Football Features

Every Champions League quarter-finalists’ ‘primary playmaker’

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:14, 8 April 2019

This season’s Champions League has been a spectacular ride.

We’ve seen just about everything, including some incredible turnarounds in the round-of-16. The outcome is a tasty quarter-final program which has the potential to be explosive.

Naturally, the remaining eight sides boast their very own creators-in-chief, or as we’re terming them here: the ‘primary playmaker’.

In terms of our definition, the ‘primary playmaker’ for each team in the list that follows – which is ordered by the total number of chances – will have created the highest number of chances from open play within his side throughout the Champions League campaign, excluding qualifiers.

8. Alex Telles (FC Porto)

Total minutes played: 750

Goals: 1

Assists: 2

Chances created from open play: 5

An ever-present for Porto in Europe this season, not missing a single minute of their Champions League campaign, Telles is fast-becoming a left-back to keep an eye on.

So far he’s created two goals, each coming in the Dragons’ home and away wins over Galatasaray, but there could easily have been more.

Sérgio Conceição’s men will be up against it when they face Liverpool – especially considering they fell to a 5-0 aggregate defeat against the same opposition in the Round of 16 last season.

The fact Telles’ is Porto’s leading creative outlet just goes to show how much emphasis Conceição, a proponent of the 4-4-2 system, places on his full-backs being involved in the final third.

7. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)

Total minutes played: 553

Goals: 2

Assists: 2

Chances created from open play: 10

Christian Eriksen’s evolution into one of Europe’s premier playmakers has been a joy to watch.

The 27-year-old Dane, who has attracted Barça and Real Madrid’s attention in the past, continues to be Spurs’ creative fulcrum and he’s showing that as Mauricio Pochettino’s men look to reach the semi-finals at Manchester City’s expense.

Since taking charge at the north London club Pochettino has deployed a wide range of formations. There’s every chance he’ll opt for a 3-1-4-2 when they draw swords with City.

This means Eriksen will line alongside Dele Alli behind Harry Kane and Heung-min Son. Here the ex-Ajax man functions as a traditional number 10 role, roaming in the space between the midfield and forward lines, which essentially describes Spurs as a team that wants to be on the front foot.

“Christian is a very special person and you need to give him freedom, like on the pitch,” Pochettino recently said.

“You cannot put him in a box. You need to give freedom and trust him. Like my dog, in the park. I trust my dog. I say, ‘Go, I trust you’.”

6. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)

Total minutes played: 586

Goals: 0

Assists: 0

Chances created from open play: 12

No player assisted more goals than James Milner in last season’s Champions League proper (eight) and when it comes to creativity in a Liverpool shirt the multifunctional footballer has picked up right where he left off.

But although he’s averaging the same number of chances created per 90 as Trent Alexander-Arnold, it’s the Reds’ right-back who nudges ahead when it comes to chances created from open play, but the England international – who is fast becoming known for his crossing ability – has yet to create a goal in Europe’s premier club competition.

The fact Alexander-Arnold is Liverpool’s top creator suggests a shift in emphasis toward creating plays from out wide this season from Jurgen Klopp, who has also seen Andy Robertson break a Premier League club record through his assists total this season.

5. Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)

Total minutes played: 569

Goals: 4

Assists: 2

Chances created from open play: 12

A stunning hat-trick against Atlético Madrid in Turin, which saw Massimiliano Allegri’s side overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit, was a small reminder that Ronaldo is still a force to be reckoned with.

He’s made the Champions League his own in recent years and Juve must fancy their chances of going all the way. Having signed him, they would have expected the goals to be flowing, though Ronaldo has nevertheless been contributing in other ways. No one in black and white has been more creative (from open play) than him.

And that is surprising given the presence of deep-lying Miralem Pjanić and “trequartista” Paulo Dybala, both of whom have shown to be Europe’s more creative players. If anything it effectively illustrates Ronaldo’s role in Massimiliano Allegri’s team.

No matter where he’s stationed, cutting from the left flank or leading the line, the aim is to get the ball to him as quickly as possible. From then onwards he can play a teammate in or go for goal (and he doesn’t need a second invitation).

4. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

Total minutes played: 550

Goals: 2

Assists: 1

Chances created from open play: 13

Paul Pogba is a man transformed under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Since returning to coach Manchester United, the Norwegian tactician has deployed United’s No.6 on 19 occasions, and he’s repaid that faith by registering nine goals and creating a further seven for his teammates.

Pogba wasn’t on the pitch for the Red Devils’ incredible turnaround against Paris Saint-Germain but across seven Champions League outings, he remains their most creative outlet. If they are to dump Barcelona out then he’ll need to be at his irresistible best.

For much of Jose Mourinho’s tenure no one could quite work out how to get the best of him. Solskjaer seems to have discovered the magic touch. He’s deployed Pogba as part of a midfield trimurative (nominally alongside Nemanja Matic, the anchor, and Ander Herrera) behind a number 10 and two forwards.

This has allowed the former ‘baby-faced assassin’ to see his game plan come to fruition: essentially United sitting, absorbing pressure, and then playing on the break with Pogba shining in an attacking role.

“I’m enjoying playing my football now,” he recently told Sky Sports. “I like to be more attacking. I had to defend too much before and that is not my best attribute. This is my position. The manager tells me to get into the box and score goals. The best example is Frank Lampard.”

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3. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Total minutes played: 477

Goals: 8

Assists: 3

Chances created from open play: 19

Fabio Capello recently described Lionel Messi as one of three geniuses, alongside Pele and Diego Maradona, to play the beautiful game. And that still feels like an understatement.

He’s once again their leading light and showing no signs of waning. If anyone is tailor-made for Barça’s system – with its strong emphasis on possession-based football – it’s him. However, the Catalan giants are not exactly playing like they did under Pep Guardiola, still there’s one constant and that’s Messi.

Barça’s captain is essentially three players rolled into one: a creator, provider and scorer. No wonder club president Josep Maria Bartomeu is already preparing for life without him.

2. Dusan Tadic (Ajax)

Total minutes played: 720

Goals: 6

Assists: 3

Chances created from open play: 21

A contender for signing of the season, Dusan Tadic, who left Southampton for Amsterdam last summer, has been greatly responsible for Ajax ending a 16-year wait to reach the quarter-final phase.

His incredible performance away to Real Madrid, scoring once and creating a further two while playing in a false nine role, earned him a rare perfect 10 score in L’Équipe.

One criticism levelled towards Ajax sides of recent years has been their naivety. Erik ten Hag, not bathed in the club’s history, retains a level of pragmatism that has well-guided them. Tadic is pivotal, being the deep-lying forward he’s essentially their first line of defence, so leads the press.

In possession his teammates off the ball movement is a godsend especially when he’s able to drop back and start acting like a conductor. Also from a deeper position the Serb can demonstrate his dribbling prowess which Real can attest firsthand.

1. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

Total minutes played: 691

Goals: 3

Assists: 2

Chances created from open play: 23

It goes without saying that Raheem Sterling has improved tenfold under Pep Guardiola’s coaching. His talent has never been in question, though it’s fair to say he’s starting to fulfil what so many envisaged.

Not only is Sterling a regular scorer, but his creativity has become abundant. At a club with many sources of goals, he stands above the rest.

Positional play is central to Guardiola’s overarching footballing philosophy, which comes as no surprise as he learned at the feet of Johan Cruyff, it’s easy to categorise Sterling as a winger but in reality he’s effectively a wide forward one that loves to cut inside and take on the baton.