3. Luka Modrić
Luka Modrić has undoubtedly been one of the shining stars of 2017. He has not only shown this at an individual level, but the success that Real Madrid have achieved only goes to show how good he really is. You might be thinking that team achievements are not due to one single player on the team, and as I would wholeheartedly agree, I also believe that he has become such an important part in the Madrid system, that they wouldn’t have been able to do what they have done this past season without him.
Upon watching many of Madrid’s highlights this year, you might not have seen much of Modrić besides three assists and a lone goal, however that is the beauty of his play. The 31-year-old Croatian is the man behind the curtain orchestrating productive onslaughts and shutting down opposing attacks before they can even begin. His play goes almost undetected for the simple reason that he makes it look so easy.
Throughout the season we saw a Madrid side that dominated almost every game they played. They were overbearing in attacking and smothering in their defense. One of the main reasons for this is their setup when attacking the opponent’s half, and more specifically Modrić’s and Kroos’ positioning. When attacking, the outside backs would push up the pitch converting themselves into wingers. This movement left the space behind them unoccupied. As you can see in the following image, this is exactly the space Modricć and Kroos seized.
In fact, I urge you to go back and watch Real Madrid’s third goal in the Champions League Final. You will see a long ball played to Carvajal who is occupying a winger position on the right hand side of the field and Modrić is his cover behind. When Madrid momentarily lose possession, Modrić quickly steps up and wins it back, and consequently gives Madrid the third and decisive goal.
Throughout the course of the season, using this type of positioning Modrić was able to provide the necessary positional defense that allowed Zidane’s team to keep the opponent pinned in their defensive third. What’s most curious is when people discuss Modricć’s strengths, his defensive skills are rarely brought up. Actually, I was recently looking at some of his statistics on the site whoscored.com, and one of the features they provide is a quick overview of each player’s strengths and weaknesses. I was amazed to see that his tackling was considered to be weak. That being said, when watching him play you will notice he rarely resorts to tackling, simply because he positions himself so brilliantly. This type of proactive movement is what would give the feeling that Modrić is the man behind the curtain.
Along the same lines, offensively he has been Real Madrid’s engine propelling the team forward. He possesses several key qualities that give him the power to manipulate opposing defenders with and without the ball. For example, as we’ve discussed he likes to sit in behind the outside back when they are in their attacking third. On the other hand, in matches when they are struggling to break lines and progress up the pitch, he comes back to receive the ball next to the center backs. Whether he gets the ball or not, this movement opens space in the middle of the pitch where Benzema might check into.
Another characteristic of a great midfielder that Modrić has shown this year is the ability to control the tempo and pace of the match. He understands when it is necessary for him to keep the ball even if it means he will be under pressure. His technical ability gives him the qualitative superiority to maintain the ball even when he is in situations of numerical inferiority. Although he may not have the physical stature of a German midfielder, he is one of the best in the world in maintaining possession under pressure. He does so by using his body effectively to cover the ball long enough to play an open teammate or in many instances get fouled. Having a player who rarely loses the ball, gives the team the confidence to overcome difficult moments of a match. Midfielders who are effectively able to do this are known to manage the tempo of a match, and in previous years, before Modrić, Real Madrid lacked a player who could provide this consistently.
Along with being able to slow down the tempo of a match, Modrić has the electrifying ability to give the team speed in attack. Over the course of the season, we saw Modrić receive the ball with time and space and attack the defensive lines beating one or two defenders along the way. He has shown the awareness to pick and choose moments to attack and moments to protect the possession.
Luka Modrić is a rare player who provides a team so much offensively, as well as defensively. For this reason, Real Madrid fans should be excited that last October he signed a new contract until 2020. And although he may be 31 years old, his style of play is conducive to a long, productive career. Unlike players that require physical abilities to be successful, Modrić possesses the cognitive skills and tactical awareness required of a long and successful career playing at the highest level. Players like Xavi, Pirlo, and Totti are perfect examples this. Modric is on his way to being added to that list. His 2016/2017 season was one of his best in recent years, but you can be sure that he will continue giving us tactical brilliance for years to come.
By: David Garcia/@IJaSport