Of all the glizt and glamor stars to have donned the white chain mail of Real Madrid, few have managed to match the grace and sense of touch of Luka Modric. Officially deemed a flop by a poll from Marca midway through the 2012/13 season, Modric has since become the best midfielder in the world, leading his side to two Champions League titles in four years. But when breezing through articles online or when watching Modric on TV, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes him so special. It is as if, in his dazzling brilliance, we are blinded in awe, unable to critically focus our gaze. Is it his glorious outside of the boot passes, or is it his game defining goals, like the most recent one vs. Granada, that separates him from the rest?
Both of these things are worthy assessments of Modric's technical quality and big game ability, but neither fully probe into the hard facts of what makes our magic man so special. Let's take a closer look.
To assess Luka Modric's uniqueness, I have compared all of his key statistics with seven other contemporary central midfielders that have roughly the same characteristics as our Croatian (all statistics are taken from each player's league only). The hope is that some statistical category will stand out and help us explain why we identify Modric as more special than the rest.
Basic Passing Statistics
We all know Modric is a superb passer of the ball, possessing the vision to find an elusive runner with a well-timed through-ball, whilst understanding the need to float into pockets of space to act as a vertical receiver to progress possession. While off-the-ball movements are not yet tracked (at least in the public sphere), Modric's generic numbers do tell us the influence he has on a game. It is impressive to see that he bests Koke, Rakitic, Ramsey, and the great Iniesta in the number of passes played per 90 minutes (often referred to as p90 min or as p90 in this article), but Kroos, Gundogan, and Marco Verratti (with a runaway 122.54 passes p90) better Modric significantly.
Perhaps that is a surprise to some, but it must be noted that Modric is not the controller-in-chief of this team. That moniker goes to Toni Kroos, the man designated with dictating the tempo and flow of Real Madrid's game. Instead, Modric must progress play through off-the-ball running and on-the-ball running, something akin to a box-to-box midfielder. So why don't we classify him that way? Because he still manages to have the influence of a controlling midfielder.
This realization begins to get clearer when you look at Rakitic and Koke; the former, who's role is very similar to Modric's, makes 12.66 passes less p90, and the latter, who is the controller and chief of his team, makes 13.52 passes less p90 (though it is worth noting that Koke plays with a team that enjoys a more direct style of play at times).
Iniesta, like Modric, is not the dominant dictator of play in his team (with both having Busquets and Kroos play that role respectively), but he still manages 72.96 passes p90. With Iniesta being the defining talent of a controlling midfielder-advanced playmaker hybrid, it is a compliment to Modric that the Spaniard's passing statistic p90 is so close to the Croatian's. It is even a bigger compliment to Modric when considering that he bests Iniesta in passing accuracy and average passing length p90.
Ramsey is another who doesn't fit the typical description of a deep lying playmaker but manages close to the number of passes p90 as Iniesta and Modric. However, he manages a less impressive pass completion rate of 86% and has an average passing length that is inferior to Modric's and Iniesta's, perhaps suggesting that he doesn't advance play as well as the other two.
On the other hand, Ilkay Gundogan and Marco Verratti are the clear pass masters on their respective sides. Benefitting from Thomas Tuchel's possession-based scheme and his unrivaled duties, Gundogan manages a stellar 88.42 passes p90. Verratti's freakish 122.54 passes p90 similarly benefits from having unrivaled duties, but PSG's supreme league dominance and a small sample size of only 18 games played helps this ridiculous stat further. Both players also manage good pass completion rates as a result (still lower than Modric's however), but only Gundogan is able to pair this with an average passing length comparable to Modric's (it's actually better; second best in fact only to Toni Kroos).
So to sum up, it can be seen that Modric is clearly an accomplished passer. Without being the main controller of play, he manages to rack up the most impressive collective passing stats, but it doesn't set him far apart from the likes of Ramsey and Iniesta.
