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Revisiting Modric’s underrated plays against Celtic on his birthday

Defense, magic, hustle, intelligence

Celtic FC v Real Madrid: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Ian MacNicol/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.

It was fitting that when I woke up and started contemplating whether or not to write about Luka Modric this morning, I also realized it was his birthday. That’s fate. There are plenty of notes from the Celtic game I haven’t shared yet, but I think the Modric ones were the most under-the-radar. Everyone has already swooned over Eden Hazard’s cameo, Toni Kroos’s masterclass, Eder Militao’s defensive interventions, etc. But it’s worth highlighting that Modric spent the entire first half bursting his lungs to ensure Real Madrid don’t collapse during the initial Celtic surge.

Celtic, fuelled by Ange Postecoglou’s high-octance scheme, pressed high and had waves of chances that were put to a halt by either Thibaut Courtois, the post, or one of Real Madrid’s defenders pulling out some heroics. It was a bit low key, but Modric held the defense together too, and was just as important glueing some of the structural holes Carlo Ancelotti’s men had behind the ball.

It took every ounce of energy, and that’s why Modric, now 37, can’t play every game this season. He’ll need rest — and I’d expect him to get some against Mallorca this weekend — so that he can put together great performances when the team needs him.

We have watched Luka Modric do so many things at an elite level over the past decade, and one of my favourite things about him is still the way he reads passing lanes so intelligently. None of his interceptions are ever a fluke. He knows how to cover shadow instinctually, and I think he could rack up more interceptions if he didn’t dissuade players from hitting the pass in the first place. But often he can coax ball carriers into passes he can pick off. Modric loves to bait the pass:

As I stated in a big feature column earlier this season, Modric and Kroos will be two players I’ll be writing about regularly this season in part because they’re great, but also in part because it’s a tiny way to pay tribute to two players who may not be here in two years.

Most players are either on their last legs by 37, or they’ve long retired or packed their bags for the Middle East or MLS. Not Modric. He’s still the best in the world in his position on his day, and playing on the most elite stage. His legs still function like any youngster:

What I love about the above clip is that it’s nothing really special, and it’ll never show up no a stat sheet, but that sprint prevents a good chance for Celtic, and takes one off-ball attacker out of the play before Dani Carvajal wins the ball.

Here is a much longer clip — nearly one minute — which illustrates three Modric traits in one go. Take note of him covering the space behind Tchouameni to win the ball at the beginning of the sequence. Once Real Madrid circulate possession, Modric is available as an outlet deep and sprints into an advanced position. Once he eventually gets the ball in a tight space, his brilliant flick releases Fede in full open water:

Modric already has four goal-creating actions in La Liga this season (the second most of anyone in the league). It goes without saying, he is not on some cute farewell tour suffering a decline. He’s still arguably the best central midfielder in the world and I wouldn’t swap him for anyone in a do-or-die game.

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