As the Champions League approaches its denouement (which will be streaming live on Paramount+) it is time to start handing out awards, including a team of the year with a difference. On this occasion we’ve let the numbers be our guide, not necessarily masters of selection but the first place we’ve looked is not results or progress through the tournament but the underlying statistics of each individual player.
Before we get started two brief notes. First of all we placed an eligibility cap at 200 minutes for anyone to be considered. Minutes played will be an important category for any selection, naturally it matters if a player has put together their body of work over six games or 12. Secondly, as a reminder that the Champions League does not just encompass the knockout rounds, we opted from the outset to hand one wildcard spot to a player whose team did not qualify for the last 16. Away we go:
We start with arguably the hardest decision of any in this squad. There have been lots of very good goalkeepers in this season’s competition and only one spot available for them. If we might pull back the curtain briefly I have a notebook by my side now that reads Navas Mendy Navas Mendy. That rather hammers home the challenge of assessing goalkeepers in the modern game. Who deserves more credit: the one who makes saves by the boatload or the one who keeps clean sheets by the boat load at least in part because of the work their defenders do ahead of them.
Both of this season’s finalists have the goalkeepers with the most clean sheets: Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy leading Manchester City’s Ederson by eight to seven. Yet between them they have faced just 53 shots on goal in 22 games. What Keylor Navas would give for such a quiet life. He has faced more total shots on his goal than anyone else in the Champions League, per 90 minutes he finds himself alongside contemporaries from Lokomotiv Moscow, Istanbul Basaksehir and Ferencvaros.
It is worth noting from the outset — and this will be true of other Paris Saint-Germain players — that Navas faced as tough a run of opponents as any semifinalist in many years: Manchester United, Istanbul Basaksehir, RB Leipzig, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and then Manchester City. Against such opponents he prevented 0.35 goals per 90 minutes according to Opta’s post-shot expected goals model, the eighth best record. That is slightly better than Mendy’s 0.32 though the Chelsea shot stopper does have the competition’s best save percentage at 90.9%.
Goals prevented by UCL goalkeepers
Navas and Mendy might have been the top two but there were others worthy of immense credit this season. Manuel Neuer leads the way on totals goal prevented with 5.37 though the fact that Borussia Dortmund’s Roman Burki is top for per 90 performance is a reminder that such statistics never quite tell the whole story, particularly for goalkeepers. Liverpool’s Alisson also ranks highly on goals prevented though his passing with the ball at his feet lets him down.
Ultimately the fact that the PSG shot-stopper has put together such a convincing portfolio in volume terms means he edges this one.
PICK: Keylor Navas
We’ll start with the center backs in an attempt to build a tandem that is not just robust tackles and blocked shots. Having said that, they certainly help your team and if you’re combining them with progressive passing then you deserve to be a lock for this team. There were few players whose case was as overwhelming as Ruben Dias’. Only four players in the competition had a higher pass completion rate than the Manchester City center back — one of them was Barcelona’s Gerard Pique — and he is the fourth best player in his position for passes into the attacking third. That you can add to his resume the block party he delivered against PSG makes him as much of a lock as any player in this team.
Alongside him there were plenty of impressive contenders. Cristian Romero of Atalanta led players in his position for ball recoveries while Gerard Pique was by some distance the competition’s most accurate passer with only four of the 201 passes he attempted not finding a teammate. However, the Barcelona center back barely scraped over our minutes criteria having featured in only two games. You could not say the same about Eder Militao, who grew in prominence for Real Madrid as the tournament reached its final knockout rounds, he made more total tackles than any center back in the competition.
Whilst Militao would be a worthy addition to this team in pure defensive work he is perhaps outshone by Chancel Mbemba, whose success rate of 76.9 percent in the tackle’s he attempted was top in his position. Marshalling a Porto defense that were frequently outgunned by Man City, Juventus and Chelsea it is perhaps no wonder he tops the competition for clearances and shots blocked while he is similarly right near the top for duel success as well. His robust, old school defensive work is worthy of plenty of credit.
