Why Luka Modric is important for Real Madrid


For the last couple of seasons, Luka Modric has been considered one of the best central midfielders in the EPL. He was no doubt a central figure in the recent good form of Tottenham Hotspurs. In EURO 2012, Modric’s performance against eventual champions Spain left an impression in the minds of football fans across the world. Although he could not lead Croatia past the group stages against Spain and Italy, his performance demonstrated his unusual set of abilities. Modric is a gifted player with the full range of technical gifts. He can play delicate final palls, keep possession, and dribble past opponents. It was no wonder that in the following transfer marker immediately after the competition, Modric transferred to Real Madrid. There was no hiding that a large motivation for the purchase was Real Madrid’s hopes that Modric would be able to reproduce his fine form against Spain in EURO 2012 against Barcelona.

According to Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, one of the biggest taboos to avoid in transfer markets is to purchase a player who has performed well in an international tournament the previous summer. Players who excel in international tournaments have inflated value due to their public display of quality, but are often poorly rested and prone to injury and bad form as a result of over exerting themselves over the summer. So far there have been criticisms that Luka Modric fits into that category. There may have been moments in games where glimpses of his quality could be glanced, but overall, he has not been the dominantly praised midfielder in England. To get some understanding of his dip in form, reflecting upon Modric’s performance in Tottenham vs Real Madrid can be helpful.

Norm Passing Comp 1112Above plot shows a normalized comparison of different passing statistics between four players: Luka Modric, Scott Parker, Xabi Alonso, and Mesut Ozil. The primary comparisons would be between Modric with Alonso and Ozil, his two competitor and partnerships in Real Madrid so far. Notice the shape of Ozil’s curve (yellow). Ozil does not attempt a lot of passes or long balls, and his completion rates are relatively low except for his through ball completion rate. However, he consistently ranks as the player who connects the most key passes, crosses, and through balls. Along with his high dribbles/game statistic (best among four at 2.94, second is Modric at 1.75) these characteristics point towards Ozil’s role as a ‘number 10’ in Real Madrid. He does not set the pace of the game by patient passes, but moves around with the ball frequently trying to play the final ball whenever possible.  Xabi Alonso’s  curve(gray) shows the opposite characteristic from Ozil’s. His completion rates are all high except for this through ball completion. Alonso attempts the most number of passes and long balls per game but does not play a lot of key passes or crosses. These relate well to Xabi Alonso’s role as the deep lying playmaker at Real Madrid. He sets the tempo of the game in front of the back four, always retrieving the ball from the defense and carefully spreading the play from flank to flank. Finally look at Modric’s curve (blue). The general shape of Modric’s curve looks like Xabi Alonso’s; however, his statistics are almost always in between Xabi Alonso’s and Mesut Ozil’s. This is partly due to the difference in Tottenham and Real Madrid’s midfield system. Tottenham could be classified as a 4-4-2 system where Rafael Van der Vaart, although a number 10 on paper, acted much more like a second striker looking for goal scoring chances rather than creating them. This meant that the Scott Parker-Luka Modric partnership had to divide the duties of setting the tempo, playing the final ball, providing energy and defensive cover, whereas in Real Madrid, those jobs were delegated among three players: Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, and Sami Khedira. The delegation of roles become more apparent when considering the defensive statistics.

Norm Def Comp 1112

Again the plot shows the normalized values of chosen defensive statistics per game. Unsurprisingly, we see that Scott Parker (orange) dominates in tackles, interceptions, and clearances, whereas Mesut Ozil (yellow) is at the opposite end. It is interesting to note that Xabi Alonso (gray) has a very high rate of fouls committed, tackles, and interceptions. Unlike Pirlo, to whom he is often compared to, Xabi Alonso is actually responsible for a good portion of the rough work in the midfield. The incredibly low rate of losing possession (dispossessed + turnover) is also telling of Xabi Alonso’s role as the calm and patient dictator of possession and tempo for Real Madrid. Again Modric’s curve (blue) is somewhere in between Ozil and Alonso. He is dispossessed often, fouls little, and does not tackle a lot like Ozil, but makes a fair number of interceptions and does not cause a lot of turnovers.

Maybe unsurprisingly, Modric is not quite like Xabi Alonso or Ozil. With the ball, he can be more patient than Ozil, but much more dynamic than Xabi Alonso. Without the ball, he can drop back to offer support unlike Ozil who stays high to start fast counters, and keep possession through interceptions and careful passes like Xabi Alonso. In a sense, Modric is a much more all-round player compared to either Xabi Alonso or Ozil, but this may precisely be the cause of his lackluster performance in Spain. At Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho has set up a carefully constructed midfield trio system he has rarely broken in previous seasons. The combination of three very intelligent yet specialized midfielders have been the heart of the dominant performance of Real Madrid. In Ozil he has one of the most intelligent player pulling strings in the final third, Xabi Alonso is the rare midfielder who can dictate tempo from deep in our field and still put in the tackles for defense, and Khedira can connect the two players with endless running for 90 minutes. This system has worked so well in almost all cases, the three players compliment each other marvelously. Modric, as a player who is not as lethal as Ozil, not as physical as Khedira, nor as composed as Xabi Alonso seems to be struggling to identifying his role in the system.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Semi Final - Second Leg - Real Madrid v Bayern Munich - Santiago Bernabeu

Modric’s transfer fee suggests that he is not supposed to be a simple back up player. The reason Real Madrid bought Modric, an all-rounder, when they already have a well established midfield system of specialists can be found in their struggles. Against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the weakness of the Real Madrid midfield system was exposed. When teams could press Real Madrid and dominate possession, they could expose the individual weaknesses of the three players. Despite Ozil’s fantastic ability in the final third, he cannot keep possession for the team. Khedira does not have the technical finesse to withstand pressure when on the ball, and Xabi Alonso does not have the mobility to run with the ball when passing routes are blocked. On the other hand, Toni Kroos’s ability to play both in the final third and in the center of the field allowed Bayern Munich to successfully escape Real Madrid’s front line pressing and dominate the game. In theory, Modric can provide a similar set of skills for Real Madrid. Modric is not as lethal as Ozil, but is much more patient. He is not as strong as Khedira, but much more technical. Xabi Alonso has a greater presence in the center of the field, but Modric is much quicker and comfortable running with the ball. In essence, Modric’s ability to be played in any of the three midfield positions can add options and fluidity in the Real Madrid midfield.

Unfortunately so far, when Modric has been a part of the team, the qualities that he does not bring compared to his substitutes have been more emphasized. There could be a multitude of explanations for the disappointing performance including the general lack of motivation in the Real Madrid team, Modric adjusting to La Liga, his poor form, poor form of his teammates, etc. However there is sound reason behind his transfer. Modric does have the qualities to cover up for some of the weaknesses Real Madrid showed against top teams last season. His performances in Tottenham and Croatia definitely proved that he is a quality midfielder who can play against some of the toughest opponents in the world. It would be a great loss for both Real Madrid and Modric if his skills cannot be incorporated to strengthen the system.


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