With the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League done and dusted, The Hard Tackle aims to pick out the Team of the Season.
The 2019/20 season, protracted by the devastating pandemic that is COVID-19, is finally over, with the curtains dropping on it following Sunday’s UEFA Champions League final. With the top leagues in the continent already done and dusted by the onset of August, the focus had turned to the two European competitions, with games being played out almost every single day till Sunday.
The introduction of a unique single-legged knockout tournament starting from the quarter-finals – forced by the effects of the coronavirus – was an intriguing concept. The UEFA Europa League teams were based in Germany, while the Champions League outfits were stationed in Portugal.
— CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE 🏆 (@FCBayern) August 25, 2020
Right from the word go, and particularly in the Champions League, the knockout tournament produced some of the most absorbing contests of the season gone by. Be it in the form of a team getting a hiding or two sides playing out tight affairs, we were served with it all in a span of a few weeks.
The two finals were set for this past weekend, with Sevilla coming out on top in the Europa League after beating Inter Milan on Friday. That was one highly awaited fixture, but all roads led to Lisbon on Sunday, when first-time finalists PSG locked horns with Bayern Munich at Estadio da Luz.
What ensued then was an intensely tactical battle that had very little margin for errors. In the end, it was Bayern who came out on top, courtesy a goal by former PSG winger Kingsley Coman, as the French champions paid the price for their profligacy in the final. But, their German counterparts have become champions of Europe for the sixth time in their history.
With the 2019/20 Champions League now behind us, we will seek to sum the competition up by aiming to pick this season’s Team of the Season, as we had done with the Europa League as well. The formation that we have chosen is the 4-4-2, and we will also be naming our manager of the season. So, in the words of Fabrizio Romano, Here we go!
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
Readers who would have gone through our PSG vs Bayern Munich Combined XI might be surprised with our first pick here. After all, Keylor Navas was our choice for not just being the better of the two goalkeepers up until Sunday’s final, but also the best bar none in the Champions League till the said game.
However, Neuer’s heroics against PSG at Estadio da Luz, wherein he made a couple of top class saves when the score was still 0-0, have meant that the Bayern Munich captain pips Navas to the goalkeeping spot in our Champions League Team of the Season. It has indeed been a long road to redemption for Neuer.
The veteran had been written off by many following a disastrous 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign and a somewhat sub-par 2018/19 season with Bayern. 2019/20, though, saw the veteran custodian turn the clock back, keeping the most clean sheets (6) in the Champions League while also boasting an excellent 79 percent saving rate. Back to his best and leading by example.
Right-Back: Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich)
He might have hardly played in the Champions League this month due to the effects of an ankle injury he sustained prior to the resumption of the competition. However, Pavard still makes our Team of the Season for being the standout right-back in this season’s tournament.
In what was his maiden Champions League campaign, Pavard looked the part in a top team like Bayern Munich, hardly showing any stage fright. In the seven games he did start, the French full-back also provided a couple of assists, showing his prowess with the ball in the final third.
The 24-year-old also played in 0.6 key passes per game while having a passing rate of 90.6 percent – simply top class numbers. Defensively, he was in his elements more often than not as well, making a cumulative 4.3 blocks, clearances and interception per 90 minutes while conceding a foul every other game.
Centre-Back: Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain)
Paris Saint-Germain might have fallen at the final hurdle against Bayern Munich. However, there is no denying the fact that they had the best defensive unit in the Champions League this season. And a lot of the credit for that goes to Thiago Silva.
The Brazilian, an all-time great for PSG, was at the top of his game till his very last outing for the club, with the French champions letting in just 6 goals all campaign. Sublime both on and off the ball, Silva was imposing in the air, winning 82 percent of his aerial duels. His passing also always carried threat, with only Manuel Neuer, Peter Gulacsi and Virgil van Dijk completing more distance with their progressive passes.
His basic numbers were mighty impressive as well, with Silva completing a cumulative 7 blocks, tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes; all while having a passing rate of 91.4 percent. Now set to leave PSG as a free agent and join Chelsea, the Blues are getting a defender who might not be at the peak of his powers but still is a solid customer at the back.