We've taken a look at basic passing figures, but now it's time to look at how each central midfielder does when progressing play. Surprising as it may seem, style doesn't affect these numbers as much as you might think. While it is obvious a direct mode of play will lead to more long balls committed, possession-based games also require the use of long balls to switch play and vary up the speed and point of the attack. It also helps our comparison that nearly every midfielder compared has teams that play in a similar style. Only Koke plays in a distinctly different set-up, but even Simeone has gravitated towards a more possession-based game against the majority of teams in La Liga.
Thus one would think that Koke would dominate the long balls stats, but that is not even close to the truth. The top three are: Kroos, Iniesta, and Modric, with 7.6, 5.7, and 4.9 long balls p90 respectively. Only Verratti comes close in volume, but his accuracy doesn't compare to the exemplary completion rate of the aforementioned three.
Moving onto the crossing stats, you can see that the more direct midfielders take over. Iniesta, Gundogan, Verratti, and Ramsey have negligible influence, whereas Koke completes 1.5 crosses p90, though at an additional expense of 4.7 more crosses p90. Kroos is the most accomplished in this regard, making a slightly less 1.3 crosses p90, but doing so while only wasting 2.6 more crosses. It is rather impressive that Modric's profile has so far been the closest to Iniesta, yet shows much greater significance in an area where the Spaniard disappears. In this instance, he is more like Rakitic, who completes 0.8 crosses p90 at a worse completion rate than Modric's 0.7 crosses p90.
But while this is impressive, Modric still doesn't stand out as the best in the basic passing stats or directness categories. Maybe he will when factoring in set-pieces.
The analysis of this section is fairly simple. Some players are the preferred set-piece takers on their teams and some are not. Being the preferred taker helps determine your quality, but one must also look at how each midfielder takes his chances when presented to him.
In regard to corners, Toni Kroos and Koke are clearly the preferred takers. Gundogan, Iniesta, and Ramsey take a marginal amount, with Verratti taking zero and thus not showing up on the box chart. Rakitic and Modric take a medium amount of corner kick duties, with the former managing a mind-blowing completion rate and the latter managing an excellent one.
With free kicks, Gundogan, Ramsey, and Verratti's influence rises, but only Modric and Rakitic display the same consistent influence across both categories like Toni Kroos.
Thus, while Modric displays impressive numbers once again, Kroos bests Modric while Rakitic keeps level with his countryman.
With all these passing statistics failing to truly separate Modric from the rest of the pack, let's take a look at something that he should excel in - playmaking.
The chances created statistic is easy to analyze thanks to our useful balloon graph. Luka Modric is far ahead of everyone else, bar Koke, with a stunning 2.1 chances created per 90 minutes. When breaking this stat down even further (chances created means key passes plus assists), you can see that Modric creates more shots for his teammates, with a superior key pass statistic of 1.96 p90 to Koke's 1.91 p90.
The take-on on numbers are more complicated, with Koke falling away into insignificance and with Gundogan dominating the raw numbers (2.53 take-ons p90 - simply unreal). Modric places as a close 4th best with 1.62 take-ons p90, barely behind Iniesta, with Verratti taking up clear second with 1.78 take-ons p90.
The take-on success rate does little to separate the competition, instead reinforcing how the top four are superior dribblers. However, Modric does have an elite 78.33% success rate, coming second only to Verratti's mind-numbing success rate of 84%.
Nevertheless, when combining these take-on numbers with the chances created statistic, Modric does have a clear edge, creating the second most chances (with more key passes) of anybody and beating his closest chance creation competitor with better dribbling numbers. Put simply, no one else has the best balance between dribbling and creativity.
Of course, analysis of impact in the final third would not be complete without shooting statistics, so let's take a look at them.
The first thing to observe is the midfielders who take more shots inside the area: Koke, Ramsey, and Rakitic. With these three taking 0.73 to 0.55, 1.48 to 0.89, and 0.88 to 0.70, (ratio is shots inside the box to shots outside the box) respectively, you can tell that these three are goal-oriented central midfielders. This is reflected in the fact that the trio sit atop the goals p90 statistic, with Modric coming a far fourth, which is actually impressive, considering he takes 0.93 shots p90 outside the box to 0.27 shots p90 inside the box (the biggest discrepancy in shooting out of all the midfielders).
