Pursuing Balance With Luka Modrić

Denis Doyle

Despite the rotation policies imposed by Carlo Ancelotti, two men have taken part in all of Real Madrid's matches so far. As usual, Cristiano Ronaldo has not missed a single game, but, surprisingly, he has been accompanied by the Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić.

It has been a difficult start for Ancelotti in Real Madrid. A new roster, a short preseason, injured players and last-minute signings have made it really hard for the Italian coach to show his coaching abilities and impose a defined style to his team. Now that the Merengues are starting to surge, we want to analyze one of the most important reasons behind this improvement. This reason has a name: Luka Modrić.

In his second season in Bernabéu, Modrić has definitely increased his level, and this is something we must thank Carletto for. Our previous coach, José Mourinho, had built a really strong lineup around a 4-2-3-1 system, based in strong positional concepts, and where counterattack was the key weapon to beat the rivals, in which there was no room for Luka. He ended up with a lot of minutes played, acting in Alonso's or Özil's role, but I never saw him really confortable in the field. However, he left some sparkles of his talent, and his importance grew in the last months, due to the change to a 4-3-3 formation that never worked really well.

Perhaps, this low performance was caused by a bad interpretation of what Luka's role on the field should be. A lot of people in Spain, possibly encouraged by the media, had the idea that Modrić had to play as an attacking midfielder, just behind the strikers... that was, in Özil's position. But being that so, and having Mesut in an incredible shape, why spending 35M€ to buy a player for the bench?

The truth is that this was never the idea. Modrić's best features have always shown up when acting one step backwards, as a proper midfielder with the freedom to incorporate in offensive transitions, and accompanying a more positional one. Precisely, his international rise to fame, in Eurocup 2008, came from this. Together with Niko Kovac, Luka dominated the first phase of the competition, and led Croatia to win group B, including an unexpected victory against Germany, to fall in the quarterfinals against Turkey, in one of the most exciting match-ends that I can remember. After this, he was signed by Tottenham Hotspurs, and the rest of the story is quite well known.

So, if Modrić was to be in the lineup, he should substitute Alonso or Khedira. The problem here was that Mourinho's team balance was based on this couple. Alonso's extraordinary positioning, his good reading of the game and his precision in the pass, together with the physical display by Khedira, were a really tough competition for Luka's abilities, who could do just fine in each of these roles, but never excel. When the system was changed to a 4-3-3, as we have commented earlier, Modrić was finally able to show his versatility, but the problem now was with Özil, who had to abandon the center and find himself in the right wing, where his influence on the game was considerably reduced.

Fortunately for Luka -and, as I see it, for us the madridistas- things have changed this season. On his arrival, Ancelotti understood immediately the issue with Modrić and has worked a lot to develop a system in which he, as most of his teammmates, can find himself confortable and show his best features. To illustrate this, let me introduce you some of the stages of this evolution:

1st stage: Real Madrid playing in a 4-4-2, without Bale, Alonso and Illarramendi.

As it has already been mentioned, the pre-season was really difficult. The injuries of Alonso and Illarramendi, together with the absence of Gareth Bale, whose signing was not made public until the Deadline Day, made Carletto impose a 4-4-2 system in which he, essentialy, wanted to have a good control of the ball, and where the main defensive mechanism was based on the accumulation of men in front of the area. The role of Modrić in this period was a little diffuse, since it strongly depended on who his companion was: when playing with Casemiro, the Brazilian would have the responsibility of starting the attacks and keep the position, while Luka would be free to move a little bit forward to associate with Marcelo, Isco and Ronaldo in offensive tasks. On the other hand, when playing together with Khedira, they used to alternate their roles: one of them would be the "positional midfielder" and the other one would be the box-to-box in a certain phase of the match, and their roles would change depending on the circumstances. By this time, Luka had already revealed his true nature: he is a box-to-box, just like Sami, and an appropiate context needed to be made for him to unveil his talent.

2nd stage: Bale's arrival and the switch to a 4-3-3.

In order to open up a spot for the new Galáctico, Gareth Bale, Carlo Ancelotti changed to a 4-3-3 system that he had been insinuating in certain phases of the first games. Although the entrance of the Cardiffian in the lineups was not straightforward, when he was not on the field, Di María occupied his position and tried to imitate his role on the team. Again, the role of Luka was double: when Illarramendi was on the field playing as a positional midfielder, Luka moved a little to the left and gained some freedom, but not quite, given that Illarra was not still on his best shape and would need help in defensive tasks and the first pass. On the other hand, with Illarra out, Alonso still not recovered, and Casemiro forgotten in the bench, Modrić would move to the center and stick in front of Ramos and Pepe to give the starting pass to Khedira or Isco, who would occupy his position on the left. In any case, Modrić was not confortable.

3rd stage: Alonso's recovery unleashes Modrić

The entrance of Alonso in the lineups has been the best gift for Luka, who should not need to ask Santa Claus for anything else this year. In the press conference prior to the second game against Juventus, Ancelotti confirmed that he has already decided his favourite starting eleven, and I am pretty sure that this includes Alonso, Khedira and Modrić in the midfield. Their collective performance in the first half of the game against Real Sociedad is the best supporting argument. Alonso's positioning enables both Luka and Sami to play their box-to-box roles with the security that Xabi will be covering their backs. In the defensive phase, the three of them form a perfect triangle that is always ready to steal and run. On the other hand, when Madrid has the ball, Luka can either stand beside Xabi for a slow possession game, he can occupy the center if Xabi goes to a wing to start with a long pass, or he can go to frontline positions in the left, together with Marcelo and Cristiano, to occupy the empty space between the defensive and middle lines of the rivals.

However, there are some bad news too. Illarramendi does not seem to be mature enough to do Alonso's tasks, so when he is injured or needs a rest, we will need to go back to a more compact situation like the one we had in the second stage. On the other hand, Khedira seems irreplaceable to keep the defensive balance we are looking for, and this implies that Isco and Di María will have to stay in the bench or occupy the offensive line, despite their wonderful start of the season.

My opinion, anyway, is that this system is the best we can use, and I hope Ancelotti will manage to make us enjoy it during the whole season.

What's your take?


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