Champions League Group B is a Perfect Storm

By Lucien Betancourt

Champions League football is back and the group stages are in full swing, where exciting upsets and disappointing performances abound! In case you don’t know, the Champions League is a European football league where the top clubs in every league that is a part of UEFA (or, Union of European Football Associations) play in a tournament where four teams are divided into eight groups. The top two teams of each group go on to the knockout stage and compete for the Champions League trophy. Currently, the group stages are in their three-week break until matchday four starts again on November 24th. As of now, multiple groups have two clear favorites to advance on to the Knockout Stage. However, some groups have been competitive amongst three of the four teams. These are labeled as “Groups of Death,” or groups where there are really strong teams throughout. In these groups, any team may take the top spot. Every point, every goal scored and conceded, every chance created, and every shot on goal matters. One such group is a competition between Group B, which is arguably the most heated of the groups. As of this writing, the group is as follows:

Group BW-D-LPoints
Borussia Monchengladbach 1-2-05
Shakhtar Donetsk1-1-14
Real Madrid1-1-14
Internazionale Milan (Inter Milan)0-2-12

Notice that all four teams are within three points of each other. Each of these teams in the group has unique styles of play and tactics to try and counter each other, which has led to intense competition among these four teams. Every team is capable of topping the group or at least finishing in the top two. Now, for the statistical outcomes for each team’s chances to reach the knockout stage, I’ll be looking at each team’s overall possession, goals scored/goals against, shots on goal/shots on target, and passes completed. I’ll also be analyzing every team’s theoretical outcomes for the next three games using these statistics, as well as their chances at the Champions League trophy.

Borussia Monchengladbach

Joining the Champions League for the first time since 2016, they have put on a show, beating Group B favorites Real Madrid and Internazionale (or Inter) Milan. They also shocked Shakhtar Donetsk with a 6-0 battering of a team that was good enough to beat Real Madrid. With 10 goals scored and 4 goals conceded, they boast the 2nd best offense in the league after their Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munich. With 384.66 passes per game out of 496 passes attempted, a 40.33% possession rate, and 77.53% completion rate, their attack works well on counterattacks and quick pass plays from their defensive third to the midfield and wings of the offensive third. With their favorable 4-2-3-1 formation (two defenders, two center defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders, and a lone forward), they rely on a defensive game that scores goals with little possession. This gives them the advantage in the offensive third as the opposing team presses high, while the defenders give ground. Their chance of going through to the knockout stage in this Group of Death is relatively high at 73% because of their playstyle perfectly countering their opponents and forcing draws and wins against them. Their chance of winning the Champions League, however, is low, at a mere 24%. They have the capabilities to exploit gaps in these weaker European giants but they are little to no match for teams such as FC Barcelona, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, or Juventus. Those teams have a well-rounded offensive and midfield play that know how to counter this exploit with a dominant defense that knows how to deal with these types of plays. Even though some of these giants are missing key players, they have adequate subs to fill in that specific role and the knockout stage doesn’t start until January, so they’ll be ready to go.

Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar Donetsk are regulars in the Champions League. Their winning of the Ukrainian Premier League for the past six years has given them an automatic placement in the group stage during that span. They have had experience facing tough European giants such as Manchester City, so they prove to entertain as underdogs. This year was no different. In the first game of the season, they upset Real Madrid in their home stadium 3-2. What made it even more incredible was how many of their starters were out on injury or sick leave, so the B-team faced and beat Real Madrid for them. They then hosted Inter Milan and drew 0-0. Unfortunately, their Cinderella story met its match against Borussia Monchengladbach, where their returning starters were crushed 6-0 at home. Alassane Plea scored a hat trick and their defense was torn apart by Borussia’s unique style of football that favors counter-attacks. Despite what their goals scored/conceded ratio of ⅜ might say, they are otherwise pretty impressive. They have an 85.2% passing completion rate, completing 439.66 passes per game out of 516 attempts per game, and have a 45.66% average possession rate. They depend on possession to win games, as most of theirs lies in the midfield third. This can also be the reason for why their playstyle didn’t work against Borussia. With this loss, Shakhtar Donetsk’s chance of going to the knockout stage is at just 40%, not just because of their loss to Borussia, but also because Real Madrid is back at full strength. They also don’t have the flexibility to adapt to new play styles on the fly so they will likely falter against Borussia again. Their chance to win the Champions League is almost non-existent, at 6%

Real Madrid

Real Madrid are common favorites for the Champions League throne, as they are one of the largest teams in the world and are the current champions of La Liga, the highest tier of Spanish soccer. They were favorites to top Group B this year, but the start to their campaign was a terrible one. They lost 3-2 to the aforementioned injury-plagued Shakhtar Donetsk team and fell to the bottom of Group B. Across their last three games, they’ve had a combined total of both 7 goals scored and conceded, which is a perfect 1:1 ratio but not good by their standards. They have had a total of 1,871 passes completed of 2,158 attempts and an 85.53% completion rate. They have also had an average of 60.33% possession across their games, boasting the highest possession rate in the group. Their playstyle is fairly standard, passing from the back and using the wing-backs as wide midfielders to slowly move the ball up the field. This tactic usually works against teams that try to control the midfield, such as Inter Milan. But this tactic was nullified by Shakhtar Donetsk’s hard-nosed defensive mentality as well as Borussia Monchengladbach’s shallow play and counterattack focus. Their failure is also due to how Sergio Ramos, their key center back, was out injured for their first game, which was a loss. His impact was shown when they played Inter Milan on matchday three, where they escaped with a win and three points. Their failures are also due to their incapabilities to adapt to new players on the fly, as well as their already weakened defense that is missing Ramos, Varane, and Carvajal, their three starting defenders, among other key players, to injury. With this, their chance of advancing to the knockout stage is also relatively low at 45%, just a bit higher than Shakhtar Donetsk’s because of goal differential. Their chance of winning the Champions League is around 30%, and I’d put it at 32% if they get to full strength by January. If not, they will struggle and be eliminated.

Inter Milan

Inter Milan came in as second place in Serie A behind the champion Juventus. They had high hopes of going far in the Champions League but as of matchday three, they are the most disappointing team in the group. Being favorites alongside Real Madrid, they were expected to go on to the knockout stage. But now, their hope of even making it is grim. With only two points and a goals scored/conceded ratio of ⅘, they are performing poorly, especially when they are expected to be an elite club. They have 1452 passes completed out of 1745 attempts, with an 82.63% completion rate. They also have an average possession of 53.66% across their three games. Inter Milan’s playstyle is midfield-heavy, as they play in a 3-5-2 formation, with the midfield creating a W formation and the wide midfielders dropping back as wing-backs or going up as wingers. This, along with coach Antonio Conte’s poor choices in the midfield, are the major causes for their failures. While the 3-5-2 formation works against teams with a hard defensive line, it doesn’t work against teams like Shakhtar Donetsk or Borussia Monchengladbach, who use long crosses to exploit Inter’s weak back 3. Not only that, their defenders are slow and lack that vital wing-back role to counter this exploit. Other than that, their offense has been decent, at the very least better than their subpar defense and midfield. Their chance to advance is low at 27% due to the strength of the group. They will either finish last in their group or perhaps head to the Europa League, the second tier of European football. Their chance to win the overall tournament, like Shakhtar Donetsk, is extremely low at 2%. 

Conclusion

There are still three more games to be played to reach match day six on December 9th. On that day, the standings would be set in stone, along with knockout stage and Europa League spots. There’s still plenty of time for teams to turn things around. Some may rise, some may fall, but for Group B, it will be a matter of who scores the most goals and concedes the least. Whatever happens, this group will end in a thriller.

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