August 14, 2022

Manchester City and Real Madrid are the best teams in Europe, but their success is not solely due to resources. In this article, we’ll look at how these two football giants were able to elevate themselves from mid-table mediocrity before adding some key strategies that made them so dominant.

Soccer has changed a lot in the last 20 years. In the past, soccer was primarily focused on physicality and how much money a team had. Nowadays, soccer is more about transitions and ball movement. Soccer has also evolved into what we know today with players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi dominating the sport.

How are Man City, Real Madrid so good? It's not just their resources, but their transition play

Possession is a frequently discussed issue in soccer. It’s practically a given that the strongest (and wealthiest) clubs in Europe, like as Manchester City, will dominate the ball and reclaim it as soon as they lose it, while the inferior (and/or less wealthy) teams will be forced to go without.

Having the ball is synonymous with winning in Pep Guardiola’s era. If you know who had more possession of the ball over the course of a season, you can generally guess who scored the most points.

Points per game in Europe’s Big 5 leagues for clubs with varied possession rates (2017-18 to present):

Win prizes by hogging the ball. Isn’t that downright orderly? However, if you’ve ever seen a soccer match — and if you’re reading this, chances are you have — you’ll know that “orderly” isn’t a true description of the sport. There’s a series of unsuccessful headers or a fast, long pass that goes astray for every extended run of passes.

There’s a run of chaos for every run of order.

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Take 2017-18 Manchester City, for example, who is the poster kid for both domination and ball dominance. This Guardiola-led club had the most percentage of possession of any Big 5 team in the past five seasons, with 71 percent, and scored 100 points, the most in Premier League history. They snatched the ball like few others could, yet just 48% of their possessions lasted more than 20 seconds, and 38% lasted less than ten. Even the best organized City squad in history was only able to play roughly half of a match under chaotic conditions.

Transition between offense and defense takes up a large portion of each match between any two sides (or vice versa). Transition play isn’t an equalizer in the traditional sense. It can’t make a poor team good, but it can help a good team become great. It may also determine championship races and relegation fights.

Let’s look at a particular form of transition for the sake of discussion.

Let’s speak about the short-burst possessions that make up the majority of a game: possessions that start outside the attacking third and last 20 seconds or less. These account for more than 60% of all possessions in a game, and the majority of them go nowhere.

While teams average 0.13 shots per possession on average, these possessions — which we’ll refer to as “transition possessions” for the sake of this narrative — only average 0.05. Nonetheless, during the last five seasons, these possessions have accounted for 29% of all goals in Big 5 leagues; they are specific scenarios that may have a greater influence than set pieces (20 percent of all goals).

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From these possessions, great transition teams can average almost a goal every match. Bayern Munich is presently averaging 1.1 goals per game this season. In 2021-22, Julian Nagelsmann’s club has scored 18 goals on such possessions while allowing just four, making them the greatest and most consistent transition team since Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig scored 33 such goals in league play while allowing only eight in 2019-20. They are strong in all areas of the game, but their frequent transitions have helped them grab a nine-point lead in the Bundesliga halfway through the season.

One part quality, one part philosophy emerges from these transitional goods. As one may assume, wealthy and athletic clubs like Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have been the best at combining transition scoring possibilities while restricting opponents’ chances (at least until 2020-21). For the rest of us, it’s a tactical card to play.

Take Mainz and Wolves, for example.

Mainz have 24 points (1.41 per match) after 17 games, putting them in ninth position in the Bundesliga and four points behind the top four. Their encounters are hectic and entertaining, with 1.35 goals scored from transition possessions each match — 0.71 for Mainz and 0.65 for opponents.

Wolves, on the other hand, have 25 points from 18 games (1.39 per match). They are currently in eighth place in the Premier League, three points behind the top five teams. They’ve been the anti-Mainz this season, scoring just one transition goal and allowing only one. With tactics that couldn’t be more different, these teams have obtained remarkably comparable outcomes.

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StatsPerform provided the data.

PSG was the most destructive transition squad in history under Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, they scored on 2.2 percent, 2.1 percent, and 2.3 percent of transition possessions, respectively, but it dropped to 1.5 percent last season (the second half of which was under Pochettino’s leadership), and they’re at 1.2 percent this season.

Kylian Mbappe, unsurprisingly, has been PSG’s transition king. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, he scored 35 goals and added 13 assists in transition possessions, averaging 0.73 goals and assists per 90 minutes. In the half-season since, he’s scored 12 goals and added four assists (0.37 goals and assists per 90).

