Luka Modrić: Real Madrid’s Indefatigable Conductor
Written by Ruairidh Barlow
Mario Gómez and Wayne Rooney are retired. Filipe Luís is back home in Brazil and Lukas Podolski is in the middle of the table in Turkey. Atlético Madrid’s other ever-present full-back of the 2010s, Juanfran Torres, is a free agent. Even Cristiano Ronaldo is operating at reduced capacity, now fully embracing one-touch football - provided it’s the decisive touch. What all of these players have in common is that they were born in the same year, as Mikhail Gorbachev took power and ‘WHAM!’ captured the world in 1985. They represent an era of the game, now fading into the past. Which makes it all the more astonishing that their contemporary, Luka Modrić, still hasn’t missed a beat.
At the age of 35, most players are winding down and potentially seeking more, how to put it, tranquil pastures. Not Lukita. He remains the beating heart of a leviathan. Scurrying across the pitch; twist, look, turn – assess again - release. Lubricating the play, Modrić’s presence in the engine room is one of the few things keeping a rusty Real Madrid in the running for the LaLiga title.
If Zinedine Zidane had an alternative, he would play less. The Croat has started 25 of their 29 league matches and come on in three of the other four. This Real Madrid is the most difficult to play for since his arrival; a team that sweats for every goal, in which their goalkeeper is a key galáctico. His responsibility is magnified, his importance emphasised by those numbers. Modrić plays because no-one else can do what he can. Yet he looks no different. The strain, if it is there, does not show. Instead, he continues with a serenity reminiscent of Roger Federer; with a metronomic consistency.
Although there is grit to Modrić. Tactical fouls are just fine by him and nipping at ankles isn’t sacrilege either, traits rarely associated with the technical midfielder, charged with providing the music and the flow in a team. It’s a theme in the Modrić tale, however.
In his first season with Real Madrid in 2012/13, Modrić was declared by MARCA as LaLiga’s worst signing of the summer. A transfer window which also saw Barcelona move for Alex Song, best known in Catalonia for his dress sense, that headline looks more asinine every day. There is a strong argument that he may be the signing of the decade.
In a way, his return to the peak should have been anticipated after he briefly lost his place to the young pretender Federico Valverde in December 2019. That’s when the Modrić grit comes through. After arguably his worst season in white since 2012, he dragged Croatia through bitter cold, stifling heat and a thousand extra-times to the 2018 World Cup final. When he had his heart set on a move to Chelsea in the summer of 2011, the press placed him on Roman Abramovich’s yacht and his head was elsewhere too. Once again Modrić sailed through a theoretically tricky situation, playing 37 of 38 Premier League games, and Tottenham finished in the Champions League places for just the second time in 22 years.
‘Vinagre’ is his nickname at Valdebebas: “I don’t take it well when we lose in training.” The timing and rhythm with which he plays make it hard to assimilate this sharp edge of his. Yet it is that which earns him the right to glide through matches in Federer-esque fashion.
In contrast to the Swiss, Modrić endured a now well-documented harrowing childhood. There were happy times he maintains, yet plenty more besides; he was made a refugee by the age of 10 in war-torn Yugoslavia. “These things can make you tougher or break you; I choose to become tougher, to create my character,” he told The Guardian.
Doubtless there is a slightly sickly, grotesque nature to the way football searches out those who have suffered in the knowledge that this can later be a mental tool, a quietly acknowledged trend evident whenever European clubs seek talent from outside of the continent. The street footballers from Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires can cope when the going gets tough, or so the theory goes. Thomas Tuchel was most bare-faced about it while speaking at an ASPIRE Academy event in 2015. Youth coaches must endeavour to “make life as difficult as possible for their talents,” according to him.
Still, Modrić is patently aware of this ugly blessing. “Things that happened made me stronger. I can say tough. When you go through what I have been through, it is much easier to accept some things that are happening in your life later, footballing-wise or defeats or critics or this or that.”
To lock eyes with adversity and bet on yourself is a skill common to the era-defining athlete. Those ultimate tests are something the true greats salivate over, with every intention of doing whatever necessary to get one over on the world. Mix that with a healthy dose of talent and you can take a country of just over four million people to the World Cup final.
“Regardless of whether it’s in a diamond, with a double pivot or a defensive midfielder and two ‘interiors’: he’s always there. Modrić is the Harvey Keitel who arrives in a suit to solve any problem you may have,” writes Daniel Fernández-Pacheco for Sphera Sports.
