It happened in a flash. Pinned back in his own half Borussia Dortmund defender Lukasz Piszczek attempted to find an outlet in his captain Sebastian Kehl. His somewhat errant pass rolled harmlessly towards the central midfielder but before he could control it Luka Modric intervened, intercepting the pass and playing Cristiano Ronaldo through on goal before anyone could react. It was the defining moment of the tie thus far and the goal should provide enough breathing room for Real Madrid as they enter the hostile environment of the Westfalenstadion later tonight. But on a grander scale, it perfectly epitomized the delicate balance between defense and attack that Modric has mastered this season, one that is quickly being recognized as the best of his career.
The story of Modric’s rise from relative obscurity – at least by Real Madrid’s lofty standards – in less than one year has been remarkable. The Croatia international has gone from a benchwarmer, picking up scraps of playing time whenever he could, to a pivotal figure in the Madrid midfield. Some may point to his fantastic goal in Old Trafford last year against United as the turning point in his Blancos career but some brilliant individual performances last season notwithstanding, it’s under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti and his possession-based strategy where the Croatian has really flourished.
Like the stoic Ancelotti, whose expressive celebration of that third goal showed its importance, Modric exudes a calm demeanor on a team filled with explosive players, for better and for worst. It’s a mantle he has borrowed from Xabi Alonso; in fact the 28-year-old has likely usurped the aging Alonso this season as Madrid’s most important midfielder, a task that takes much doing.
But what stands out most regarding Luka is his sheer impact on everything Madrid does. In today’s game where statistics are becoming an accepted method of evaluation, Luka defies logic. His stats are hardly gaudy – just 2 goals and 7 assists on the season but you would be hard pressed to find a Madrid fan who wouldn’t name Modric as one of the teams most important players, even perhaps as the most important ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo – a statement that would have likely been met with blank stares at the start of the season.
The attacking BBC trident may get all the plaudits and deservedly so, but there are no statistics for tenacity, drive, and Modric’s seemingly inherent ability to retain the ball under immense pressure. His defensive improvement must also be noted as well. In Ancelotti’s demanding 4-3-3 system the defensive contributions of his midfielders are paramount, hence Mesut Ozil’s departure and Isco’s struggle to maintain a starting position. Not primarily known for his defensive capabilities Luka has adopted this approach wholeheartedly and added it to his repertoire. In effect, Modric has become the perfect midfielder, a hybrid of defensive doggedness and attacking flair. And this adaptability was on full display this past weekend away to Real Sociedad. After a dire first half where Madrid looked devoid of options, Modric moved into a more attacking position and lead from the front. A far cry from the player who was mocked as the worst transfer at the midway point of last season by Marca.
As Madrid look to exercise the demons of last year’s 4-1 later tonight they do so with a renewed purpose and a confident Luka Modric at the center of the park managing the game. It all happened so quickly indeed.