The UEFA Technical Observers' review of the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League season has discovered that good crossing and ball-playing defenders are increasingly key elements to success.
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The UEFA Technical Observers attending every 2021/22 UEFA Europa League knockout game have shared their thoughts on rising trends in the competition in the annual Technical Report.
UEFA.com picks out some of the key conclusions.
Crosses make a comeback
One of the main takeaways from the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League season was how well width was being exploited, with attacking wing play one of the most productive avenues to goal: 138 goals (37.7%) came from crosses (98 from open play).
The final was a prime example, with a collection of the competition's best crossers all on the same pitch. Frankfurt's Filip Kostić and Rangers full-backs Borna Barišić and James Tavernier turned the art of crossing into one of the key features of the entire 2021/22 campaign, and their success suggests it is a development which will stick. "The game is going more and more to fast transitions and we will see more of these, getting the ball into the box quick and low," mused Technical Observer Mixu Paatelainen. "These crosses will lead to a lot of goals."
Defenders show their creative side
Good footwork continues to grow in importance for modern-day goalkeepers, but a knock-on effect was observed during the 2021/22 Europa League campaign. It is not only goalkeepers who need to increase confidence with their feet – defenders do too.
The three players who made the most passes across the competition were all Rangers defenders: Conor Goldson, James Tavernier and Calvin Bassey. All told, nine defenders were in the top ten for passes attempted per 90 minutes. By comparison, there were three midfielders in the top ten in 2020/21 and five in 2019/20. So what might this be telling us?
"Do we need 11 midfielders on the field, some with more scoring and some with more defending capacity?" asked one Technical Observer.
Life after the away goals rule
For the first time since 1965, the away goals rule no longer applied in UEFA competitions from 2021/22. Its abolition led to a notable change in the approaches taken by some teams.
Where scoring a goal in an away first leg was previously considered essential, a greater weight was instead being placed on making the most of home advantage. The absence of extra weighting to goals scored away from home did not, ultimately, lead to teams trying less to score in their away games. In fact, it triggered the opposite.
"Without doubt, the most important thing now is to win games by the biggest possible margin, and this has led to a major shift in the teams' mentality – to attack and win games," said one observer. "Winning is all that matters – not drawing and not conceding goals at home, the aim is just to win big; it benefits the spectacle."