Centre-Back: David Alaba (Bayern Munich)
The second of our centre-backs is a player who has yet again showcased his brilliant versatility. Alaba started the season as a left-back, but was almost always deployed at the heart of the Bayern Munich defence once Hansi Flick took charge of the club.
Initially an emergency option as the centre-back, the Austrian defender performed with remarkable consistency to make the spot his own even after the return of Niklas Sule. While many would have been skeptical about his long-term prospects, Alaba was a top professional all throughout, winning 75 percent of his duels and 85 percent of his tackles.
With Jerome Boateng approaching the twilight of his glittering career, Alaba might have found his calling for at least as long as he is a Bayern Munich player. A worthy selection in our Champions League Team of the Season.
Left-Back: Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Here is another pick that hardly anyone would have predicted in a Champions League Team of the Season come the end of 2019/20. However, such has been the growth projected by Davies since being made the permanent left-back by Hansi Flick, that he is an indispensable member of Bayern’s first-team squad.
The 19-year-old had the joint fourth-highest tally of assists in the Champions League this season, but he also impressed in his defensive duties just as much. His output at the back has been particularly surprising, albeit pleasantly so, with the Canadian teenager using his pace to deadly effect on both ends of the pitch.
A treble winner before turning even 20, Davies continues to be a revelation, having gone from being a promising young winger to a top notch full-back in the blink of an eye. He would believe there is more to come in the following seasons and judging by his trajectory so far, one would be foolish to bet against it.
Right-Winger: Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain)
In a team that has two of the biggest names in the game in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, it is hard to stand out, even if you are a former Champions League final man of the match. However, Di Maria has managed to stamp his authority in a memorable European campaign, even outshining Neymar and Mbappe in the process.
No player in the 2019/20 Champions League provided more assists than the veteran Argentine (6). Di Maria also played in a sum total of 21 key passes – only four others made more. Di Maria also played nearly 2 passes into the opposition’s penalty box. Finally, he also had the most goal-creating actions in the competition with 9.
Off the ball, Di Maria helped with PSG’s counter-pressing, and he was in the top 10 for most pressures in the tournament with 214. All in all, Di Maria had a well-rounded campaign wherein he ended up being just as pivotal in PSG’s run to the Champions League final as Neymar and Mbappe.
Central Midfielder: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)
This one is a no-brainer. In fact, so good was Kimmich this season that he could just as easily have been our pick for the right-back slot as well. However, the German international makes one of the central midfield spots his own in our Champions League Team of the Season.
In a league of his own as far as midfielders are concerned, Kimmich was incredibly consistent all through Bayern Munich’s Champions League campaign. Some of his numbers are simply staggering to say the least.
Kimmich ranked fourth on the assists charts for the season (4), with only Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Robert Lewandowski providing more assists. No one, though, played in more key passes than Kimmich (26), who also had the most shot-creating actions (42), made the second-most progressive passes (100) and third-most passes into the penalty area (22).
On the defensive front, Kimmich was pivotal in ensuring that the Bayern Munich high line was not exploited by the opposition. He also ranked in the top five for most blocks (21), in addition to making 4.8 successful pressures, 1.4 tackles and 1.1 interceptions, all per 90 minutes. As complete a midfielder as they come.
Central Midfielder: Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig)
For the second central midfield slot, we had plenty of options to consider. The likes of Marquinhos and Idrissa Gueye were highly impactful and crucial in PSG’s run to the final. Thiago Alcantara was a picture of consistency and was the standout player in Sunday’s Champions League final. But, it is Sabitzer who takes the cake for inspiring RB Leipzig to the semi-finals.
The Austrian international, who donned the armband for Leipzig for much of their Champions League campaign, was in the top 10 of the cumulative goals plus assists chart (7), all while playing from the middle of the park. He also outperformed his xG total by 2.8, indicating just how clinical he was.
