Featured in every European campaign since 1992-93, this year’s Champions League group stage will be its last.
From 2024, Europe’s premier continental competition will be played under a “Swiss system”, an unusual approach in which the 36 competing teams will be in a single division and sorted based on their results in matches against eight different opponents (four at home, four away). ). It’s a bold, complex and certainly confusing approach, one that might make us yearn for the very simple concept we’re used to: eight groups of four teams, six matches, with no real explanation.
But that would go some way to overlooking the feeling that the group stage has become a little tired, predictable and less and less exciting. Certainly, there are regularly one or two upheavals per year and a few groups who find themselves at the end of their rope. But overall, the Champions League group stage is less exciting than at its peak.
This can be perfectly illustrated by the following graph, which tracks the average points total per season recorded by the teams finishing in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place in the group stage. (Between 1999-00 and 2002-03 there was a second group stage – this article focuses only on the first group stage.).
There are, from a relatively simple graph, some very interesting stories.
The first consideration is that the points totals of the top-ranked teams have increased steadily, demonstrating the dominance of the continent’s superclubs. Twenty years ago, group winners generally averaged around 11 to 12 points. It is now 1:15 p.m. This may seem like a relatively minor difference, but with a decent sample size of eight groups per year and with only 18 points offered, it is significant.
But that’s only part of the story. Although this rate has increased to around 14 points in recent years, it was above 14 in four of the first five Champions League seasons (converting from the old two-point-for-a-win system used in the first seasons in three points for a victory). It then fell significantly in 1997 when UEFA decided to expand the competition and introduce teams other than the national champions and title holders.
Therefore, this initially made the competition more competitive: the second-placed teams from England, Italy, Germany and Spain were stronger than the champions of smaller European countries. In half a decade, the strongest nations in Europe have been able to integrate their four best teams.
You can also see this effect in the point totals recorded by the lowest placed teams. In the formative years of the Champions League, these teams averaged less than four points – then, for much of the following decade, that figure was quite a bit higher. Since then, as inequality has widened, the least well-placed countries have found themselves in more and more difficulty.
Teams recording zero points in the group stage was almost unheard of in the 20th century – although there were fewer groups then – but it has become more common recently.
Significantly, the largest grouping of unnecessary teams occurred just after a change to the qualification system in 2009, which admitted more teams from weaker leagues. It was an admirable move, an attempt to prevent the tournament from being dominated by Western European teams. But this has had a negative impact in terms of competitiveness and entertainment value.
In 2009, Maccabi Haifa became the first club to lose all their matches without scoring. In the same year, Hungarian champions Debrecen managed to score at least five times, but also failed to register a single point. Partizan Belgrade and MSK Zilina had the same experience in 2010, while three teams – Dinamo Zagreb, Otelul Galati and Villarreal – did so in 2011. Since then, there has been a shift towards more large concentration of teams from stronger leagues.
Coming back to the first graph, the most important numbers are the point totals recorded by the second and third best teams. It’s the difference between progressing and not progressing to the next stage and ultimately whether there is significant interest in the final round of matches. .
And last season, the gap was absolutely huge: the second-placed teams averaged 11.4 points, while the third-placed teams averaged 5.6. The majority of groups ended surprisingly early. Only Group D, made up of Tottenham, Eintracht Frankfurt, Sporting Lisbon and Marseille, had everything to play for to qualify for the final group day. Group E was decided on the final day when Milan’s victory over Red Bull Salzburg confirmed their second place ahead of the Austrians. Otherwise, it was an alarmingly routine and featured point totals including 15-15-6-0, 13-12-6-2 and 14-14-3-3. That’s incredibly uncompetitive for a six-game league.
Last season, Bayern also recorded a maximum of 18 points for the third time in the last four seasons (2019-20, 2021-22 and 2022-23). This is quite striking because it has only been achieved eight times: Milan in 1992-93, PSG in 1994-95, Spartak Moscow in 1995-96, Barcelona in 2002-03, Real Madrid in 2011 -12 and again in 2014. -15, and Ajax and Liverpool in 2021-22. In other words, this was hardest to achieve in the 15 years after non-champions were admitted starting in 1997 – after the tournament contained plenty of minnows but before superclubs became absurdly dominant .
What is perhaps interesting is that the identity of the 16 qualifiers from the group stage has not necessarily become more predictable. In 2006, when the 16 teams from hats 1 and 2 qualified for the round of 16, it was in danger of becoming routine. This didn’t really happen. Since then, only once, in 2016, has only one team from the last two pots qualified. There are still a good number of Pot 3 teams qualifying, although it is now much rarer for a Pot 4 team to advance. In 2001 and 2003, they represented their fair share – a quarter – of the 16 qualified teams, which seems unthinkable today.
Of course, an uninspiring group stage is a symptom of the grim levels of inequality in modern top-flight football. In a world where Bayern have won 11 consecutive league titles and PSG nine of the last 11, it would be difficult to design a system that creates unpredictability.
Next year, with eight matches instead of six – and with less chance of teams being unlucky in the draw since they will face eight different opponents instead of three – we will likely see an even more predictable competition, with even more matches which means little. The Champions League group stage may have needed a slight overhaul, but this Swiss system will only make things worse.
(Top photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images)