At times it feels as if Modrić is almost context-proof. Some players have a causal effect on a team, requiring the presence of certain elements to extract their own talent. In this rare case, ‘Vinagre’ complements every ingredient. That the happy prince of football poetry, Jorge Valdano, deigns to talk about him so often is a prize to be respected as much as his Ballon D’Or. Such glowing terms are reserved only for the best.
“He doesn’t forget about his principal mission: to ensure that the machine is functioning. He always does everything he could, everything he should and everything that concurs with the improvement of the whole,” wrote the Argentine in 2018.
So often a player of his skillset will be limited to a certain type of football. Whether it be imposed by managers, circumstances or even the player, technical midfielders tend to be confined to their image in some sense. They are deemed unable to play in a team which doesn’t base itself on possession or incapable of defending physical adversaries. Perhaps they may be placed further forward; where their talent is wasted but the defensive workload is theoretically less.
In many ways, he belongs on the other side of the divide. Modrić is exactly the kind of midfielder who would be courted, doted upon and adored in Barcelona. That sense is heightened when considering the feeling he creates. One of rhythm and bass in the middle, or even more classical; Modrić often builds play to reach a crescendo, a welcome addition to Real Madrid, considering Florentino Pérez has frequently sought to fill their squad with lead singers.
“Modrić performs the miracle of allowing the move to breathe, giving the ball the necessary speed, wherever it is on the field,” continues Valdano, also in The Guardian. The 2018 World Cup is entering its own finale as we join Valdano now, a tournament which has been rigid with structure. “Suddenly we discover that space and time do exist and that all that was needed was someone with talent to bring them back, to make them what they always were.”
The reason he works so well at Real Madrid, whose recent metamorphoses has been shaped more by the players than the managers, is precisely that adaptability. Allowing him out of the technical midfielder tropes, every shape and size of Madrid has had Modrić at its centre. As Fernández-Pacheco put it; he’s always there.
Others have been less fortunate or even less capable. Isco and James Rodríguez both found themselves cast off, incapable of diversifying their meta.
Such is the human condition that we incessantly rush to assign each player an archetype and a definitive skill, particularly with young players, who inherit the name of some great from the past before they reach the age of 20. Take N’Golo Kanté for example, a very different midfielder. To listen to analysis of him is to discover that the Frenchman only exists when his team do not have the ball. And this man is a World Cup winner.
While this remains facile, it’s true that older players adapt their game. Efficiency becomes a priority. Cristiano is a prime example of this, and Luis Suárez has localised his expert manipulation of defenders in recent years.
Everyone recalls with fondness late-stage Andrea Pirlo, who seemingly never moved, yet ran the game.
Nikola Jerkan, who scouts for the Croatian national team, explained to El País how Modrić differs: “The case of Luka is unique at his age. Lots of players move deeper with age, but Luka continues to look for the ‘pressure zones’ where he can generate danger.”
He was the player who covered more metres than anyone else at the 2018 World Cup and that statistic still looks believable nearly three years later. Modrić hasn’t changed a bit. His pressing retains bite and his movement is dynamic. He simply won’t allow anything else.
“Modrić is everywhere, he wants every ball, he runs as much as a responsible understanding of the game allows, but he never allows himself a single act of demagoguery,” Valdano waxes on. Unlike most, “he does not feel the pull of populism, nor any temptation to play to the gallery. He is too focused on football, submitting his five senses to the game itself.”
His powers are dedicated to his craft as opposed to comic-book glory. Luka Modrić’s angelic football serves to ward off weaknesses. There seems very little innocence in football, especially when dealing with a Death Star like Real Madrid. The slight Croatian, dressed all in baggy white, lends Los Blancos a footballing purity they don’t get from anyone else.
Yet when rivals come to storm the White House, Modrić does take on a superhero-like quality as he darts around. As if taken from a scene in a film, where the bad guys come at our champion in ones and twos – he evades their punches with agility and wit. Invariably, at some point, Modrić jukes and two of his foes collide. Pan out and Modrić is wasting no time; he’s off to save the day.
The case of Modrić is unique, Jerkan was right. Modrić goes beyond what we can appreciate all at the same time; technical but full of moxie, a conductor with the strength of a marathon-runner. He’s grown wise without the drawbacks of the passing years, both fearless and seemingly ageless. Modrić said his childhood made him tough, sometimes it feels as if he’s indestructible.
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