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Early Season Observations, Part One: Luka Modric’s Advanced Role

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Kiyan’s latest column, on Lopetegui asking Modric to play higher up the pitch, and the dominoes of alleviating him from certain defensive duties.

Sevilla FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

‘KO’ — by Finn


Part one (of six) of my early-season observations. Let’s go.

Luka Modric’s advanced role

As Lopetegui’s scheme unfolds over the course of this (still very young) season, we’ve noticed dramatic changes from the Zidane era. One of them: Modric’s positioning. Under Zidane, the only time we’d see the Croatian stay high up the pitch was when Bale or Vazquez appeared on the right flank to help Carvajal or Achraf defensively. For the majority of the season, Modric was spread thin covering for the right back, saving goals as a last resort, defensive-transition safety net, or slinging incisive passes as a deep-lying playmaker.

Julen wants his 4-3-3 to morph into a vibrant ecosystem on the pitch. The anchor drops between the centre-backs to help fend off high-presses, while Kroos — typically the second-deepest midfielder — hedges to form a double-pivot of sorts, and Modric is freed to create in the final third. Lopetegui wants his attackers to move in-between the lines to prevent stagnancy. In theory, this should be beneficial. But the ecosystem turned into a violent cyclone in Sevilla, and Lopetegui will have to figure out solutions against competent teams who can man-mark Kroos’s vertical outlets — mainly Benzema and Modric — while providing enough depth and compactness to prevent overloads or cutting runs.

“We wanted to be more compact and press harder,” Lopetegui said of the 3 - 0 loss at the Sanchez Pizjuan — a notoriously tough place to play. “But we didn’t do it correctly after they punished us at the start of the game.

Service was sparse for Modric, who is not used to being a passenger in any given game. In the ninth minute against Sevilla, he dropped into Real Madrid’s half to receive a pass and saw first-hand what Kroos was going through with the lack of vertical outlets. He looked up, saw no one, and attempted a failed cross-field switch to Asensio which Sevilla easily picked off. Kroos ran into that problem over and over again with his own passes — only he would recycle the ball back to Varane behind him instead of attempting a hopeless home-run. It was frustrating for him to look up and see Sevilla shirts everywhere before playing it back to his defenders.

By design, there were instances against Sevilla where Modric would not track back, and you could see Lopetegui pointing to Modric to conserve his energy to act as an outlet — signalling to him that the tracking should be left to Casemiro and Kroos. Maybe that works, but sometimes it won’t. Modric’s game is based on controlling the tempo and doing everything he can to help the team. Often he found himself latching onto overhit through-balls instead — something he’ll have to get used to.

In other moments, not having the ball enough makes Modric cold. There were occasions where he’d receive the ball in the final third and dribble into a Sevilla defender. But in the second half, as he grew into the game, you saw the benefits. He scored a gorgeous offside goal (oxymoron noted), and forced Vaclik into a brilliant save. If offensive curation needs to be abundant in the post-Ronaldo era, you can see why Lopetegui wants Modric doing things higher up the pitch.

Sevilla FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

In other moments, like against Espanyol, Modric was a bit disconnected, and at times found himself awkwardly in the box, waiting for an Odriozola cross that never came. Under Lopetegui, it’s Kroos that gets all the touches and passes — not Luka.

From Lopetegui’s perspective, he wants to lessen the burden on Modric so that the Croatian is more efficient and fresh come May and June. That means more rest, and less defensive duties (although, his defensive duties will come in the form of important counter-pressing). “No player puts the team on their back,” Lopetegui said in August. “It’s about the team playing for each other and that’s what we’re pushing for.

Maybe Lopetegui will shift things and alter the role of Modric, who can play almost anywhere you ask him too. There will be schematic shuffles that will force him to play Modric deeper if Kroos sits and the Croatian plays alongside Ceballos / Isco and an anchor in Casemiro and Llorente. Otherwise, he’ll have to drop deeper anyway to get involved in some big games, like he had to do in order to receive passes in the first half against Bilbao when he was man-marked — quickly moving possession with single touches as Berizzo’s team denied the Croatian time and space.

