As we reach Matchday Four of this season's UEFA Champions League group stages, Michael Cox looks at the stats to see which players are creating the most chances for their team-mates - with one or two surprising inclusions...
We’re halfway through the Champions League group stages, and the goalscoring table has a familiar look – Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi have managed an astonishing 17 goals between them already.
But who are the most creative players in Europe’s premier competition? Here, ranked by number of chances created this season, are the top five.
5. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal
(9 chances created, 1 assist)
We’re running out of superlatives to describe Ozil’s performances since his signing for Arsenal, and while his assist statistics aren’t as impressive in European competition as they are in the Premier League, he has been Arsenal’s most creative player in each of their three Champions League fixtures so far.
Against Marseille, it was particularly obvious that Ozil was being very careful with his distribution in deeper positions, before attempting more ambitious passes in the final third – where he created two chances from the left.
He managed a great assist for Olivier Giroud on Matchday Two against Napoli, before creating four chances against Dortmund a fortnight ago – all square balls from the right flank.
It’s also worth considering that Ozil has faced particularly tough opposition due to Arsenal’s extremely difficult group this season – had he been playing against some of the competition's cannon fodder, he may well have be ranked even higher.
4. Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich
(9 chances created, 3 assists)
Robben is viewed as a selfish wide attacker who has one major approach – to receive the ball on the flank, cut inside onto his stronger foot, and smash the ball powerfully towards goal.
But the Dutchman is also a creative outlet, and has arguably already improved that side of his game under Guardiola. Although Robben was relatively quiet against both CSKA Moscow and Manchester City, his magnificent performance against Viktoria Plzen demonstrated that he can play the role of selfless creator when needed.
Robben can be simultaneously reliable and penetrative with his passing. Against Plzen, he achieved a 92% pass completion rate, and created seven chances – a high for this season in the competition.
While Robben’s shooting wasn’t up to scratch, Plzen were completely unable to cope with the Dutchman – he was fouled six times.
3. Angel Di Maria, Real Madrid
(9 chances created, 4 assists)
While broadly considered a winger, Di Maria is actually more comfortable in deeper, more central zones than you might expect, having made his name in a diamond formation at Benfica, and regularly played a similar role for Argentina at World Cup 2010.
Di Maria also performs a solid defensive role, compensating for Cristiano Ronaldo’s advanced positioning on the opposite flank, evidenced by his numerous ball recoveries. But the Argentine remains a constant creative outlet; as well as making the third-most key passes in the Champions League this season, he’s the only player to have recorded four assists.
In the 6-1 win over Galatasaray, he hit two excellent through-balls in behind the defence for Ronaldo.
His display in the 4-0 thrashing of Copenhagen showed his crossing ability, before he provided another assist for Ronaldo with a superb penetrative through-ball against Juventus on Matchday Three.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
(10 chances created, 1 assist)
The second most creative player in this season’s Champions League comes as something of a surprise. Although widely recognised as one of the most devastating attackers in the competition, Ronaldo is frequently criticised for being too selfish: relentlessly shooting rather than looking to feed opponents.
The first part of the cliché holds true – Ronaldo shoots more frequently than any other player in the competition. On Matchday One against Galatasaray, he attempted no fewer than nine shots, including many from long range; notably, his three goals were actually struck from much shorter distances.
But Ronaldo also managed to create four chances for teammates – and it’s interesting that the directions of the passes are always lateral, with Ronaldo offloading the ball to an unmarked teammate when opponents have rushed towards him to prevent a shot.
He’s done it against good opposition, too – in the 2-1 win over Juventus he grabbed both goals, but once again was a creative force. Despite starting on the left, where he attempted most of his dribbles, Ronaldo's best creative work was from the opposite flank.
1. Frank Ribery, Bayern Munich
(13 chances created, 0 assists)
Many are tipping Ribery to break Messi and Ronaldo’s stranglehold on the Ballon D’Or in January, and following a wonderful 2012/13 campaign with Bayern Munich, in which he was Jupp Heynckes’ star player, the Frenchman has continued his good form under Pep Guardiola.
Ribery is currently the most creative player in this season’s Champions League, having manufactured 13 opportunities for teammates. Starting from a wide-left position, Ribery can be frustrating with his constant attempts to dribble past opponents, demonstrated by how frequently he was dispossessed in the victory over CSKA Moscow. Nevertheless, he created four chances in that game.
In possession, however, Ribery is extremely reliable. Impatient attacking midfielders who constantly attempt to play the killer pass often concede possession too cheaply – but Ribery has understood the importance of ball retention under the former Barcelona coach, and recorded a 91% pass completion rate against Viktoria Plzen, a game where he also managed to create seven chances, including six from open play.
Incidentally, this is an interesting example of when a creative player’s skill is illustrated by the ‘key pass’ stat rather than by looking purely at assists – none of Ribery’s 13 chances created have actually resulted in a goal.