We discussed this in yesterday’s post, but more needs to be said about the importance of Luka Modric for Real Madrid. When the Croatian playmaker moved to Madrid in the summer of 2012 from Tottenham many questioned whether he was capable of playing for a team of Real Madrid’s caliber. While he had been a star for Tottenham and linked with moves to Chelsea and Manchester United, Real Madrid is really in a league of its own as far as far as the individual quality in the squad and the pressure on the team.
Additionally, La Liga is quite different in style from the Premier League. And many of the Premier League stars to make the move to Real Madrid had mixed records at best–David Beckham was probably the most successful but even he tended to be a third or fourth banana in the original Galactico teams that included Brazilian Ronaldo, Raul, and Zinedine Zidane. Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate, meanwhile, both flopped at the Bernabeu. And while it was true that Xabi Alonso had transitioned successfully from a deep passing role in England to the Madrid midfield his was seen as a separate case because he is Spanish and had played in La Liga before during his time with Real Sociedad.
Modric’s Rough Start at the Bernabeu
Things started roughly for Modric as his first six months in Spain were marked by poor performances and injuries. Things bottomed out for Modric in December of 2012 when he, along with former Arsenal rival Alex Song, was named the biggest flop of the players signed by Spanish sides the previous summer.
The Role Modric Plays for Real Madrid
But then Modric began to figure out how to thrive in La Liga. And the qualities that he’d always possessed and that made him a star at Spurs began to show up more routinely in his play in Spain. On form, there isn’t another midfielder in the world like Modric. He has the vision and passing touch of Pirlo, but he’s also comfortable dribbling at the defense. Though he’s not remotely as powerful as Yaya Toure, he can use his direct running to similar effect. He also is deceptively strong on the ball and reads the game well which makes him a surprisingly effective defensive midfielder. But the greatest strength in his game may be the way he can bring together the technical and mental strengths to launch quick attacks as soon as he wins the ball. The gif below shows one of the many examples of him doing this over the past 2.5 seasons:
The qualities that come together to make the above pass happen each deserve mention–Modric’s first touch keeps the ball under control so that he can use his body to hold off the man just behind him. He then dribbles into exactly the right area of space to give him room to make the pass so that the onrushing defender can’t break the pass up before it gets to the Madrid striker. Once Modric has the ball in the right position, he then has to weight the ball correctly and place it in an area where the striker can pick it up and run with it–and this is about a 35 yard pass that he is hitting on the run with a defender bearing down on him.
And Modric does this sort of thing routinely. But he also is able to pick up the ball in more advanced positions and run directly at the defense. The clip below shows this aspect of his game:
What Makes Modric Irreplaceable for Madrid
The challenge for Madrid is that they’ve built a squad and developed a way of playing that depends almost entirely on Modric. Real Madrid have always and likely will always have plenty of attacking stars. The Ronaldos, Bales, Jameses, and Iscos of the world will always have a home at the Bernabeu. But players like that can be neutralized by an intelligent, well-drilled defense. Pack eight guys behind the ball, eliminate attacking opportunities in central areas, and you can limit the impact of those elite attacking players.
For teams like Real Madrid the way around that problem has to begin with their midfield. If their midfield can win the ball and spring attacks quickly then they can avoid having to break down that packed defense. The best ways to do this are with long passing to simply skip over the midfield or with direct running that pulls the midfield out of position. Last year Madrid could count on Xabi Alonso for the former, Angel Di Maria for the latter, and Modric to do both. This year they’ve replaced two of their three transition midfielders with two more attacking players who do most of their work in the attacking third. As a result, they depend almost entirely on Modric to build their attacks and help them avoid those packed defenses as much as possible.
This amplifies a problem that would exist at any club with a player like Modric. There isn’t a team in the world that could replace Modric because there isn’t a player in the world like him. So any team that included Modric would struggle if he got hurt for an extended period as happened this season. If you have Modric, you build around him because you’d be a fool not to. And if he gets hurt, the structure you’ve built inevitably won’t work as well.
What makes the situation at Madrid worse is that there is no back-up plan. Madrid basically plays a 4-0-5-1 or 4-0-4-2 when Modric is hurt because they actually don’t have a capable defensive midfielder other than Modric–and no, Sami Khedira and Asier Illaramendi do not count. The former needs to be a box-to-box player in a 4-2-3-1 to be at his best and the latter is so bereft of confidence at the moment that he’s getting sympathy cards from Fernando Torres. Madrid doesn’t have anyone able to help them attack at pace in the way they often must in order to break down those teams that park the bus. All they can do is slowly get the ball into the attacking third and then hope that James, Bale, Isco, Ronaldo, Benzema, or Kroos can do something amazing. And to be fair, there are plenty of teams in the world that would love to have that problem. But when you’re a club of Madrid’s stature and a year without a trophy is treated as an unmitigated disaster you need something more than that. And when Modric is out Madrid doesn’t have it.