There's just one game to go in the 2022-23 Champions League so what better time could there be to pick our best 11 players from the year that was? Yes, you're right, straight after the game, but look, we all know that the minute the final whistle blows all you lot will want to read about is who your team are going to sign and who is going to win the real biggest prize in sport: the best transfer window. Anyway this can always be updated if the mood takes us, which it almost certainly won't.
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Let's start with the easiest position to pick. Other players have had impressive tournament campaigns -- Thibaut Courtois was customarily excellent in the Real Madrid goal and Club Brugge might never have reached the knockout stages but for Simon Mignolet -- but if he avoids any mishaps in Istanbul on Saturday, Andre Onana will have had a season for the ages on the European stage. Goalkeeper data can be somewhat fiddly, especially when the sample size is just 12 games, but if a player has prevented 7.5 more goals than the average shot-stopper would have, then even if your error bars are high, this has the look of a spectacular individual campaign.
The website fbref.com logs metrics such as goals prevented (how many goals a goalkeeper conceded as opposed to the post-shot expected goal (xG) value of the shots he faced) since the 2017-18 Champions League. In that time the previous high watermark for goals prevented was 5.1, also by Onana when he was an Ajax goalkeeper. By this particular metric, it is no exaggeration to say that Onana has been the single most valuable player in the Champions League this season. Anyone who watched Inter cling on against Porto would probably agree.
And if data is not your thing, just look at the image above. See how many times Onana has sprung to the furthest reaches of his goal, especially that bottom right hand corner, and saved his team. His has been a season for the ages.
It can, on occasion, get rather tricky to identify the outstanding individual defenders in any season. After all, the best defenses are the ones that ensure that they don't need to make tackles, saves and interceptions... the absence of any real event tends not to show up all that frequently on publicly available statistics. Having said that, it is very easy to spot the glaring absence of goals scored against Manchester City this season. In 12 Champions League matches so far they have conceded five goals. That is the best record in the competition. Not per 90 minutes or when you divide by xG and multiply to the factor of their wage bill. Pep Guardiola's side have played the most games in the competition. They have conceded the least goals.
There is no statistical fluke in there either. Below is a map of the shots they have faced in the knockout stages, where they have had to battle their way past the likes of Christopher Nkunku, Jamal Musiala, Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema. Some of the Champions League's most high-powered attacks crashed against the City shield wall. The man at the heart of it has to be a lock for our team of the tournament. Ruben Dias has not missed a minute in the knockout stages and on the occasions when the rearguard has been breached, he has slid into action to block any dangerous shots.
Of course, a more reliable tactic than Dias' last man heroics for keeping the ball out of the net is to possess it yourself. It's there that John Stones enters the fray, a center back for all his career repurposed this season as a combo playmaker, right back and old fashioned center half. He is as at ease progressing the ball upfield with his passing or carrying. He rarely gives possession away and almost never gives away a sloppy foul. As the right back in this XI, he'd provide balance and versatility, though perhaps not with the same license to step forward that Guardiola offers him.
Alongside Dias, there are plenty of contenders. Young center backs Malick Thiaw and Wesley Fofana both put up some extremely impressive statistics and look primed to excel on this stage for years to come, though in the case of the latter he will need Chelsea to get back there. They're just shaded out by Kim Min-Jae, whose story this season dovetails so elegantly with that of Napoli. No one expected great things from a 26 year old with one year of experience in European football when he arrived in Campania but the South Korean international has emerged from nowhere as the best center back in Serie A. No one got the better of him in a challenge in Champions League play and Kim ranked fourth for aerial duels won and interceptions. How different might Saturday's final look if he had not been suspended for the second leg against Milan?
Having such a solid trio so far offers a little bit more license for creativity at left back. Bernardo Silva, I'm looking at you. Aaah, I watched the Arsenal game back. Perhaps not. Instead there's another come from nowhere option in Italy I have my eyes on. No one outside the San Siro would have particularly identified Federico Dimarco as a game changer on the Champions League this season. Inter's left wing back leads the entire tournament in expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes, averaging 0.46, nearly all of which has come from open play. He has the full repertoire of crosses into the box, from flashing in low balls that only need a touch from Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez to picking out Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the edge of the box to stroke the ball home.
This is so often where teams of the tournament, best XIs and Garth Crooks' teams of the week fall apart in an attempt to shoehorn in as many attacking midfielders, repurposed inside forwards and all-action box to box dynamos as possible. These are dangerous waters we're heading into now folks. Wish us well.