Ruben Dias has excelled since joining Manchester City from Benfica
Picking the full backs is in theory an even greater challenge. In the modern era there is perhaps no position that demands greater versatility nor draws a broader pool of players from repurposed wingers such as Alphonso Davies to playmakers like Trent Alexander-Arnold as well as more traditional defensive stoppers. It ought to make for a challenging selection but actually it is rather easy to pick the outstanding right back this season. Or, at the very least, Juan Cuadrado’s case is too good to ignore.
Nobody in the competition completed more crosses (26) and nobody who attempted more than 20 delivered them more accurately. Cuadrado leads the competition in chances created and with six assists he has two more than anyone else who played in the Champions League.
On the other flank it is a little tricky largely because there were so many impressive performers. Joao Cancelo logged plenty of his minutes at left-back and made a string of tackles, Davies had an exceptional 81.8% success rate on 22 attempted take-ons, With no overwhelming candidate this seems as good a time as any to use our aforementioned wildcard and introduce a left back who doubtless flew under the radar of many: Red Bull Salzburg’s Andreas Ulmer.
Trailing only to Davies among fullbacks in the competition in possession won in the middle third of the pitch, he was an impressively stout defender with 1.13 interceptions per game, a 75 percent success rate in tackles and ranked in the top 10 for his position in creative stats. In a position that demands players do so much Ulmer did a bit of everything very well in a Salzburg side that performed admirably even in falling short to Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.
PICKS: Cuadrado, Mbemba, Dias, Ulmer
We’ll be lining up in the 4-3-3 that was the base template for most of the top teams in this competition. Within that midfield trio we want a bit of everything: some creativity, ball-winning, passing and progression up the pitch. Unsurprisingly, it is not that hard to find, though the players that offer these qualities might not be who you expect.
Still on some occasions they are. In terms of passing it is no great surprise that Toni Kroos sits top of almost every ranking. No one touched the ball more frequently and according to fbref no-one progressed the ball more yards towards goal than the 549.3 the German did every 90 minutes. Wherever he delivered a pass he did so with unerring accuracy.
The central midfielder with the most minutes played in the competition this season, Kroos ranked in the highest echelon in every passing category, though it should be noted that on a per 90 basis, Juventus’ Arthur ranked extremely high in getting the ball into the attacking third. The fact that he played nearly a third of the minutes of his Real Madrid rival rather discounts him and the same is true for Miralem Pjanic. If we’re looking for a metronomic passer at the base of midfield it can only be Kroos.
Passes made by Toni Kroos to various areas of the pitch with the size of each bin reflecting the frequency with which he is passing to that position.
What about someone to drive through the pitch? There have been few better than N’Golo Kante, who has dribbled past 25 players in the competition so far this tournament according to fbref. That is by some distance the best of any player in his position and puts him between the likes of Lucas Ocampos and Joao Felix. In total the Chelsea midfielder attempted 29 dribbles, no-one tried more and completed them at a higher rate of success than the France international.
One could also add to the mix the host of defensive categories in which he excels, for instance the eighth most recoveries per 90 minutes among players in his position, but it is really on the front foot that Kante has excelled this season. He is certainly not the only player with a statistical profile that might surprise infrequent observers. Thiago, widely viewed as an elite playmaker, stands out this season for his defensive work. Only Genk’s Niklas Dorsch made more tackles per 90 minutes than the Liverpool man and only Nemanja Matic won a higher proportion of them.
Other contenders include Frenkie De Jong, who ranks exceptionally highly for progressive carries, and top chance creators Luka Modric and Kevin De Bruyne. Yet it has to be Joshua Kimmich who wins out for creative work. No midfielder in the competition created more chances per 90 than the Bayern Munich man, who also leads the way in assists and expected assists per 90, take-on success rate and crosses per 90.
