Ahead of Thursday’s draw for the 2022-23 Champions League group stage, UEFA has released its annual technical report into last season’s competition.
The report breaks down the entire 2021-22 tournament in great detail, examining the technical and tactical aspects of every game from the first round through to the final, which saw Real Madrid emerge victorious with a 1-0 verdict over Liverpool at the Stade de France, Paris.
As usual the report was compiled using input from UEFA’s select technical observer group — a group that included Frank de Boer, Gareth Southgate, Robbie Keane and Claude Makelele among many notable names. For the first time at least one member of the technical observer group was in attendance at every single Champions league game — that’s 125 games in total from matchday 1 onwards.
The entire UEFA document is 106 pages long and densely packed with information. We understand if the mere thought of trawling through such a weighty tome is daunting. Thankfully we’ve pressed ahead and picked through the dossier on your behalf, cherry-picking the most interesting facts, figures and fundamentals to give you the main takeaways.
Liverpool were victims of their own success
While it was obvious to all that Liverpool were starting to flag by the time they reached the Champions League final, the UEFA technical observer group made a point of singling out the Reds’ heavy workload as a key factor in their struggle to compete in Paris.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were chasing an unprecedented Quadruple and while their willingness to fight on four fronts brought them tantalisingly close to making history, in their breakdown of the final itself the panel were left wondering whether such and long and arduous campaign “finally told in Liverpool’s 63rd match” of the season.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez noted in the report that he “didn’t see their normal energy and they didn’t have the space for the front three,” while former AC Milan and Real MAdrid boss Fabio Capello said: “I saw Liverpool not as fast. The ball was moved slowly.”
The individual performance of Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois might have had an influence too with the Belgian directly responsible for thwarting Liverpool on nine occasions as the Premier League side mustered 24 shots (nine on target) in comparison to Los Blancos’ meagre four (one on target).
Former Liverpool goalkeeper David James said: “If [Courtois] doesn’t make two incredible saves Liverpool win the game and we have a completely different discussion here,”
Of course, the Reds’ did end 2021-22 with two domestic cups to their name, though it’s perhaps a little galling to realise they might have come at the expense of a much more illustrious prize.
Benzema was the star of the show
With 15 goals in 12 games in the Champions League, Karim Benzema enjoyed his finest season in a Real Madrid shirt in 2021-22, passing the 40-goal mark in all competitions and all at the age of 34.
The plentiful goals were married with an impressive work rate that saw the veteran striker lead the line for Carlo Ancelotti’s side with gusto, regularly dropping deep or moving out wide, holding up play and generally serving as a one-man attacking hub for his teammates.
With the UEFA report poetically heralding him for “playing in a state of grace,” Benzema scored 15 goals from 46 shots with a conversion rate of 32.6% — the most efficient finishing of any player to score 10 or more goals in last season’s Champions League.
Those stirring performances saw Benzema head Real’s charge to a 14th European title before being named as UEFA’s Champions League Men’s Player of the Season, and it’s fair to say that nobody else really came close in the running.
Lionel Messi speaks about winning the 2021 Ballon d’Or ahead of Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema’s hopes in 2022.
Champions League Goal of the Season
Benzema capped off a first-class Champions League campaign by scoring what the UEFA committee viewed as the best goal, namely the Real Madrid striker’s stupendous header against reigning champions Chelsea in the quarterfinals.
The goal was the first of a hat trick scored by Benzema in a 3-1 victory for Real at Stamford Bridge — the Frenchman opening the scoring by putting an expert finishing touch to a counter-attack he initiated.
In an interview with UEFA a few months later, Benzema also picked the goal as his personal favourite strike of 2021-22, citing the “beautiful play” in the build-up with Vinicius Junior as the deciding factor.
Karim @Benzema décroche le prix du But ⚽ de la saison en #ChampionsLeague pour son coup de tête surpuissant 💪 contre Chelsea 🤩🤩
On est d’accord que c’est mérité 🤔 #UCLvideo | #GOTS | #Benzema pic.twitter.com/Hi0ueiw1VO
— L’UEFA 🇫🇷 (@UEFAcom_fr) May 31, 2022
Tactical trends du jour
First and foremost, the scrapping of the away goals rule for the 2021-22 Champions League was applauded in the technical report for ushering in a new era of sporting spectacle in the knockout stages. The panel noted the vast majority of first-leg ties in particular were “more attractive” as direct result of the home team no longer having to be so overly occupied with keeping a clean sheet.
Elsewhere, back fives were all the rage with 17 of the 32 teams involved starting at least one game with either a central defensive three plus wing-backs either side of the defence. Perhaps as a direct result, there was also a notable penchant for the lesser-spotted “front five,” with Bayern Munich the prime example.
With two wingers, two advanced midfielders and an ace striker in Lewandowski at the tip, Bayern used their “Five Lanes” approach to score more goals (31) than any other team in the competition for the third consecutive season and also recorded the biggest single-game win (7-1 over Salzburg in the round of 16).
Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent Julian Nagelsmann’s attacking heavyweights from crashing out to the relatively inexperienced underdogs Villarreal in the quarterfinals.
Leaving it late
On average, the most productive period in Champions League matches in terms of goals last season was between the 61st and 75th minutes though the 2021-22 campaign also saw more goals scored in second-half injury time (25) than ever before.
A total of 12 of those 25 goals were scored by substitutes, highlighting the importance of utilising the squad and getting fresh tactical impetus from the bench. Overall, nearly a quarter of goals (23%) were scored beyond the 76th minute, including in added time.
Atletico Madrid veteran Luis Suarez scored the latest winning goal in the competition with his 97th-minute penalty conversion against AC Milan in the group stage, while Real Madrid forward Rodrygo scored more late goals than any other player — with four of his five goals in the competition coming in the 80th minute or beyond.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 18, 2022
Covering the ground
Fitness levels were higher than ever as the Champions League quite literally broke new ground in terms of distance covered.
Dynamo Kyiv may have fallen short in terms of possession but what they lacked in time on the ball they more than made up for in distance run, with the Ukrainians covering more of the pitch than any other side in the competition (an average of 123.05 kilometres per match).
Swiss side Young Boys were second on the list (121.26 km) and Pep Guardiola’s industrious Man City team were third (120.57 km).
Conversely, rivals Manchester United were rooted right down at the bottom of the list, wallowing in second bottom with a lowly average of just 114.3 km. Oddly, it was Paris Saint-Germain who covered less ground in unison than any other side, wallowing at the bottom the list with a lowly tally of just 106.34 km.
In terms of individual players, Sheriff midfielder Sebastien Thill — the scourge of Real Madrid — covered more distance per game than any other player in the Champions League last season, with an average of 12.81 km per match.
His team might have been near-stationary, but PSG whippet Kylian Mbappe reclaimed his throne as the fastest player in Europe’s elite competition after being clocked sprinting at 36.7 km/h against Real Madrid in the round of 16. The French forward was also previously ranked as the fastest player in the 2019-20 campaign.
Benfica‘s Darwin Nunez (now of Liverpool) clocked the second-quickest sprint of 2021-22 at 36.5km/h (22.7 mp/h), with his former teammate Rafa Silva (36.4 km/h), Bayern’s Alphonso Davies (36.3 km/h) and Madrid’s Federico Valverde (36.2 km/h) rounding off the top five.