Roll on the new UEFA Champions League format — otherwise known as the “Swiss Model” — for next season. Yeah, I mean it, and here’s why.
In 2023-24, we have a format with eight groups of four where everyone plays everyone home and away, and the top two advance to the knockout round. Easy enough.
The Swiss Model features 36 teams, split into four pots of nine based on seedings — think of them as champions material, outsider material, here-for-the-ride material and cannon fodder material. Each team plays two games from each of the four pots, either home or away. You still get three points for a win and one for a draw, but everyone gets ranked in one big league table, one to thirty-six, based on points. The top eight get a bye into the Round of 16, nine through twenty-four face off in a home-and-away playoff round for a place in the knockouts against the top eight and the bottom twelve go home.
And like I said, I’m all in.
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I know all the counterarguments. It’s all about more games, which equals more money. Fine. It creates more fixtures in an already crowded calendar. Yup. It awards more spots to big clubs from big leagues. Doesn’t bug me, but whatever. It’s a stupid name, derived from chess tournaments. Not gonna argue with that, though they tell me the Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer clashes were appointment television. (I wouldn’t know because they took place before I was born.)
I’m not gonna lie, however. I’m on board with it, and Matchday 4 of the Champions League kind of proves my point.
With two Matchdays left, six clubs (Manchester City, Leipzig, Real Sociedad, Inter, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich) have already qualified for the 16-team knockout round. Another eight can qualify in Matchday 5; it probably won’t happen that all of them make it, but you’d imagine at least four will clinch. With the exception of a couple of close-run groups, that would make MatchDay 6 something of a snooze … unless you’re excited by that coveted third place spot, which sends teams to the Europa League — and that’s sort of the equivalent of watching an ad on your phone so you can keep playing Candy Crush after you’ve lost all your lives.
Making matters worse is the fact that teams already through to the last-16 have no real incentives left in the group stage and, you’d imagine, will succumb to playing their B-teams. (Either that or they’ll play their starters with the handbrake on, which is arguably even worse.) I don’t blame them for it — I’d do the same if I were coaching — and they earned the right to rest up for the league, but as a fan I’m under no illusions. Playing Manchester City in MatchDay 6, when you’re lined up against Stefan Ortega, Oskar Bobb and Micah Hamilton, is not quite the same thing as facing them in MatchDay 1 when the likes of Erling Haaland, Bernardo Silva and Rodri are on the pitch. It can lead to screwy results that affect the other teams in the group — and not in a good way, either.
Sure, I know what the managers say. They want to finish first in the group. They don’t want to lose momentum. Their youngsters are really good. Whatever: I get that it helps to finish first and be seeded, because you’re likely to face a worse team in the Round of 16. But it’s no guarantee: half of last year’s semifinalists didn’t win their group. And besides, managers (and by extension, their players) will always prioritize the here and now of a weekend league fixture, as opposed to what might happen if they finish first vs. second when the knockouts begin weeks later, in February. Plus, at some point, you have to face the big clubs anyway.
Going out in the Round of 16 or the quarterfinals makes little difference to most fans (or even players). The only guys who really care are the accountants, who get an extra few million in prize money.
Now, I don’t write this to diss the Champions League. I love everything from the music to the football, to discovering teams and players I don’t get to watch often. (Yes, that means you, FC Salzburg midfielder Oscar Gloukh). It’s football’s premier competition — a showcase for the sport‘s highest standard — but I also like meaningful games with something important at stake even more.
Gab and Juls explain: The new Champions League format
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens explain the changes to the Champions League format from the 2024/2025 season.
Will the Swiss Model deliver this? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure nobody will have qualified for the knockout round after just four games. And finishing in the top eight — the equivalent of winning your group now — will be more meaningful because you get a bye to the Round of 16.
Will there be a big clump of teams between ninth and 24th who will reasonably know they’re playoff bound come what may? Possibly, but you hope that between the jeopardy of missing out and slipping below 24th place and the incentive of breaking into the top eight and getting the bye, motivation will stay strong right through, if not Matchday 8, at least Matchday 7. And the fact that once in the knockout, you will be seeded all the way to the final should offer an extra motivational boost.
(If it were up to me, I’d make the rewards for finishing higher even greater and introduce a bit of WWE-style pizzaz. Finish first, and you get to pick your opponent in the next round. Finish second, you get the next pick, and so on. I’ve pitched it to UEFA: they’re not quite ready for that … yet.)
The Swiss model may be driven by money and I guarantee you that, come next season, there will be plenty pining for the Champions League of yesteryear (just as there were — and still are — many who yearn for the days of the old European Cup). Me? Looking at the MatchDay 5 and 6 prospects (with some notable exceptions) I’m ready for a change.