None of this stuff mattered against Roma in the Champions League against an embarrassingly loose defensive team, where Modric, Isco, and Benzema zipped around between-the-lines without the ball, received passes in dangerous areas, and created non-stop havoc. Modric did a lot of great defensive work in that game too, as he helped Real Madrid retain possession high up the pitch. As is typical in this season’s scheme, he didn’t have many touches relative to other key cogs; but in games like this, where his teammates can get him the ball in good areas, it doesn’t matter. He keeps his efficiency high. Against Roma, he had four key passes and two completed dribbles.

“Modric gives us a lot every game,” Isco said of Modric after the win against Roma. ”He’s fundamental for us. hopefully we can all be at his level.

But give enough competent coaches enough scouting reports as the sample size increases, and things will get difficult. We’ve seen Modric suffer this season against teams who’ve figured out they need to eliminate Kroos’s passing lanes and outlets — content with letting him circulate the ball horizontally from deep positions.

Modric is a complete brainiac regardless. He’s a quick thinker; a genius. Look at him without the ball in this entire sequence. He remains high up the pitch and patient — confident his teammates will ping him if he continues to roam in dangerous areas. Once he receives it, he immediately takes out his surgical tool kit:

I could’ve stretched this clip a couple-dozen minutes on either side. He was in that position all match, hovering in zone 14, waiting to receive the pass. On an ensuing possession, he joins a high-press, and once Roma cough up the ball, Modric is in a position to receive Kroos’s pass which ignites an attack:

His runs were even more dangerous in transition, when Roma opened up:

Modric really enjoyed the scheme, and his role in the midfield, that night at the Bernabeu.

“Casemiro, [Toni] Kroos and I have been playing together for more than three years and I feel comfortable with them,” Modric said after the game. “But all the guys who come in are contributing a lot and helping the team. We’re thrilled with all our team-mates. We’ve been together for a long time and know each other with our eyes closed, but [Dani] Ceballos and other guys are doing a fantastic job.”

Roma learned the hard way what happens when you let a Player of the Year winner have space in the final third. Later in that match, Modric picked them apart with a beautiful assist to Bale, but Eusebio Di Francesco’s set-up didn’t help the Italians contain the Croatian by any means.

Modric started getting on the ends of key passes in the second half against Sevilla, which ultimately led him to his offside goal — but it was laboured. On one hand, it’s hard to take too much away from the loss at the Sanchez Pizjuan — an arena Real Madrid have been blown away plenty of times before, and a notoriously tough place to play. On the other hand, the same struggles were apparent against Bilbao.

Long sequence, but you can see in this clip against Leganes what Modric’s role is offensively. He roams behind the lines and binds the team together when the opportunity arises:

“It’s a position (Kroos) has already played in Germany and also here,” Lopetegui said after the draw in Bilbao, regarding the positioning of his midfield.

”He has done well but it is also true that Athletic have pressed very well during the first half and demanded a lot from us.

”With the entry of Casemiro he has taken a step forward in his position and has also had influence on the result for the team.”

Lopetegui doesn’t worry about Kroos’s ability to hit his targets from deep, or for Modric to show as an outlet. Both are elite at what they do, and Kroos has been among Europe’s best vertical passers for years now, and currently leads the continent in passing accuracy and long balls.

Both Kroos and Modric are dependant on each other as the two pillars of Lopetegui’s desired ecosystem. For this particular scheme to work, Lopetegui needs to ensure he can find solutions when Modric gets man-marked. But not just Modric — he needs to find a way to get Benzema and Asensio free if Modric is hounded without the ball. The scouting report is out. Moving behind the lines is one thing; but finding space when space is snuffed is another matter that Julen hasn’t found a solution to yet.

There is time yet to make these two thrive, even in the biggest games. It will take some adjustments.