No player in the tournament has more assists this season than Kevin De Bruyne, whose laser crosses are going to be an absolute dream for the player you can probably guess is leading the line in this XI. He leads the tournament in penalty area entries, averaging 13.4 per 90 minutes, ranks second for big chances created at nearly one per 90 and is in the top five for xA. Those numbers are all the more impressive given that he missed two matches in the group stages, played 20 minutes in another and was ill for the first leg of the round of 16 tie against RB Leipzig. When the lights have been brightest, De Bruyne has delivered.
Napoli's stirring run in Europe might feel like it ended a long time ago, but it all counts, not least because Luciano Spalletti's side blitzed their way to the top of a group featuring serious opponents in Liverpool, Ajax and a Rangers team who were nowhere near as bad as their record might suggest. Solely on the basis of his performance against the Reds in that thrilling opening week triumph, Piotr Zielinski would have a case to be in this team. He followed it with more brilliance: nearly six shot creating actions per 90, four goals, two assists and an awful lot of carries into the most dangerous areas of the pitch.
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And now I fear that I have not heeded my own warning from the start of this section. With De Bruyne and Zielinski this team has creativity coming out of its ears and there are so many more progressive midfielders that I want. Federico Valverde ranks exceptionally highly in any creative metric you care to name, Bernardo Silva lit up the biggest games and at his best Sandro Tonali looked to be a top playmaker. Has shoehorning all your creative midfielders into one team and trusting them to work out who sits and who goes worked for other people? No, it never does, I mean these people delude themselves into thinking it, but... it might work this time.
No. We're having someone who can do some defending. Manuel Ugarte is tempting with a successful tackle every 27 minutes. Florentino Luis looked pretty solid with his performances in the Benfica engine room. Joshua Kimmich might just be the one to give this team a semblance of balance, at least until he goes all Bayern Munich this season and randomly decides to vacate midfield. There's plenty of blocks, interceptions and ball recoveries but he can still deliver 0.24 xA per 90. That'll do very nicely indeed.
Is Erling Haaland's hair so big because it's full of the secrets to mastering football? Do you have a more convincing explanation for how a player that has spent most of his Champions League career playing for teams who are, at best, not serious contenders finds himself with 35 goals from 29 appearances in the competition? Less than four years after his debut he already sits in the top 25 scorers in European Cup history, by full time in Istanbul on Saturday he might even have overtaken Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest strikers in the sport's history. Kylian Mbappe, who only just fell short of this season's XI, has made the Champions League his playground since 2016. The Frenchman only has five more goals than Haaland.
As he so often does, Haaland has not so much blown the doors off xG models as left the entire vehicle a smouldering wreck. It is not so much that the Norwegian has been smashing in low probability shots from range but that he almost never misses the high value opportunities. That is perhaps his most abnormal quality. It is why one missed penalty against Bayern Munich prompted bafflement across the world. He doesn't do that. Since 2019-20 he has converted over 60 percent of his 50 big chances. By way of comparison, Karim Benzema has finished 23 of 43, Lionel Messi is at exactly 50 percent, a figure that both Mbappe and Mohamed Salah fall someway behind. Just look at how many of those shots around the penalty spot end up being goals.
Haaland is one lock in the front three. The other is, of course, Vinicius Junior. No one in this season's Champions League got the ball into dangerous positions more frequently than the Brazilian, who over the last two years has proven he can not just get Real Madrid into the penalty area and the final third but deliver the killer blow too. As Karim Benzema eased off after his unimaginable brilliance in 2021-22, the 22-year-old pushed on. No one received more progressive passes, no one made more progressive carries, no one brought the ball into the penalty area more frequently. Then there were the goals, that thunderbolt against Manchester City and the first in the comeback against Liverpool that, whisper it, was vastly superior.
Now comes the fiddly part. You could make a case for at least five players to get the third slot. Salah might not have played a Champions League game since March, but he is still the competition's second highest scorer and was sensational as Liverpool overcame a slow start to escape Group A. PSG's European campaign was, to put it politely, diabolical, but Mbappe still tore through their group stage opponents. The continent fell head over heels for Kvicha Kvaratskhelia before his Napoli side were sent crashing out by Rafael Leao, the player with the highest xA in the competition. Much like Kim, the tournament could have been so different if he had been available for the biggest games.
Ultimately, however, the choice is obvious. It has to be the £100 million man from Solihull, Jack Grealish. The gulf between Manchester City's No.10 and the field in key passes, for instance, is vast. He has 35, no one else has more than 23. He also leads the tournament in shot creating actions and fouls drawn, sitting right behind Vinicius for progressive carries and carries into the penalty area. The end product might not have been there but the problem that the footballing world had last year was assuming that it was absolutely necessary for Grealish to log the goals and assists he had in an Aston Villa shirt. All those passes, carries and fouls drawn mean defenses gravitate towards him, creating space for others to exploit. Do City lack in output when Grealish plays? Not in the slightest. So he must be doing plenty right.