Only five players played in more passes into the penalty area than the 26-year-old (18). Off the ball, his numbers were impressive as well, with Sabitzer making over 5 successful pressures and a total of nearly 4 tackles, interceptions, blocks and clearances per 90. Much like Kimmich, Sabitzer was an all round performer and the ideal foil for the 4-4-2 system.
Left-Winger: Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
Another straightforward pick. Gnabry’s returns in themselves are good enough to get him in the team, with the German international scoring the third-highest goals (9) at a rate of over 1 goal per 90 minutes. When you factor in the assists in addition to the goals (11 for Gnabry), only the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (21) ranked higher.
A deeper dive into his numbers show just how good he really was, with Gnabry outperforming his xG better than anyone (+5.3). His passes carried a lot of threat too and only three players played in more into the penalty area than his 20. And, it was not just on the ball that he made a lasting impact.
Gnabry also featured in the top 5 for successful tackles (23), boasting a stupendous tackle success rate of 79.3 percent, as the Bayern Munich attack looked to nip possible counter-attacks in the bud. It was another impressive campaign for Gnabry, who came of age in the Champions League.
Striker: Erling Haaland (Red Bull Salzburg/Borussia Dortmund)
The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Memphis Depay and Gabriel Jesus impressed for their respective sides by contributing to their deep runs in the tournament. However, the breakout star of the season, Erling Haaland pips everyone else to one of the two striker berths despite getting booted out in the Round of 16 with Borussia Dortmund for being as devastating as he was.
The 20-year-old made his Champions League debut with a hat-trick against Genk – that is one way to announce your arrival on the big stage. Haaland would go on to score a further 7 goals in as many games, boasting an unbelievable minutes per goal tally of 55 – only Robert Lewandowski came close to bettering this count.
Speaking of Lewandowski, only the Pole (15) managed to score more goals than Haaland – he played three games more than the Norwegian prodigy. If that is the sign of things to coming be over the coming decade or so, Champions League watchers are in for a treat.
Striker: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
Top scorer in:
— CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE 🏆 (@FCBayernEN) August 24, 2020
Finally, we come to the player who was the first pick in our Champions League Team of the Season. Robert Lewandowski finally broke his Champions League duck in the season gone by and did so by taking the tournament by storm with his exploits in the final third.
The Pole showed just why he is unequivocally the best striker in the world by finishing as the top scorer in the competition, with 15 strikes to his name. That is the joint third-highest tally for a single season, with only the wondrous Cristiano Ronaldo having better tallies. Lewandowski, though, did not stop at that.
The 32-year-old also provided the joint-most assists (6), meaning his goals+assists tally of 21 was at least 10 better than every other player who took part in the competition. Lewandowski also featured atop several other charts and was inarguably the best player in the Champions League this season.
The Ballon d’Or was surely his for the taking had the ceremony not been cancelled for the year. Nevertheless, this was an unprecedented Champions League campaign for Lewandowski, who is on top of the world right now and for whom people are starting to run out of superlatives to describe just how good he is right now.
Manager of the Season: Hansi Flick
Another relatively straightforward pick. Gian Piero Gasperini and Julian Nagelsmann were simply outstanding in overseeing astonishing campaigns with Atalanta and RB Leipzig, respectively. But, Hansi Flick takes the cake for managing a perfect record in the Champions League despite coming in at the middle of the season.
With Bayern Munich looking unsettled and in no state to win even one trophy, Flick had quite an uphill task in galvanizing an underperforming squad. And, he did so with elan, winning 33 of the 36 matches he was in-charge of, with Bayern scoring an astounding 116 goals in those games.
In the Champions League, Bayern won each of the 8 games that Flick oversaw, usually swatting their opponents away in dominating fashion. And, with the win in the final, the Bavarian giants clinched the treble for a second time in seven years. Quite simply the best manager in Europe this past season.
UEFA Champions League Team of the Season: Neuer; Pavard, Silva, Alaba, Davies; Di Maria, Kimmich, Sabitzer, Gnabry; Haaland, Lewandowski