Champions League: Uncompetitive Round of 16 Proves the Need for the New Format
The Champions League is undergoing a major overhaul next year. The changes should bring more competitive matches and a more engaging product.
This year is the final incarnation of the old Women's Champions League format. For the last decade, the Champions "League" has looked more like the old men’s European Cup, a pure knockout competition pitting the top 32 teams against one another. There were early group stages to fill the ranks of the 32, but once that number was settled it became a simple bracket.
Starting next year, the competition will much more closely resemble the modern men’s format—with a series of preliminary rounds setting up a true group stage among the final 16 teams. The top two finishers from each of the four groups will then face off in a knockout bracket.
There’s something romantic about a pure knockout competition, and it will be a shame to lose that element. The kludgier format won’t intrinsically fill anyone with excitement. But it’s still a good change, and you only have to look at the opening stages of this year’s competition to see why.
The Round of 16 was not very competitive
The current format is well-designed to ensure the best teams make the quarterfinals—seeding each round to ensure the top teams avoid each other. Combine that system with the wild imbalances between the best and the rest, and the result is a series of deeply uncompetitive fixtures that sometimes barely feel worth playing.
Here are the results of the most recent round: 9-0, 9-1, 8-0, 5-0 (with the second leg still to play), 4-0, 5-1, 3-1, 4-2. Five of these matchups were basically dead from the moment they began. In the sixth, Lyon was never in any real danger from Brønby, though they did labor enough to at least raise some questions. But there were really only two of eight ties that generated any meaningful drama. But even there, the favorites won and did so in relative comfort. Despite having a player sent off ten minutes into the first leg and conceding three penalties, Chelsea kept a pretty firm grip on their tie with Atletico Madrid. Only the matchup between St. Pölten and Rosengård saw the less-favored side ever take a lead, with the Austrian side jumping ahead 2-0. But Rosengård eventually managed to pull it back to level in the first leg, and then put things away with relative comfort in the return.
The result: The eight teams that everyone expected to advance did so, with only a few minor stumbling blocks in their way. The unfortunate reality is that a handful of teams in this competition are much better than everyone else, and the seeding system protects them from facing each other until the rest have been eliminated.
Coming next year: a group stage!
Starting next year, that is all going to change. First, the new system introduces more of Europe’s best teams by including third teams from the six top leagues. If that had been true this year, squads like Arsenal and Bordeaux would have been in the mix, ensuring at least some tension in this stage. And with more investment across some of the top leagues, the quality of these third teams is only likely to grow.
But it’s not just a matter of bringing in more of the best teams. The shift to a group stage is important as well. It gives those teams who want to fight their way up more chances to get the competition they need. In the previous model, teams like Atletico, LSK Kvinner, Juventus and Fortuna Hjørring were engaged in a multi-year battle to marginally improve their coefficient in the hopes of avoiding the heavy hitters long enough to advance a round or two. Often, they would get just two matches and then a long wait until next year. This format grants the teams who make the group stage six matches. Even if they get blown out in a couple, that experience will still be vital. And they should also be able to expect some decently competitive matches in the process as well.
UEFA is looking to capitalize on the Champions League. That's great news!
The move toward a Champions League on the men’s side in the 1990s was driven largely by the desire to make money, and it’s been tweaked repeatedly to preserve the dominance of the top teams. Many have expressed fatigue at seeing the same five or six big clubs constantly playing each other and a sense that the magic of the competition has been drained. This leads to a lot of understandable skepticism anytime UEFA offers a new model for any competition.
But in this case, the competition couldn’t really be any more weighted toward the favorites than it already was. And it’s actually really encouraging that UEFA and the clubs all seem to see value in scheduling more matches among the top teams. If they're looking to wring some more profit from the competition, that's exactly what we should all be rooting for!
Maybe we’ll get sick of seeing Chelsea and Lyon play each other at some point. But for now, all I really want from European club soccer is more. Give me more games, more matchups among big teams, more chances to see the elites facing off against each other.
Hopefully the domestic leagues will continue to improve. But for now, the best teams face very little real pressure against most of their domestic foes. A more robust Champions League structure will give them more competitive games and give us more excitement.