If the World Cup has offered us many surprises, Croatia definitely remains as the best one. Thanks to her high-quality collective performances, she is now attending the final stage alongside France. But it’s also and mostly due to her individual performances : starting with Modric. At 32 years old, the Real Madrid player has reached the top of his form and allowed his little country to believe in the ultimate victory. Let’s take a look at his amazing output.
Before any further discussion, note that Modric either plays as an offensive midfielder or a central one depending on Zlatko Dalic’s 4-2-3-1 :
Modric, creativity at its finest level :
Luka Modric is without a doubt one of the best players to dictate play. As if it wasn’t obvious enough with Los Merengues, he has proved that once again with his national football team. Alongside Ivan Rakitić, he has a huge importance in Croatia’s offensive animation. Decryption.
Firstly, we need to highlight the fact that he plays a lot in the half-spaces. This shows his creative-midfielder profile as the half-spaces are spaces frequently used to unlock openings and break the opponent’s block. Indeed, even against a low block, it is difficult to defend half-spaces. Why ? Because teams commonly defend the middle and the wings and cannot also defend these areas (at least not as they should). Modríc therefore takes advantage of that to link-up play and dictate the tempo of the match.
His heatmap against Russia shows a certain preference for half-spaces
From there, Luka offers himself various options that often lead to linking-up play and unlocking spaces in offense, such as :
– one-two passes with a partner
– quick through-passes in behind opponent’s defence
– passing lanes with shape of triangles to circulate the ball near the final third
A typical demonstration of his creativity with a one-two pass between Modric and Rebic. The midfielder’s dynamic pace in half-spaces pulls out the fullback and frees Rebic on the right wing. The free player then has the time and space to cross inside the box for either Mandzukic or Perisic. Quite simple, but productive.
His partnership with the Barcelona’s midfielder Ivan Rakitic increases the creativity in Croatia’s offensive transitions. With Modric’s dynamic running to free spaces added to his partner’s superb passing, opening exploitable spaces is not a difficult job for the duo.
However, there’s no doubt that Modric is better as a number10 midfielder than a defensive one alongside Rakitic. Bringing him in a deep position causes him to stay there and to not penetrate the opponent’s final third. And this consequence is extended to the whole squad that therefore struggles in creating danger near the penalty area.
Zlatko Dalic managed to find a midfielder capable to cover his partners (Brozovic) and that changed everything in the team’s offensive set-up. With Luka playing forward, offense is much more threatening and attacking efficiency as well. It’s therefore no coincidence if the difference between the left and right passmap (against England and Nigeria respectively) is the expected goals with an xG of 1.56 for the left passmap and an xG of 0.59 [with a penalty] for the other one. Can’t be more explicit…
Notice Modríc’s positioning in the two passmaps
Fortunately, Modric adapted his qualities to be a focal point in his team’s offense even as a central midfielder, as seen through this short clip. In this quick video analysis, Luka shows his :
– intelligent positioning (to receive the ball in ideal conditions)
– passing ability for possession-based play or a more direct play
– capacity to dictate tempo of the game from deep and from forward
– knowledge of play’s orientation from forward
– creation of passing lanes
We might have seen a lot from him in the competition, but in my opinion Modric has not entirely shown his full capabilities. Taking a look at his Real Madrid’s performances also exposes some other qualities that could be needed before the last World Cup fixture. For instance, his exceptionnal press resistance that has been proved back in Spain but not yet in the World Cup. This video analysis demonstrates his ability (credit to Om Arvind Youtube channel for the footage).
Some weaknesses shown ahead of the final :
He might be the player of the competition, but that does not mean he hasn’t any feebleness. We sometimes saw Luka struggling in the game because of some weaknesses. Fortunately, there is a solution for everything and since those struggles the Croatian team seems to be tactically fine.
In order to play comfortably, Modric needs to be adapted to the team’s structural animation. In fact, Luka is a player used to go high up the pitch so the team can progress vertically. Therefore he needs to be covered by a partner to not be hit on opponent’s quick transitions. If he’s not, the entire team will find difficulties offensively talking. This was obvious during their match against Nigeria.
Not being covered by anyone, the double pivot composed of Rakitic and Modric had to play very deep in order to be defensively aware. This caused a mayhem in the collective offensive animation, as a big gap was created between the duo and the 4 forwards. The lack of defensive insurance led the double pivot to stay deep, and that created a sort of disjointed structure in attack
To counter this difficulty without changing anything to the structure, Croatia had two options :
– stay deep and counter-attack
– counterpress to win the ball back quickly and attack
The first solution is not that bad, but can backfire depending on the opponent’s tactical attitude. In this case, the opposition could defend in a high block and compress Croatia to slowly diminuate free space for them. Too much of a risk to be chosen as a permanent option. The second one is also credible, but could not fit the Croatian football team. Based on the fact Rakitic and Modric are not that good in recovering the ball, defending in a disjointed 4-2-3-1 was dangerous. That left a lot of free space in the middle of the pitch with only two bad ball-winners to stay back and defend the area.
But thanks to Zlatko Dalic, those flaws were fixed throughout the World Cup. With Brozovic’s entrance and Modríc placed as an offensive midfielder, there finally was someone that could recover the ball properly. That ended up with Modric naturally playing his task of creating play for forward progress, and a big improvement in his performances. The same applies for Ivan Rakitic.
To improve defensively must not be a task for Modric, or at least be simple for him. Another solution to that could be counterpressing, although it may be too late to impose new tactical orders ahead of the final. We’ve seen time to time that Luka is impressive when he wants to get the ball back quickly, and that could be helpful if his squad wants to stay close to France’s penalty area (see video below of his effort on the 107th minute).
But let’s not emphasize those faults : quickly fixed by the coach, there are no longer a problem for Croatia. I just wanted to show here that having the most creative midfielder(s) in the world does not instantly bring you offensive efficiency. It is also the coach’s task to adapt the players to his system or build a specific system for them, or their potential cannot be fully used.
We were waiting for a Messi or Ronaldo’s tournament to remember,but here we are… ending up with Modric as the most likely man of the tournament. But is it bad though ? To me and many others, not even a bit. His natural creativity and multiple abilities speak for him : he’s logically a player we have to count on in big tournaments such as the World Cup.
Having reached an outstanding level with Real Madrid,Modric needed to show his talent for some recognition. Now that it’s done, we can finally enjoy his masterpiece and say that… yes, he’s probably the best midfielder in the world.