Looking at shot accuracy, it is impressive to see that Modric possesses the best accuracy, especially when considering he shoots from outside of the box 3.44 more times than inside of the box (Verratti's figure is insignificant since he only took 2 shots in the entire Ligue 1 season). Gundogan, who shoots from outside of the box 3.19 times more than he shoots from inside the box, can only manage a shot accuracy of 35%.
As a result, it is apt to conclude that Modric is probably the best shooter out of all of these midfielders, especially when considering that he has the famous BBC in front of him hogging all the shooting duties. Rakitic also has the MSN in front of him, but his number of shots inside the box suggests that he has a more offensive role in Enrique's system. Modric clearly makes the best out of very little better than any of these other midfielders.
The final category to evaluate is defense, and when looking at the stats, you can tell none are truly specialists in this area.
All eight midfielders fail more tackles than they make, though Iniesta has the best success rate followed closely by Modric, who wins 1.2 tackles p90 and loses 1.75 tackles p90. Both also rank as the best for least amount of fouls completed p90 (Iniesta at 0.8 and Modric at 0.89). As impressive as that is for Modric, he ranks as the lowest for tackles completed p90. This could means two different things; either he is a poor tackler or an intelligent defender. His success rate nudges thinking towards the latter, and his interceptions numbers go a long way to confirming that he is in fact an intelligent defender.
With 2.13 interceptions p90, he clearly bests everyone except for Verratti and Gundogan, who have 2.2 interceptions p90 and 2.49 interceptions p90 respectively. While it is hard to draw distinct conclusions from the limited defensive data available (as I mentioned before, off-the-ball movements are not tracked, which would go some way into analyzing work-rate and the protection of space), it is clear that Modric is not a combative midfielder. As evidenced by the tackle success rate and fouling data, only Iniesta prefers to wait for the opportune moment more than Modric, but Luka is probably a better positional defender considering his superior number of interceptions (Iniesta is by far the lowest).
Having come to the end of this analysis, some of you might be feeling a little disappointed. While Modric certainly had some impressive statistics, it seems like he didn't truly stand out in any category. But it would be a mistake to look at the data this way. These numbers cannot be looked at in isolated categories to arrive at a conclusion; they must be looked at together.
The truth of the matter is that Luka Modric is so magical and special because he influences more of the pitch than anyone else. That's the reason you remember him, because in every minute and every phase of the game he is on your screen, either carving open a defense, attempting a shot from range, or breaking up play with a well-timed interception. None of these other midfielders, who are so close in style, come even close to matching his influence.
In the basic passing stats we saw that Verratti was the standout, partly due to his own brilliance and partly due to inflated figures from a small sample size. Taking this into consideration, Modric matched him and everyone else supremely well, managing to pick up the numbers of a controlling midfielder when he wasn't one. Only Iniesta and Ramsey could match that.
When it came to directness, Modric was third best in the long ball category, but brushed Iniesta aside when it came to crossing. Only Kroos and Koke were better.
In set-pieces, only Rakitic could match Modric's numbers as a secondary free-kick taker and corner-kick taker.
For creativity, Modric was only matched by Koke, who managed a marginally better chances created statistic but a worse shot creation statistic. When factoring in dribbling, Modric furthered himself from everyone as the most balanced across both categories.
In the shooting category, Modric proved to be the most accurate of everyone, despite not having a large volume of shots to benefit from and despite having the largest ratio of shots from outside the box to shots from inside the box.
Finally, for defending, Modric proved to be a conscientious tackler and a sound positional defender by racking up an impressive tackling completion rate, a low fouling stat p90, and the 3rd highest interception numbers. See the pattern yet?
In every category Modric is close to the top, being matched up with the best of seven separate midfielders in each category. Not only does he possess the passing ability of Kroos and the grace of Iniesta, but he possesses the final third penetration of Verratti and the intelligent positional sense of Gundogan.
That's what makes Modric so special; he possesses the best qualities of the world's top central midfielders, enabling him to influence every sector of the pitch like no one else.