There are many ways to play football. There isn’t any one way that guarantees success or is universally favoured. However, two players will face off in the UEFA Champions League Final in Paris who play football in a way that is as aesthetically pleasing as any: Luka Modrić and Thiago Alcântara.
Modrić and Thiago turn football into art; with each pass comparable to a stroke of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintbrush. There will be a number of key battles at the Stade de France on 28th May, but these two midfield maestros locking horns in the centre of the park may have the biggest influence on who lifts the famous trophy. It feels like whoever wins the midfield battle wins the game and, in Modrić and Thiago, there will be two composers who will wrestle to provide control of the game for their respective orchestras.
Modrić defying his years
Anyone who doubted Modrić’s ability to run games at the ripe old age of 36 would have been eating their words this season. The Croatian record appearance holder has been everywhere for Madrid this season and his performances in the Champions League have confirmed his status as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. The emergence of Eduardo Camavingo and Federico Valverde have seemed only to drive Modrić on and ensure that he is irreplaceable in Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield.
Come the summer, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur man would have been at Madrid for a decade, and he is ageing like the finest of wines. Any midfielder looking to get to the top of the game should be looking to absorb as much from watching Modrić as they possibly can. His work-rate is phenomenal and is the perfect compliment for his ability on the ball, vision, the way he is happy to receive the ball in the most pressured of situations, but also his leadership. It is never a chore to watch Modrić roaming around a football pitch and his outside of the boot cross to Rodrygo against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final second leg was as masterful as it was crucial.
Toni Kroos is still very good in possession but he is not able to assert his dominance on games as his long-term midfield partner, Modrić, does with such regularity. Madrid are in a strange period of transition, with young players complimented by experienced campaigners. They are something of a misfit of a team currently. A number of the players that have delivered success over the past decade, including four Champions League titles, have left, but a handful remain. It is something of a surprise that Madrid have overcome so many obstacles to reach this final, but the club have such an affinity with the competition that drives them to pull off the most extraordinary of results. Modrić and co. do not know when they are beaten and this mentality is worth its weight in gold in football.
Thiago dispels Liverpool misfit claims
Talk of Thiago not being able to fit into Liverpool’s style was purely hyperbole. He joined prior to last season, a campaign in which Liverpool struggled mainly due to injuries and scraped a top four spot in their first ever Premier League title defence. Thiago found things difficult too, but there are a number of valid factors for this. Firstly, he was joining a new club in a new country whilst in the midst of a global pandemic. The impact of this should not be understated, and Thiago wasn’t alone in taking time to find his feet following a move in these circumstances. The injury turmoil at the club also greatly unsettled the side, which did not help in allowing Thiago to adapt to his new surroundings. The main issue, though, was Thiago struggled to ever really find fitness in his debut Liverpool campaign. Injury struggles were one thing, but in late September the midfielder tested positive for Covid. The impact this had on Thiago was unclear at the time, but it certainly slowed his acclimatisation to his new club.
This season has been a stark contrast, however. Thiago looks fit and back to his insatiable best. He has been one of Liverpool’s most effective players this season and it is now difficult to argue against Thiago occupying the left ‘number 8’ centre midfield position in Liverpool’s best 11. He has wowed supporters with his close control and passing range, but particularly his pass variation and appreciation of how his teammates want to receive the ball. He always plays a pass to the strong foot of his teammates and knows exactly the kind of pass they want to receive. It goes without saying that his execution of such passes is almost always perfect. In performing at such levels he has quelled any talk of him not being compatible with Klopp’s team and style.
Prior to playing for Liverpool, Thiago boasted a CV that contained both Bayern Munich and Barcelona. His two former sides are very possession-dominant sides who control matches and manage the game by their retention of the ball. Liverpool under Klopp have been different in style from this in years gone by, with their high-intensity, often direct, counter-attacking football the favoured and most successful approach. Klopp has had to adapt this style somewhat, as the success of his side has meant teams are less inclined to attack them in fear of the consequences. This has meant that Liverpool have transitioned into a more possession-based side. This suits Thiago down to the ground and is likely to have been a strong factor in bringing the Spaniard of Brazilian descent to Anfield.
Now, Thiago is flourishing. The 31-year-old has played 36 games in all competitions this season, scoring twice and assisting four; but his game is not really about goals and assists. He is the deep-lying playmaker, the tempo-dictator, Liverpool’s midfield metronome. According to FBREF, he is in the top 1% of midfielders in Europe for progressive passes per game with an average of 9.71, the top 2% for passes attempted per game with an average of 84.47, and boasts a pass completion rate across the last year of 89.9%. Put simply, he is a passing machine.
Control the midfield, win the Champions League
It is no exaggeration to say that whoever manages to gain control of the midfield on May 28th will significantly improve their side’s chances of being crowned champions of Europe. Thiago and Modrić are two experts in their field and the way both play is vital to calming their teammates and instilling confidence through control. Both are progressive players, with Thiago’s 9.71 progressive passes per game coupled with his 8.61 progressive carries both slightly higher than Modrić who averages 6.85 progressive passes per 90 minutes and 6.77 progressive carries. However, Modrić boasts a far higher threat in the final third, and still remains in the top 8% of midfielders in Europe for his progressive passing and dribbling stats.
The beauty of both of these players is that, for all their prowess on the ball, they are not opposed to the defensive side of the game. In fact, it is probably fair to say that both are underrated in terms of their defensive work. Modrić has dropped deeper as his career has progressed and Thiago has improved drastically in his running and defensive work since joining Liverpool. Both sides of the game will be vital in a match where stakes are so high and momentum can shift so quickly.
It is likely that Real Madrid will continue their pattern of starting fairly deep and looking for Vinicius Jr. and Karim Benzema to provide moments of magic on the counter. This has worked for them up until this point and is a tactic that Ancelotti would have no shame in deploying once more, especially if it proves victorious. However, it feels like Madrid must handle the ball better and control the game through their possession if they are to beat a Liverpool side who must go into the final favourites. Modrić is the key to this, but Thiago will be seeking to do exactly the same for Liverpool. Expect a fast start from Liverpool, who will look to suffocate their ageing opponents. Once the game settles down, if indeed it does, Thiago will then look to get his passing game going.
Modrić versus Thiago: whoever prevails is likely to end the night with a Champions League winners medal.