This year’s Champions League group stage, which has been the hallmark of every European campaign since 1992-93, will be the last.
In the year From 2024, Europe’s premier continental competition will be played under the ‘Swiss system’, an unusual approach in which all 36 competing teams are divided into one group based on their results against eight opponents (four at home, four away). It’s a bold, complex and certainly confusing approach, which can make us miss the very simple concept we’re used to: eight four teams, six matches, no real explanation needed.
But that would be partly to forget the feeling that the team’s status was becoming a bit tired, predictable and lackluster. Of course, there are one or two upsets a year and a couple of teams that go down to the wire. Overall, though, the Champions League group stage is less exciting than it used to be.
That can be best illustrated by the following graph, tracking the average points scored in each season as teams finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. (There was a second tier between 1999-00 and 2002-03 – this article focuses only on the first tier.).
There are some very interesting stories from relatively simple graphs.
The first impression is that the points difference for the top ranked teams is increasing, showing the dominance of the continent’s super clubs. Two decades ago, team wins averaged 11-12 points. Now it’s 13-15. That may seem like a relatively small difference, but with a good sample size of eight teams a year and only 18 points offered, it’s significant.
But this is only part of the story. Although the rate has risen to the 14-point mark in recent years, it was over 14 in four of the first five Champions League seasons (when the old two-points-for-win system used in the first few seasons was changed to three-points-for-a-win). Then in 1997 it was significantly reduced, the point at which UEFA decided to expand the competition and introduce sides other than the domestic championship and the winners of the governorship.
Therefore, this first made the competition more competitive – England, Italy, Germany and Spain were stronger than the champions of smaller European countries. In half a decade, Europe’s powerhouses have managed to make their way into the top four.
You can see that score overall in the points scored on the sides below. In the formative years of the Champions League those sides averaged less than four points – and then for much of the following decade the figure was slightly higher. Since then, as inequality has increased, the sides placed at the bottom are struggling.
Zero points for a team was unheard of in the 20th century – although there were few teams in those days – but it has become common in recent times.
It is significant that the largest pool of futility teams was created after a change to the qualification system in 2009 that admitted many teams from weaker leagues. This was a dramatic move, an attempt to make the competition less Western European-dominated. But it had a negative impact on competitiveness and entertainment value.
In the year In 2009, Maccabi Haifa became the first club to win all their matches without a goal. In the same year, the Hungarian champion Debrecen scored at least five times but failed to score. Partizan Belgrade and MSK Zilina had a similar experience in 2010, while three sides – Dinamo Zagreb, Otelul Galati and Villarreal – did so in 2011. Since then, there has been a shift from strong leagues to a higher concentration of teams.
Returning to the first graph, the most important figures are the points totals of the second- and third-best sides – this is the difference between promotion and not making it to the next stage, and if there is a strong demand in the final round of games. .
And last season, the gap was even wider – second-place teams averaged 11.4 points, while third-place teams averaged 5.6. Most of the teams passed surprisingly early. Only Group D, featuring Tottenham, Eintracht Frankfurt, Sporting Lisbon and Marseille, had everything to make it to the final group stage. Group E was decided on the final day when Milan’s win over Red Bull Salzburg ensured they finished second ahead of the Austrians. Otherwise, it was shockingly routine and featured scores including 15-15-6-0, 13-12-6-2 and 14-14-3-3. This is incredibly uncompetitive for a six-game league.
Last season, Bayern also scored more than 18 points for the third time in the last four seasons (2019-20, 2021-22 and 2022-23). This is remarkable because it has only been achieved on eight other occasions – AC 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 both Ajax and Liverpool in 2021- 22. In other words, it was harder to achieve in the 15 years since 1997, when non-championships entered the competition – after the tournament caught a lot of flak but before the super clubs became incredibly dominant.
Perhaps surprisingly, the identity of the Group of 16 qualifiers is not predictable. In the year In 2006, when 16 sides from Pot 1 and Pot 2 qualified for the play-offs, this was a common risk. That didn’t really happen. Since then, only once in 2016 has only one side of the bottom two pots. Although it is now rare for a Pot 4 side to progress, there are still healthy Pot 3 sides that qualify. In the year In 2001 and 2003, they made up their fair share – a quarter – of the 16 qualifying teams, which would seem unthinkable today.
Of course, an unexciting group stage is a symptom of the poor levels of equality in modern football at the highest level. In a world where Bayern have won 11 league titles in a row and PSG have won nine of their last 11 games, it will be difficult to create a system that creates the unexpected.
Next year, with eight matches instead of six – and sides facing eight different opponents rather than three if they’re less likely to be unlucky with draws – we’ll see a more predictable competition. It means little. Maybe the Champions League group stage needs some tweaking, but this Swiss system makes things worse.
(Top photo: Nicolas Toukat/AFP via Getty Images)