Football News

From top-tackler Enzo to Real Madrid’s answer to Steven Gerrard, Champions League midfielders ranked

By Harry Edwards

Published: 10:16, 21 February 2023

It may not be the most glamorous of positions but games, and Champions League titles, are often won in the midfield.

Even if a team has the best wingers in the world, they need top quality central midfielders in order to control their games. Just look at how having Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets helped Lionel Messi dominate for years Barcelona. Sure, he’s super human alone, but he needed the midfield to help Barcelona remain on top.

And teams are starting to realise it. Whether the fee was too high or not, Chelsea meant business when they spent £106.8m on Enzo Fernandez in the January transfer window, with central midfield one of the positions they most needed reinforcements in. And then there’s the price that Jude Bellingham will fetch whenever he moves on from Borussia Dortmund.

Obviously, “midfield” covers a wide spectrum and different players will have different roles in their teams. It’s not right to directly compare someone like Thomas Muller to Joshua Kimmich, for example, because they boost Bayern Munich in separate areas so the stats would not line up.

However, you can look at how important each midfielder is to their respective team as well as their all-round game. So with that in mind, who is the best midfielder left in the Champions League this season?

For this, we’re just focussing on central midfielders and defensive midfielders – not attacking midfielders. And we’re looking at their performances in the Champions League this season, not their overall or historical quality.

10. Ismael Bennacer (AC Milan)

Ismael Bennacer is a name that often goes under the radar when it comes to discussing the top central midfielders in Europe, but he’s making himself pretty hard to ignore in the Champions League this season. As part of an AC Milan team which won three of their six group stage games, Bennacer made 22 tackles in total – with only two central midfielders managing more. The Algerian also attempted 74 passes in the final third and won 36 duels, a key man for starting the moves at Milan.

9. Florentino (Benfica)

All the talk surrounding Benfica’s midfield was about another man, but Florentino’s performances cannot go without recognition. Starting every game as one of Benfica’s holding midfielders, Florentino has made 24 interceptions in the Champions League this season, 10 more than any other central midfielder in the competition. The Portuguese star has also made 22 tackles and 46 ball recoveries, proving just why he is nicknamed the Octopus.

“He is always in the right space to regain the ball and he has improved so much in terms of duels, using his body, protecting the ball in contact and so on,” former Benfica youth manager Joao Tralhao told Goal recently.

“He has the talent and quality to play in elite teams. Remember when Real Madrid had the Galacticos? They needed someone to balance the team, and [Claude] Makelele was so important.

“More recently, Casemiro did that job, allowing [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Luka] Modric and [Karim] Benzema to attack. Florentino has those capabilities. He’s having an amazing season under Roger Schmidt.

“He can play anywhere, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, anywhere. He would have no problem adapting.”

Download the new Squawka Live app

  1. Download the Squawka Live app on the App Store or Google Play (here's the link). Currently, the app is available in the UK only.
  2. Follow your favourite sports, teams and leagues to receive notifications.
  3. Compare odds and set alerts for specific match scenarios.
  4. Use Squawka Live as your second screen with real-time updates from free-kicks to blocked shots and offsides.

8. Thiago (Liverpool)

There is a clear difference in Liverpool’s performances when Thiago is playing and isn’t; the Spaniard transforms the Reds into a top quality side, as opposed to one that often struggles to dominate in midfield. Playing five games in the group stage, Thiago only misplaced 19 of his 228 attempted passes with 93 attempted in the final third. He also made 15 tackles, outranked both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson among his teammates.

7. Enzo Fernandez (Chelsea)

Speaking of Enzo Fernandez. He may be a Chelsea man now, but it’s his performances with Benfica that lifted the Argentine midfielder into the eyes of the wider public, particularly in the Champions League. For both Benfica and Chelsea, Fernandez has made 43 ball recoveries in the Champions League so far this season, completed 90.5% of his passes, won 31 duels and made 21 tackles. He’ll only get better.

6. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)

Of course there was going to be a Real Madrid name here. Toni Kroos is still one of the best midfielders in the world and he’s been showing it in the Champions League this season. The German has attempted 158 final third passes in the Champions League so far, more than any other central midfielder, created 12 chances, and also has a pass accuracy of 94.88% with only three players faring better (minimum 126 minutes played). But he’s not just a pass merchant, Kroos has also made 13 tackles and 28 recoveries.

5. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)

Joshua Kimmich has played all but one of Bayern Munich’s seven Champions League games so far this season and it’s not hard to understand why. The German, who let’s not forget was once a right-back, has been phenomenal once again in midfield. In the Champions League this season, Kimmich has made 45 ball recoveries, 14 interceptions (second only to Florentino) and 14 tackles. He’s also been key in starting the attacks for Bayern, with 13 chances created, 136 final third passes attempted and an overall accuracy of 90.95%.

4. Rodri (Man City)

Speaking of integral midfielders, there may not be one more important to a single club’s playing style than Rodri and Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s Sergio Busquets at the Etihad so to speak, Rodri keeps things quietly ticking in the midfield which allows their other stars to thrive. He doesn’t get the wider plaudits as his teammates, and only those who watch Man City week in, week out, will truly understand his importance. With Rodri, it’s all about the passes with including 119 attempted in the final third and an accuracy of 93.97%, as well as 38 ball recoveries.

3. Marco Verratti (PSG)

Marco Verratti is a player who has been at the top of his game for quite a while now, but he never seems to be in the conversation for the best midfielders. Wrongly, too. The Italian has been fantastic for PSG in the Champions League this season, in pretty much every aspect of the game except goalscoring and assisting – because that’s not what he does. With 22 tackles in the Champions League this season, Verratti is among the best at dispossessing opponents, but he combines it with 50 duels won — only two players have won more in the Champions League this season — and 44 ball recoveries. Then, of course, there’s the pass accuracy of 93.03% and 130 final third passes.

2. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund)

Now to a midfielder that could break records for most expensive signings, a man (just about) who has become so important for both club and country. We say just about for being a man because Jude Bellingham is still only 19, and eligible youth awards such as Golden Boy. Although he is definitely a central midfielder, Bellingham spends more of his time closer to the opposition area in a box-to-box role that we don’t see too often right now. Of course, Bellingham shines most in his attacking contributions with four goals and one assist in the Champions League so far as well as 25 touches in the opposition box, more than any other midfielder. But the Englishman has also made 11 tackles and 12 interceptions.

1. Federico Valverde (Real Madrid)

“There are newspaper archives, back in 2017, when Fede made his debut in the national team, I already said that he reminded me of Steven Gerrard, who was a teammate of mine at Liverpool,” Luis Suarez told Marca of Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde last year..

“He has similar characteristics: a box to box, with a good shot, change of pace, a lot of runs [into the box].

“I don’t want to compare, but the characteristics are similar. I saw Fede coming and he has made great progress, surrounded by great stars. It did him a lot of good.”

Federico Valverde has been fantastic in the Champions League this year, an integral part and shining light of a Real Madrid midfield which also often includes Toni Kroos and Luka Modric (after two appearances at right wing). The Uruguayan has created 15 chances and made 125 passes in the final third, as well as 17 touches in the opposition box. He’s also scored two goals and recorded two assists.