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Neymar’s and Angel Di Maria’s transition contributions have plummeted. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, the two combined for 22 goals and 26 assists in transition possessions; since then, they have two transition goals and seven assists. Meanwhile, PSG is doing worse than ever at preventing transitions: they’re conceding goals on 0.8 percent of transition possessions, which is somewhat more than the Big 5 average.

Of course, none of this is keeping PSG from romping to the Ligue 1 championship — they’re now 13 points ahead on the field — but it has made them a little more stolid and one-dimensional, relying on their strikers’ one-of-a-kind and spectacular abilities to break through defenses. It may work out for you when you have so much offensive talent, but their overall quality of play is such that, after reaching the Champions League finals in 2020 and the semis in 2021, FiveThirtyEight puts them as the ninth-favorite to win the competition this season.

Real Madrid, tired and aging, might be Europe’s most dangerous transition team.

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Real Madrid has scored on 2.0 percent of its transition opportunities this season, the highest of any team in the Big 5, and its 14 transition goals are more than anybody else in the league save Bayern Munich (18) and Atalanta (14). (16). Forward Karim Benzema and winger Vinicius Junior have a combined total of nine transition goals and four assists, with two of the assists going to each other. In September, Benzema sprung Vini for a breakaway goal and the game-winner against Celta Vigo, and Vini teed up a beautiful Benzema goal in transition to put Atletico ahead in the Madrid Derby.

In the LaLiga competition right now, only Sevilla, which has adopted an entirely different strategy to contending, is within 12 points of Real Madrid.

To this point, Julen Lopetegui’s club is the only Big 5 team that hasn’t surrendered a goal from a transition possession. Only five Big 5 teams allow fewer shots per transition possession, and only six allow a lower average xG per shot. They’ve only scored eight transition goals, but they suffocate transitions better than anybody in Europe, and it’s allowed them remain within eight points of the leaders with a game in hand.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s collapse at Manchester United was aided by transitions.

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On Gab & Juls Meets, football agent Giovanni Branchini discusses why he recommended Manchester United to Cristiano Ronaldo’s agency.

The Premier League has a wide range of styles. Sure, the top teams (Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea) are as excellent as anybody in these transitional phases, but there is a vast range of ideologies beyond the elites.

Arsenal, Wolves, and Brighton have all had varying degrees of success with their notoriously sluggish transition strategies. With a unique blend of counterattacking, transition defense, and set-piece dominance, West Ham United is threatening to snag a Champions League berth. Watford and Leeds United are both keeping things wide open (with mixed or downright poor results). Jamie Vardy is continuing wreaking havoc in the wide areas, scoring four goals from transition possessions to help Leicester City take the league lead in this category.

You also have a data point that hints at where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United went wrong this season.

United conceded an average of seven goals each season from transition possessions in Solskjaer’s two complete seasons in charge at Old Trafford, 2019-20 and 2020-21. In both seasons, they scored on 1.2 percent of their transition possessions, but they were very excellent at restricting opponents’ chances.

Things broke apart in this way in 2021-22. When Solskjaer was sacked on November 21, United had already conceded seven such goals this season, four in defeat and one in a 0-0 draw with Everton. They’d scored eight of their own (just one from star recruits Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho combined), giving them a goal difference of +1 in transition possessions. In the previous two seasons, they were +15 and +17, respectively. Since the firing, they’ve gone 2-0, with goals from Sancho in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea and Ronaldo in a 1-0 victory against Arsenal.

Andrea Pirlo is a master of transitions.

“Transition” was not one of Pirlo’s problems in his first and only season as Juventus manager in 2020-21. On his watch, Juve’s nine-year league championship run came to an end, with Inter scoring 91 points and won the Scudetto by 12 points, and Pirlo was fired. Despite a young movement (especially in midfield), Juve were just a point below second place, thanks in part to strong transition play. In 2020-21, they lead the Big 5 in transition possessions with a +19 goal difference, scoring 27 and allowing just eight. Alvaro Morata and Federico Chiesa combined for nine goals and nine assists, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored ten transition goals.

With Max Allegri in charge again this season, Juve’s flaws persist, but their transition prowess has vanished. They’re only on track to score 14 transition goals while allowing ten. Morata and Chiesa have combined for two transition goals and no assists since Ronaldo’s departure. Allegri has dialed back Pirlo’s effort at a contemporary, possession-based style, and although the Bianconeri have picked up 13 points in their previous five games, they remain four points outside the top four.

Pirlo was able to develop a possession-heavy, transition-friendly group despite Ronaldo’s lack of pressing, which has become worse since his departure. He’s been connected to a number of lower-level management positions recently, but there’s a good argument to be made that he should keep his former role.

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