 percent of the season in its role as front-runner.
So when domestic rival Liverpool was eliminated in early March, it appeared as though the only thing that stood between City and its first ever Champions League trophy was Bayern. This was City’s title to win — until it wasn’t.
When the moment presented itself for Pep Guardiola to progress to his first Champions League final as City manager, he met with the same fate as in competitions past. He seemed to overthink his tactics, and French club Olympique Lyonnais made the Catalan pay a steep price, beating City 3-1. VAR controversy, a shocking miss from Raheem Sterling and an uncharacteristic error from otherwise sure-handed keeper Ederson didn’t make things any easier on City, but the Mancunians were likely doomed by Guardiola’s inexplicable decision to roll with a tragically stodgy 3-5-2 formation — a conservative tactical setup he hadn’t employed all season in any competition and one that effectively negated the creative swagger of midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne for large stretches of the game.
City’s dramatic Champions League exit at the hands of Lyon isn’t its first shock defeat in the competition in recent memory — who can forget last season’s quarterfinal second leg against Tottenham Hotspur and the attendant VAR controversies? — but it’s perhaps its most indefensible.
It’s true that, along with Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon has been the most successful club in France in the 21st century, winning seven domestic titles in the past 20 seasons. But Les Gones have been the picture of mediocrity this season: They finished an undistinguished seventh place in Ligue 1 in 2019-20, which means they won’t qualify for next season’s Champions League unless they win the competition this season.
The model hasn’t liked the French club since Day One. Before it eliminated City, Lyon’s probability to win the Champions League never rose above 1 percent. Losing to Liverpool in 2017-18 and to Spurs in 2018-192 is one thing; losing to a team that started its Champions League campaign with the same win probability as Czech club Slavia Prague, which the model currently ranks as the 90th-best team in the world, is an entirely different thing. City failed this time around unlike it’s ever failed before, and in doing so opened the door for Bayern to win its sixth European championship.
The Bavarian club is now the heavy favorite to lift the Champions League trophy, and for good reason. Bayern has been the most relentless offensive force in the competition so far, setting the pace in almost every significant statistical category per 90 minutes: It leads all other clubs in terms of shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions, shots on target, total shots, expected goals, expected assists, expected goals plus expected assists, nonpenalty expected goals, nonpenalty expected goals plus expected assists, and actual goals scored. And its lead in some of those statistical categories is so vast, it’s almost silly.
Bayern’s creation is miles ahead of the field
Shot- and goal-creating actions during 2019-20 Champions League play for the eight quarterfinalists, through Aug. 15, 2020
SHOT-CREATING ACTIONS GOAL-CREATING ACTIONS
TEAM TOTAL PER 90 MIN. TOTAL PER 90 MIN.
Bayern Munich 309 34.33 59 6.56
Paris Saint-Germain 180 20.00 39 4.33
Manchester City 238 26.44 36 4.00
RB Leipzig 213 23.67 28 3.11
Barcelona 169 18.78 26 2.89
Atalanta 197 21.89 25 2.78
Lyon 158 17.56 19 2.11
Atlético Madrid 178 19.07 19 2.04
Shot- and goal-creating actions include the two plays leading up to a shot or goal.
The Bavarians boast the most prolific scorer in the Champions League — and perhaps the best striker on the planet — in Robert Lewandowski, who leads all players in nonpenalty expected goals per 90 minutes and trails only PSG’s Kylian Mbappé in nonpenalty expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes. “Lewa” isn’t Bayern’s only weapon, however — Ivan Perišić, Thomas Müller, Philippe Coutinho, Serge Gnabry and Corentin Tolisso each ranks in the top 35 in nonpenalty expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes.
Given its 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona,3 Bayern shouldn’t have much trouble with Lyon, despite the French club’s upset of the competition’s previous favorite. Lyon is reasonably well organized in defense, but it is outperforming its expected goals against tally so far, suggesting that something’s got to give eventually. And if that something gives against the competition’s most devastating attack, Lyon can’t expect its goalkeeper to come to the rescue: Among keepers who have played at least six full matches, Anthony Lopes is tied for the fourth-worst post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed per 90 minutes.
Of course, Bayern and Lyon aren’t the only teams remaining in the competition. On the other side of the bracket, PSG will square off with RB Leipzig, and a healthy Mbappé means Les Parisiens are the rightful favorites in this semifinal clash. The French phenom came on as a second-half substitute of PSG’s quarterfinal matchup against Atalanta and shifted the tides for Les Rouge et Bleu.
His brilliant run and perfectly weighted square ball to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, who tapped the ball into a gaping net, completed PSG’s comeback and ensured its spot in the Champions League semifinal round for the first time in 25 years. Having Neymar in your squad doesn’t hurt either — the ball he played to Mbappé on the move that led to Choupo-Moting’s goal was as good as it gets, proving the Brazilian can be the best player on the pitch whenever he decides to be.
RB Leipzig isn’t without hope against PSG. The club is exceptionally well drilled and tactically sophisticated, and as such is capable of beating just about any opponent in a one-off game. But it did just lose its best player (Timo Werner) to Chelsea, which means some of its attacking prowess disappeared. Red Bull was able to sneak past Atlético Madrid, but if it can’t replace Werner’s goals, it might find it difficult to replicate that result against PSG, which has given up the fewest goals in the Champions League this season.4
Then again, if Bayern keeps playing the way it’s been playing all season, it might not matter what happens in the game between PSG and Leipzig. The Bavarians seem simply untouchable at the moment.
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