Analytics: Europa League vs. Champions League


Harry Kane in action for Tottenham. (Tim Ireland/AP)

The Europa League has been more interesting and well rounded as a tournament than the Champions League over the past decade. This might seem contrarian but I think there is merit here—so, here it goes.

I’m sick of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Yes, this is a collection of the best teams on the planet over the last decade, but the rate at which these clubs advance and meet each other in at least the quarterfinal round of the Champions League is incessant.

In the past 10 tournaments, every team listed has reached the quarterfinal at least 40 percent of the time—with Barcelona and Bayern Munich leading the way at 90 and 70 percent, respectively.

The allure of watching the best teams play on the biggest stage for the highest honours and largest financial reward is obvious. But, to consistently watch the same clubs play each other over and over again for a decade in a tournament that has the objective potential to bring such complexity begins to feel like drowning in some sort of calculated, soccer whirlpool.

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The group stages of a tournament are maybe good for one or two upsets, with an originally pinned underdog scraping their way into the knockout round with a No. 2 seed to then find themselves playing a titan of a club wherein there chance of success is almost null.

There have been a few examples of absurdity, but these stories usually end with the unexpected club being dismantled by a quintessential Champions League favourite. Please see: APOEL in 2011-12 advancing past a tough group and beating Lyon in the Round of 16, only to get slaughtered 8-2 on aggregate by Real Madrid; and Lyon beating Real Madrid in the first knockout stage in the 2009-10 to then run into a Bayern Munich side that taught them a lesson in tournament hierarchy.

The unexpected result, with semi-sustained success is almost impossible to find in the Champions League, thus the homogeneity of teams advancing to the latter stages.

After understanding that the group stage is just a structural formality for the tournament to feed the world some hope of a dark horse spectacle and to provide clubs a financial package that will benefit them for seasons to come, the proceeding rounds are similar every year. The same teams, a lot of the same players, with the same expectations.

el ucl compare

Average age of finals participants and average goal difference of group stage winners in both UEFA Champions League and Europa League

The Europa League is competitive early and late.
As a second-tier tournament, the public fandom and often times managers see the Europa League as a potential testing ground for youngsters, players who struggle for consistent minutes, formations and tactical strategies.

The tournament provides an interesting collection of ages, usually specific to the level of care and expected competitiveness of the participating clubs. If a perceived larger club places priority on the domestic league, then the propensity for that manager to experiment with youth is greater.

If a perceived smaller club is not expected to be competitive into the deep rounds of the tournament, they might want to expose one of their hidden, young gems to the world so that player could garner a lucrative move abroad. If a team progresses into a certain round of the tournament that starts to suggest they might have a shot at winning it, the manager might select a more “competitive” lineup, thus reverting to his normal starters of a more experienced nature.

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You get it? There are all types of effects that skew a direct age correlation in the comparisons of tournaments. But, here’s one anyway: the average age of teams playing in a Europa League final (26.7 years) is just under one full year of the average age of teams playing in a Champions League final (27.5) over the same time span.

Not only is the Europa League undoubtedly more competitive in the latter rounds by having a more eclectic mix of teams, the group stages are less top heavy as well. Since the tournament’s rebranding in 2009, the teams to finish first in each Europa League group do so with an average Goal Differential of +6.8, while Champions League top seeds advance with an average of +8.1.

This parity allows the cultural differences within the sport to shine and find success. The understanding and teaching of how to play soccer effectively changes in different areas of the world and the best, cumulative examples are on display in the Europa League.

As the Champions League is used as a leverage tool by players and media, the Europa League is overlooked.
Players use the allure of the Champions League to force moves away from clubs, seeking the exposure to the best tournament in the sport, as a hierarchical power play, a quick way out of a sinking or seemingly stagnant ship of a situation. Media uses it as a hype train where the value is placed in the spectacle, rather than the quality of play on the field itself.

The Europa League is often seen as a burden by “larger” clubs, as an unnecessary speed bump en route to their “real” goals. These goals are often defined by the market, rather than rationale or by the influential soccer minds within the club. They are defined by fans’ thirst for some sort of silverware to justify or redeem their already Champions League-less season, or by management who are keen on making a profit through league table positions, or the elusive Champions League qualification purse.

Taking a look at some of this year’s Europa League clubs who have made it to the knockout round, the collection is fiercely competitive and extremely even. Clubs such as Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Fiorentina, Tottenham, Liverpool, Napoli, Lazio, Schalke, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, and Sevilla all are still alive and make up a good mix.

The Europa League still maintains a balance of quality in cultural specificity and competitiveness throughout the tournament. You can have different combinations of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea all you want, but since the landscape of the sport has changed via various injections of ungodly sums of money through different sources, the more monotonous the Champions League quarterfinals stage and beyond has become. As the wealth gap in soccer increases between the upper echelon and the rest, so will my disinterest in its largest, club tournament.

Coleman Larned is soccer analytics writer based in Antwerp, Belgium. Follow him on Twitter

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