The UEFA Europa League provided plenty of intriguing talking points throughout the 2022/23 season.
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It was another fascinating season of UEFA Europa League football in the 2022/23 campaign, with Sevilla making history by winning an unprecedented seventh title after defeating Roma on penalties in the final in Budapest.
UEFA's technical observers have analysed some of the major talking points from the tournament, with short passing in fashion, wide areas exploited and veteran Jesús Navas impressing.
1) Goals galore
Only five games across the season ended goalless and just two in the group stage: Sturm Graz against Lazio on Matchday 3 and Qarabağ vs Olympiacos a week later. The remaining three scoreless fixtures all came in the knockout phase: Ajax against Union Berlin in their knockout round play-off opener and Roma's draws at Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen in the second leg of their victorious round of 16 and semi-final ties respectively.
2) Short passing favoured
Playing short from the goalkeeper and attempting to progress into the midfield third was the main build-up strategy for the majority of teams reaching the quarter-finals.
Of the sides who regularly adopted a shorter approach to build-up play, Feyenoord, Union Saint-Gilloise, Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen all scored highly on pass progression from defence to midfield.
UEFA's team of technical observers highlighted Union SG for their calm build-up play and willingness to progress the ball from their goalkeeper or defensive line into midfield. The Belgian side completed 378 passes from 542 attempted, a success rate of 69.7%. This considered approach helped Union SG progress to the last eight before defeat by Leverkusen.
Four of the eight quarter-finalists regularly adopted a back-three structure while building their attacks. Roma, Union SG, Leverkusen and Sporting CP demonstrated this approach for large parts of their games. Interestingly, three of the other four quarter-finalists – Feyenoord, Manchester United and Juventus – also turned their back-four shape into a back three at different times during moments of build-up.
During Manchester United's quarter-final defeat at Sevilla, Diogo Dalot routinely moved from left-back to adopt a central 'pivot' position. On the opposite side, right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka dropped from a high starting point on the right of United's midfield to make up the three-at-the-back structure.
Similarly, Juventus often altered the role of right-back Juan Cuadrado, giving them different ways of building their attack against Sporting CP in the quarter-finals. "Sometimes when in possession and building from the back, Juventus seemed to change to a back three with Cuadrado moving very high to create an overload in midfield. But the main feature was a back four," noted UEFA technical observer Hans Leitert.
3) Wide areas preferred
With compact central defences proving difficult to break down, many teams sought operating space in wide areas. Sevilla, Union SG, Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen all utilised this approach to progress into the final third. From there, a variety of attacking methods were used to create overload situations leading to crossing, passing or shooting opportunities.
During their quarter-final tie against Sporting CP, Juventus created overloads by moving both wide players – Federico Chiesa and Ángel Di María – to the same wing. It was an approach that Sevilla also used in their semi-final against Juventus, with left-winger Bryan Gil on occasion moving to the right-hand side to work in tandem with Lucas Ocampos.
4) Roma's defensive excellence
A key aspect of Roma's solidity was their ability to defend the penalty area effectively. Of the teams partaking in the quarter-finals and beyond, the Italian side – along with Sporting CP and Juventus – recorded an above-average percentage of first contacts when defending crosses.
Roma's ability to defend their own penalty area was also evident in the final against Sevilla. The Giallorossi were superior to their opponents when defending with numbers of three or more in the box. Across all aspects of defending the box, Roma registered a greater effectiveness than Sevilla (73% to 67%).
5) Rui Patricio is Roma's wall
Roma's Rui Patrício finished the Europa League with six clean sheets, more than any other goalkeeper. The Portuguese international's influence was key to José Mourinho's defensive strategy, as highlighted by UEFA's team of technical observers.
"Rui Patrício was one of the best players in the game," said Mixu Paatelainen following Roma's 0-0 draw at Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals. "It was a very assured performance from the goalkeeper; he made a number of important saves and was effective at collecting crosses."
That clean sheet crowned an excellent defensive performance overall which took Roma into the Budapest decider. "Roma reached the final because of an excellent defensive performance and Rui Patrício contributed to that," Paatelainen added. "They wanted to defend solidly and not give their opponents a chance to counterattack them and cause problems. The defensive performance was disciplined and every player knew their role. There was a real togetherness in defending."
6) Player of the Season: Jesús Navas
Now 37, Jesús Navas played 12 European games in 2022/23, three in the Champions League and nine in the Europa League, where he was a key performer in another Sevilla run towards the final. The club captain clinched his fourth UEFA Cup/Europa League title in Budapest thanks to the penalty shoot-out triumph against Roma, advancing into positions that troubled Mourinho's side and producing the cross which Gianluca Mancini diverted past his own goalkeeper to make the score 1-1.
"Navas got higher in the second half and, as the game went on, Sevilla's pressure and increased possession meant the distances increased between the Roma players," said one UEFA technical observer. "Ivan Rakitić could exploit those spaces with a variety of balls forward into the final third. Sevilla were looking, especially in the second half, for more variety to break Roma down, and Rakitić getting wide helped this."
Sevilla had not claimed a major trophy since 1948 when Navas initially signed, but he has been a key figure during the club's most successful period, picking up eight pieces of silverware: four UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues and a UEFA Super Cup in addition to two Copa del Rey triumphs and one Spanish Super Cup.