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Observations on Modric’s decline, Odegaard’s audacity, and Raul de Tomas’s instinct

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Kiyan’s latest column, observations on Modric’s decline, who his heir is, and more

Croatia v Wales - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic - UEFA/UEFA via 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.


Three talking points this week:

The irreplaceable Luka Modric

Luka Modric turns 34 at the start of next season. He’s amassed over 750 professional games, and is entering his eighth La Liga campaign. He is the greatest central midfielder the club has ever had (listing Zinedine Zidane as an attacking midfielder, here), and this past season you saw the mileage on his legs hit him hard. His form, along with Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, was one of the main reasons Real Madrid regressed. People don’t fully realize: Modric at his peak did everything. He covered for wing-backs, defended in transition single-handedly when his teammates were dispersed all over the pitch and out of position, created from deep, made overlaps on the flanks to hit crosses in, and on top of that, was the man who brought so much calm to the team in heated away games. Peak Modric was Thor forging the Stormbreaker while being exposed to the force of a star.

How equipped are Real Madrid to replace that?

Like dealing with the post-Ronaldo era, you can’t simply replace a unicorn. You will feel the effects of losing a generational player one way or another. But unlike Ronaldo’s void, the board planned for the Modric transition as well as they possibly could. I wrote this article, on Real Madrid’s depth chart in central midfield, just a few months ago.

Fast forward, and that stockpiled list of young midfielders is dwindling. Dani Ceballos, who wants to play heavy minutes next season, has one foot out of the door. James Rodriguez is all but sold. Mateo Kovacic, widely seen as Modric’s heir as recently as last summer, got his wish to stay in London. That leaves, on the books, just Fede Valverde and Isco. Isco, who’s played well with the Spanish National Team during the Euro qualifiers, could take on a larger role next season if Real Madrid don’t sign another midfielder. If they do, Isco could be the next victim. He’s too good to go through another season of not playing regular football, and at the age of 27, he’s in his prime.

That Real Madrid are looking so eagerly at adding another midfielder is telling of their faith in the young talent they had at that position. You always hope that among the pool, one player will make it. In this case, only Fede has survived for now. There are real questions that need to be grappled with: How much of an upgrade is Christian Eriksen over James — if at all — as a creative midfielder who can also do work deeper in midfield, to warrant letting the Colombian walk? And, if the goal is to find someone who can do all the dirty work (and more) that Luka Modric did, why not look at the most prototypical box-to-box midfielder on the market: Tanguy Ndombele?

Instead, Tottenham signed Ndombele, and if that’s their Eriksen replacement, then Spurs did good business. Real Madrid wouldn’t have been up against much had they gone in on the Tanguy sweepstakes — one that was seemingly a one-team race. This was the best time to swoop in for him. Of the teams that could afford him, only a handful could realistically bid. Chelsea are wrestling with a transfer ban; Barcelona and Manchester City are stacked at that position; Juventus are pushing their financial limits; and Manchester United are essentially the New York Knicks of football and don’t know what they’re doing. With Bayern and PSG out of the mix, Real Madrid could’ve signed their best bang-for-buck player in Ndombele — a player who, stylistically, is nowhere near Modric, but can do all the tangible two-way work he does — instead of playing the chase-and-wait game with Paul Pogba and Eriksen.

Real Madrid missed out on Ndombele if they were looking for midfielders not already on the roster. One thing important to note about this claim: It comes within the context of how the team plays. Ndombele covers ground like Modric. Real Madrid don’t need to necessarily sign Modric 2.0 in order to replace him. You can always make schematic changes and play differently. But, this is a team that has had tactical holes everywhere for the past two seasons. Modric masked the craters. Part of the reason, apart from his sheer skill and technical ability, that I rank him as the club’s greatest central midfielder of all time, is that he’s an entire package of assets on his own. His impact, at his peak, was insane. In basketball terms, he has the defensive instincts of Draymond, the composure of Kawhi, the close control of Chris Paul, and the passing of Steve Nash. You can’t replace a freak like that. More concerning: What exactly is the tactical path now that he’s turning 34?

You could see what Modric brings to the team as recently as the last match of the season — a horror show against Real Betis at the Bernabeu:

Modric has so many responsibilities. Here he’s sprinting to cover for Marcelo, and forcing Betis to go backwards. If he’s not doing that, he’s on the opposite flank doing the same for the right-back. There are systemic issues at play, but that’s not Modric’s fault.

This year, those heroic plays from Modric became less apparent. The one above is just a simple clip from the last game of a dead season. The 2018 - 2019 campaign saw Modric dip below one interception per game for the first time in his Real Madrid career. He is usually a master of reading passing lanes and coaxing passers into seemingly open channels before he thieves possession. That energy wasn’t there this year, and the team felt his regression.

Earlier in the season, Julen Lopetegui altered Modric’s role from a rip-roaring two-way prong, to an attacking midfielder with less defensive duties. Toni Kroos was often the deepest midfielder, dropping in between the center-backs to combat high-presses, while Casemiro hedged back to form a double-pivot. In theory, that made sense. You conserve the Croatian’s energy, and allow him to focus on creating more chances in a team that desperately needed creativity and offensive verve without Ronaldo. And it worked early on against smaller teams, but then the team faced a harsh reality in Sevilla in a devastating loss where Modric was isolated, and Kroos and Casemiro had no idea how to find him.

