Real Madrid are a team that shouldn’t work. Often they don’t work.
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They have too many stars, too many players whose job is to create or to score. Often they lack balance and shape. The suspicion about them is always that they have the ball-players to destroy weaker teams but lack the ball-winners to take on the best in Europe. They’re rather less than the sum of their parts – and yet they’re in the Champions League final for the second time in three seasons. Part of the reason this season has been a relatively straightforward draw, pitting them against Roma, Wolfsburg and an insipid Manchester City in the knockout stages, but a bigger part is Luka Modric.
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Two years ago, the draw was rather tougher. Back then, Madrid had to beat Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich before meeting Atletico in the final. Then too their squad was top-heavy but they found a way to play. Asier Illaramendi and Isco played some role but essentially a base as provided by Xabi Alonso, with Luka Modric buzzing around him and Angel Di Maria making forward surges to link up with the vaunted front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale.
Yet buzzed isn’t really the right word: Modric is energetic but there is an elegance to him. He glides, and yet he glides with urgency. His reading of the game is extraordinary. He has a tremendous capacity to be in the right place at the right time, which makes him appear perhaps busier and quicker than he really is. And that means that, although when he emerged from Dinamo Zagreb’s youth team he was a classic number 10, a playmaker behind the front two, he has been able to drop deeper and deeper as his career has progressed.
With both the Croatia national side and Madrid, he’s found himself in teams with other creative players. He may be slight – he still looks, as Barney Ronay once wrote in the Guardian, like a small boy dressed as a witch – but he’s still been the one willing and able to take up a deeper role. Now, with Alonso gone and Casemiro’s involvement intermittent, partly for reasons of injury, Modric has often been the deepest-lying midfielder.
There has always been a toughness to go with the touch and the intelligence. When he was six, he was evacuated from his home town of Zaton as war broke out in Yugoslavia and spent much of his childhood living in a hotel in Zadar, a few miles south down Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. His father fought in the war while his grandfather was one of its civilian victims. When the war was over, Modric’s father enrolled him in the academy at Dinamo and when he was 18, they sent him on loan to Zrinjski Mostar. It was playing in the Bosnian league that taught him how to evade heavy challenges, always receiving the ball on the half-turn so he could pivot away from defenders before they could apply a sly knee or a covert stamp. “Once you’ve played in Bosnia, you can play anywhere,” he said. In that first season, he was named the league’s player of the year.
Modric was given his international debut by Zltako Kranjcar in a 3-2 victory over Argentina in a pre-World Cup friendly in 2006. Even then Kranjcar described the 20-year-old as “very talented, with a strong presence and organisational qualities” – precisely the attributes that have allowed him to make a success of being a deep-lying players even if, as Kranjcar acknowledged, “he’s maybe not going to push players around… with his quickness of feet, and his balance and his vision he’ll cope. He’s really special. He’s a player who’s really comfortable on the ball. He’s quick of thought. Good with both feet, can run all day long, and he plays football.”

Poland's Maciej Zurawski (C) is tackled by Croatia's Jurica Vranjes and Luka Modric (L) during their team's friendly soccer match in Wolfsburg June 3, 2006

Image credit: Reuters

Nonetheless, there were those who wondered whether that lack of physique might prove problematic. When it became apparent in 2008 that Modric’s time at Dinamo Zagreb was coming to an end, Barcelona and Chelsea both showed an interest. Both, though, were troubled by his apparent frailty. Damien Comolli, then the sporting director of Tottenham, had no such doubts, having seen him playing for Croatia against Scotland that March. “It was freezing and the Scottish players were obviously trying to intimidate him, kick him,” Comolli said.
“They just could not get near him. He ran the show. For me, his size was never really an issue.”
Still, given his creative quality, it might be advantageous if Modric had a top-class holding player alongside him at the back of midfield so he could get more involved in providing a supply for the glittering forward line. The absence of that sort of player – and Casemiro is not yet a top-class example of a commanding anchor – is characteristic of Florentino Perez’s notion of team-building, the lessons of the Claude Makelele fiasco seemingly unlearned.
When Toni Kroos was in form he could share those defensive responsibilities, but as the German’s performances have declined, so Modric has had to take greater responsibility. Even with Modric and Kroos together, though, it felt like a bodge, a just about workable solution rather than a proper long-term plan – certainly for a club of Madrid’s resources.
Modric is one of only three midfielders in la Liga with a pass completion rate of higher than 90%. Significantly, he has played more key passes than either of the other two, suggesting the extent to which he looks to create rather than simply recycling possession. A record of 1.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per game shows how valuable he is to the defensive side of the game as well. But it’s the creative aspect from deep that stands out.
The Atletico midfielder Koke was asked last week if he could choose one played from Madrid to play for his side who it would be. His answer, ignoring the appeal of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale or Benzema, was telling. “I would choose Modric because I like the way he pulls the strings of the team."
Jonathan Wilson - on twitter: @jonawils
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