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Luka Modric and the Art of Midfield

Musto Design
Musto Design

Euro 2016 starts this Friday. All week, we’ll be highlighting key players in all three phases of the game — defense, midfield, and attack — along with one manager. They’re all among the best at what they do, and the intricacies of their approaches help illuminate how soccer is played today. Check back tomorrow for more.

Luka Modric doesn’t make sense. He’s a 5-foot-7, 143-pounder who plays the same position as Paul Pogba. He’s a translucent forest creature who moves like a ballroom dancer, and a prolific passer capable of urging the ball forward by letting it run through his legs.

Rest assured, Modric touches the ball as much as anyone. The Real Madrid and Croatia midfielder completed over 2,000 passes this season — racking up the fourth-highest total in Spain while maintaining a 91 percent completion clip. And despite an aggressive impulse with the ball at his feet — over 1.6 completed dribbles per 90 — Modric rarely loses possession.

Everything about him seems to exist in opposition to something else. And it’s at the cross section of these contradictions that Modric fits into the modern game: He sits deep in the midfield, far away from goal, but that doesn’t keep him from making plays.

Around the turn of the century, defensive or holding midfield was the realm of the ball winner — players you could describe as terriers — built in the image of Claude Makélélé, a French destroyer whose presence seemed to dictate the success of Real Madrid in the early 2000s. These defensive mids played as shields, sitting in front of the center backs and protecting them from incisive, down-the-middle passes. Their marching orders were “win the ball back and quickly shift it to someone who’s more skilled than you.”

Near the end of the aughts, teams started shifting creative players like Modric and Andrea Pirlo into the deep role. (This echoes the regista position that has vacillated in and out of favor in Italian soccer.) All the Makélélés were crowding out the space playmakers would normally occupy, so the hunted moved back and started to replace their predators. Much as how NBA teams can’t afford to carry a wing player who can’t shoot, midfielder became too valuable a position to waste on someone who offered nothing in attack. Having a skilled passer in that position meant you’d keep the ball for longer and likely score more goals — two things that, in turn, lessened the need for a pure holder.

Modric began his career as an attacking midfielder, and though he immediately dropped deeper after joining Tottenham from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008, he still put up impressive attacking numbers for most of his career. He maintained high pass-completion numbers despite consistently taking risks: Modric played a ton of through balls and created stacks of chances for his teammates.That was his M.O. during his first two seasons with Real Madrid, as he played alongside another holding-midfield-creator and Premier League transplant, Xabi Alonso. But Madrid sold Alonso to Bayern Munich in 2014, and in his place have brought in every overpriced attacking midfielder they could get their hands on, pushing Modric deeper into midfield.

His attacking output has decreased, but his ball-retention numbers have all gone up. For Madrid, he essentially functions as a quarterback. Every time he’s on the ball, it’s a quick decision: How best to spring the trips set of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema for a touchdown? Sometimes it’s shifting a short handoff to fellow midfielder Toni Kroos, sometimes it’s a bomb over the top, and sometimes you just have to put your head down and do it all yourself:

At the Euros, Modric won’t have the 1999 St. Louis Rams wide receiver corps in front of him, but he might be a part of the best midfield at the tournament. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Modric’s Madrid teammate Mateo Kovacic are talented, attack-minded players. Modric will likely have to handle up most of the deep-midfield duties again. Whether or not he finds spots to get forward, though, he should still be able to do some damage. Even if the ball is somewhere else.