What we learned from that experiment: Modric needs the ball to thrive. Under Lopetegui, his touches took a backseat as Kroos became the deep-lying playmaker. Modric is an engine that needs to keep running; otherwise he gets cold. It took him a while to get going after that icy start, and it wasn’t until a home game against Valencia in December where he looked like himself again.

As the Eriksen talks pick up steam, don’t be surprised to see Modric take more rest this year with a new signing coming in. One name we don’t talk enough about, but is an interesting candidate to bring good energy to the midfield: Fede Valverde. We don’t have a proper sample size of him playing as a defensive midfielder to gauge how he’d do in an anchor role, but as a central midfielder in a double pivot, he’d thrive.

Odegaard shows up against big opponents

Martin Odegaard was the most exciting player among all the loanees last season, and he probably will be a must-watch again next year. With all the gorgeous shoulder feints, relentless pressing, accurate free-kicks, and silky through-balls, one of my favourite things about him is his chutzpah in big games. He always wanted the ball against Ajax over the course of two games. (In his first match against Ajax in September, he came on at half-time when Vitesse were already down 3 - 0, and was one of their best players. In a 4 - 2 loss to them in April, Odegaard was again the team’s best creator). Against Spain in a Euro qualifier, in a Norway team that had little of the ball and Odegaard had every reason to be shy, he used all of his touches to show he belongs among the best:

Norway had just 26% of the ball that entire match. It’s hard to be a creative player starved of the ball against a Spain team in their stride. Odegaard looked to solve Norway’s problems by showing as an outlet whenever he could, and stabilizing the team’s build-up. He’d even kickstart Norway’s possession by intercepting a pass:

If you watch the beginning of the second clip, you can see Odegaard already calculating Iñigo Martinez’s pass before the ball even leaves his feet. The Norwegian could’ve just stayed wide, but already knows the pass is going vertical and that his teammate won’t close the outlet in time. He sticks out his foot and retains possession. Those are subtle ways that The Ø contributes.

Spain are a team that strip your confidence. They keep the ball. And when they lose it, they snuff away your space and hoodwink your cold legs into a panicked giveaway. Odegaard is serene. He makes the right plays:

Odegaard’s genius is more apparent with Vitesse, where he sees more of the ball, and is the offensive fulcrum of his team. This year he took a leap, and it was fun seeing him with offensive freedom in a scheme that allowed him to roam.

“I’ve scored more and assisted more than last season and I think I’ve been improving,” Odegaard said at the end of the season. “Slutsky has given me freedom and confidence.” Odegaard has blown away his previous numbers. This year he had 12 assists and 9 goals — a jump from 1 goal and 3 assists last season. He’s slung 3.5 key passes per game compared to last season’s 1.9, and has marked career highs in dribbles per game, shots per game, interceptions per game, and tackles per game.

Odegaard stated at the end of the season that he wants to play in the Champions League. That may see him off to Bayer Leverkusen. But Leverkusen also have their own young talent to develop, and may bounce out of Europe early. I’d be intrigued to see him at Real Sociedad for a year alongside Oyarzabal, Portu, Janujaz, and Isak. That could be fun.

Raul de Tomas, off-ball movement

I did not watch Raul de Tomas two seasons again in Segunda, where he scored buckets of goals. I zipped through his 24 goals from 2017 - 2018, and noticed something interesting: Nearly all his goals are unspectacular and boring. Now after watching him play regularly in La Liga, I understand why he scores so many goals. His natural instinct to get into the right spots puts him in an exciting tier of strikers:

Real Madrid didn’t get much of that off-ball movement after Ronaldo’s departure. Mariano has a knack, but we’ve been down this road before: He was either injured or under-utilized in a team that needed his exact skill-set. Luka Jovic’s arrival makes up for it.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Raul de Tomas next season. He wants to fight for his place, as he’s stated publicly in May, but Zidane may tell him to go elsewhere in order to play more, just as he did with Mariano in 2017. De Tomas is reportedly close to a Benfica move now.

Benfica will love him. He has everything you want in a striker: He’s an aerial presence, can shoot with both feet, take free-kicks, drop deep to link up play, press and dispossess defenders, and has an above-average finishing instinct. He can stay away from the play for an hour, then pop up and take one chance without going cold. He also generates his own shots — an invaluable asset when a team’s offense is broken.

A nice luxury: Potentially having either Raul de Tomas or Mariano come off the bench next season to supplement Jovic as an understudy. If would be ideal for Zidane to slot in one of those strikers without reshuffling the scheme if Jovic can’t play — it would be a seamless swap. But even Jovic may not start every game, and if the Serbian isn’t hitting his desired minute-quota, then Mariano and RDT will die a slow death on the bench.

Zidane may also opt to rearrange the system anyway instead of bringing in another striker off the bench, which would make both of those players redundant. In the 2016 - 2017 season, his big-game go-to call was to take off Benzema for Marco Asensio, rather than bringing in Alvaro Morata in a straight swap. That worked, as that magical season proved to be one of Real Madrid’s best in the modern era. Zidane has never been married to like-for-like substitutions. He goes to multiple schemes within a game.

Zidane may just decide Mariano and Raul de Tomas are not on Real Madrid’s level — and that’s fine. The club has bigger aspirations, and the majority of the time, these players from the youth system are groomed and flipped for a reasonable profit — and that’s what they’re there for. Regardless, both will have good careers, and it will be interesting to track their progress in other clubs. I’d expect Raul de Tomas to end up a in second-tier team like Valencia or Sevilla as he hits his stride.