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Luka Modric: The Elite Problem-solver In Munich

This week’s column: a closer look at the things Real Madrid got away with in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals. What does Zidane need to rectify? How is Modric so incredible at reading passing lanes?

KO — by Finn

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.


In two magical moments from Marco Asensio and Marcelo, Real Madrid slid a sword into Bavaria. Two goals to laugh at the team’s xG of .62 — two goals to ensure Zidane’s black magic in Europe had been cast over Germany.

It was the same result as a season ago — a narrow, 1 - 2 away win at the Alianz Arena. This one felt different. Bayern attacked better, pressed better, and controlled the tempo. Real Madrid, on the flip-side, dealt reasonably well -- with some luck along the way. They weren’t as good as last season’s quarter-final first leg, but they were absurdly efficient to make up for it.

As the story goes, big players had big moments. Luka Modric used the ball about as perfectly as he could in his limited time on it, and without it, he made Bayern paranoid passing out the back — popping up constantly to intercept passes even in the most unlikely situations. He had three interceptions in the first half alone, while looking to break Heyncke’s defensive line with every pass.

The more Luka Modric has the ball at his feet, the better it is for Real Madrid. Generally it’s he and Kroos who dictate the tempo. Bayern’s scheme, which recycled possession at the back while pressing the full-backs strategically and snuffing passing lanes to Real Madrid’s central midfielders, was potent in limiting Modric and Kroos’s influence. Zidane would’ve liked to have seen Modric and Kroos touch the ball more in order to dictate tempo and advance Real Madrid beyond Bayern’s press, where a ton of space lied vacant in front of Heyncke’s defensive line — but they had trouble breaking through and taking advantage. Most of Real Madrid’s possession came through Marcelo and Carvajal (not unique to Real Madrid’s style of play, but 62% of their touches came in their own half, and only 22% of their passes were in Bayern’s third; while they collectively misplaced 36.8% of their passes in search of outlets), or Sergio Ramos looking for passing routes from the back-line. That suited Bayern just fine, in a vacuum — but Heynckes almost had to shut his eyes. He had no answer for Zidane’s efficiency in capitalizing on key moments.

Kroos said it best prior to the match: “Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

This was that. Their feathers were barely ruffled — if at all. They went down a goal in front of a frenzied crowd. They saw less of the ball than their opponents, and got blown away in the xG department. Yet, there were no nerves. Asensio finished his chance like he was playing pick-up, and the team’s celebrations on both goals were subdued relative to other high-stake moments. They did their job and got out. It was professional. Possibly lucky (if you count Keylor’s second-half saves, or Ramos and Varane’s important interventions as luck) — but professional and composed.

Let’s reiterate: It was difficult. Bayern suffocated Real Madrid throughout the match, making build-up arduous. On the right flank, Varane, Modric, Carvajal, and Vazquez worked diligently to get out of Bayern’s press. They generally did well to play themselves out. But even when they did, it was laboured and required sonic-speed thinking in tight spaces. Other times, there was just no getting out at all:

Ribery does fantastic work here, while Carvajal’s touch is messy — a trend throughout the match. (We might be able to chalk up Dani’s jitter-bug-performance to an injury — the one that caused him to come off the pitch for Benzema in the second half.) Bayern’s defending was furious at times:

Real Madrid had to work extra hard to get to their spots. The team combined for just five key passes (for perspective, James Rodriguez had four on his own, and Bayern combined for 15) — one of which came from a Keylor Navas long-ball in the 18th minute. There weren’t enough synapses offensively. That, coupled with the way Bayern retained possession, lowered the chance curation dramatically. (Brilliant) passes like this, from Luka Modric, were not recurring:

When things aren’t going your way, Luka Modric is a God-send. With Real Madrid’s limited time on the ball, Zidane needed to ensure every moment was used efficiently. Modric’s cold blood, and all-time great football IQ, maximized every touch, and in the process, he was the most efficient ball-retainer on the night. Few players can mark multiple players at once. Luka is one of the few.

Imagine being Joshua Kimmich here. He’s searching for the best counter-attacking option, and is relieved to see Ribery make a run. The Frenchman thinks he’s swindling Modric by sneaking into his blind spot. Nope. Modric tracks Ribery every step of the way with his peripherals, and counter-presses Bayern’s anticipated attack.

There are few on earth who decipher passing lanes the way Modric does. There was a whole segment dedicated to this in one of my columns back in March. His awareness when reading passes is like the equivalent of always having your hand up on defense in basketball — you do it just in case you can get a hand on a pass and deflect it. Modric zips up channels so freakishly well that defenders get paranoid around him.

Elite readers of the game will take out two players defensively — the ball-carrier, and the passing outlet. Those players can cut off the supply to the half-spaces, while unnerving the passer into making a mistake or forcing a pass. Kovacic did this really well ins Paris. There are times when Modric can study three players at once. Here, he hoodwinks Rafinha with a feint, making the Brazilian think Modric is hedging high up the pitch to mark Mats Hummels. Rafinha makes the square pass, and Modric slithers back to intercept the pass to Ribery:

Modric completed every single one of his 20 passes in the first half. The issue: Zidane would’ve wanted that number to be even higher. But Luka affects the game in more ways than one. He’s a constant contributor.

Read. Calculate. Retain. Go. Modric is always active. It was just difficult for him, and the team as a whole, to implement their authority as mechanically and as routinely as they’re accustomed to. Real Madrid didn’t dominate the match, or see as much of the ball as they normally do. Certain wrinkles in Zidane’s scheme, such as unchaining Casemiro from the anchor role and have him bomb up the pitch, didn’t happen. Instead, Zidane changed Casemiro’s FIFA tactics to ‘stay back’. Modric and Kroos pushed higher up the pitch, often to press and cause discomfort to Sven Ulreich.

In games like this, where Real Madrid are generally pinned, the question arises: how necessary is Casemiro? He will not have the opportunity to disrupt play as much, nor will he allow the team to regain control. He is occupying a line-up spot that could be populated by a two-way threat like Kovacic. Casemiro only had 47 touches in the match — the least of any outfield player not named Cristiano Ronaldo, who was heavily isolated. The Brazilian did not have much to do but plug holes, something that Kovacic can more than adequately do; while simultaneously aiding to bind the attack in transition when the team needs a ball-carrier to get Ronaldo involved. Casemiro is also not nearly as good as reading the passing lanes, even when he has time to get behind the ball — leaving the team vulnerable vertically:

Casemiro wasn’t the only one. Kroos switched off vertically too without the ball. Sergio Ramos (surprise surprise — yet another outstanding game by both him and Varane, in yet another big Champions League clash), had to intervene more than once:

In the post-game podcast, Matt Wiltse and I discussed the important of creating a scheme that masks Marcelo’s other-worldly capabilities as an offensive Avenger. There needs to be insurance for his coverage rather than blame at his positioning. Ramos is generally good at doubling-up on the flanks, or stepping in to carry a heavy defensive burden when Marcelo is not even in the picture:

Obviously, in a freak moment (on Bayern’s opening goal) where neither Marcelo nor Ramos were in the picture, the team folded — it was a rare instance where Bayern had an embarrassing amount of space to party in. Let’s be clear, this was a moment of confusion and miscommunication between Kroos and Casemiro, in an entirely preventable situation:

Real Madrid’s performance in Munich wasn’t great. The result was, though. Fans are not unfamiliar to blowing leads in the second leg at the Bernabeu, so it’ll be tight. Zidane will have to rectify the things the team got away with in the first leg.

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