PICKS: Kroos, Kante, Kimmich
It will not surprise anyone to know we can knock a few of these positions on the head pretty quickly when it comes to forwards. After all, we will be looking for the guy that puts the ball in the net most frequently. That will of course be Erling Haaland, scorer of 10 goals in just 705 minutes. In almost every shooting category for which Opta collects data he is at or near the top. The competition’s leading scorer, second in total expected goals (xG), fifth per 90 behind several players with relatively few minutes played. He is even higher for non-penalty xG and is bettered by only three players for open play shooting goals added, a metric that assesses how much more likely players were to score given the shot they struck compared to a standard player in their position.
If Haaland is one obvious pick the other has to be Mbappe, another consistent presence alongside the Norwegian in those shooting categories mentioned above. The PSG striker also has in his ledger one of the most statistically outstanding performances in the Champions League’s recent history: his stunning hat-trick in a 4-1 win at Barcelona that marked him out as one of Europe’s best players at just 22 years of age. Three goals, 0.76 shooting goals added with two-thirds of his six shots landing on target, nine of 14 take-ons successfully completed and four chances created for team-mates. That game alone would be enough to prompt reassessment of that minutes criteria if he hadn’t excelled in so many others.
The final spot comes down to four players. Manchester City duo Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden both combined goal scoring and exceptional creativity. In particular the former is third for open play chances created and excelled in the semifinal victory over Paris Saint-Germain. Then there’s Neymar. There was simply no player who asked more questions of defenders. The world’s most expensive player attempted 73 take-ons in the Champions League this season, no player outside his team tried more than 48. The 44 fouls he suffered is enough to make you think there must be a problem in Opta’s numbers. In second place in that list in Frank Onyeka of Midtjylland, whose 27 fouls drawn came in 870 minutes as opposed to the Brazilian’s 744.
And finally, of course, there is Messi, who simply did Messi things over six games. According to fbref he registered 9.3 shot creating actions per 90 and his 56 in total were only four fewer than Shakhtar Donetsk’s entire team managed in the group stages. Similarly he added 2.73 shooting goals when the next best was his team-mate Ousmane Dembele at 1.72. Ultimately it comes down to him and Neymar in a straight fight but it is the Brazilian who just shades it.
In part that is because so much of Messi’s magic in this competition has been with the dead ball. Four of his five goals were penalties though the other was that stunning strike against PSG. Neymar meanwhile excelled in open play. When he was not fouled players were left in his dust or had their souls wrenched from their bodies by his impudence. He dribbled past 45 opponents, six players faced the ultimate ignominy of being nutmegged. It is worth noting at this juncture that 20 of the 32 group stage teams completed fewer nutmegs than Neymar.
It’s not the nutmegs that won it though (at least that’s my story). Ultimately what swings this fractional battle in Neymar’s favor is the sheer weight of quality opposition against whom he has excelled. PSG had to reach the semi-finals the hard way and their star player was simply brilliant against the likes of Manchester United, RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich. Building a stats-based team of the season is not just about which players and which teams did it in the biggest games but to some extent it has to matter whether these performances contributed to winning big games. Barcelona lost their group to Juventus and were eliminated at the first time of asking by PSG, who went further than many other teams would have given the strength of opposition they faced. Neymar was crucial in that passage and as such he squeezes in alongside Mbappe and Haaland.
PICKS: Mbappe, Haaland, Neymar
The Champions League starting XI
- GK: Keylor Navas — PSG
- DEF: Ruben Dias — Manchester City
- DEF: Chancel Mbemba — FC Porto
- DEF: Juan Cuadrado — Juventus
- DEF: Andreas Ulmer — Red Bull Salzburg
- MID: Toni Kroos — Real Madrid
- MID: Joshua Kimmich — Bayern Munich
- MID: N’Golo Kante — Chelsea
- FWD: Erling Haaland — Borussia Dortmund
- FWD: Kylian Mbappe — PSG
- FWD: Neymar — PSG
CBS research and TruMedia assisted with this article.