Luka Modric has been one of Real Madrid’s most impressive performers so far this season. His expected three-to-four-month absence, as per AS, due to an injury picked up on international duty clearly creates a problem for Carlo Ancelotti.
The Croatian is a relatively unique player, combining excellent technical skills and passing range with good energy and work-rate and an ever-improving awareness of his defensive responsibilities.
Ancelotti does not possess a direct, like-for-like replacement. He does, however, have sufficient options to select combinations that should be capable of overcoming a good number of the teams Madrid will face during this period.
Isco was selected in Modric’s place for Madrid’s 4-0 win over Eibar at the weekend and did a good job in a relatively unfamiliar role.
"He played very well," Ancelotti said afterwards, as per AS. "He kept a good defensive position and was quality going forward as usual. He showed he can play that position."
While it was a little strange to see Isco deployed in a deeper role, where his passing and dribbling ability were less decisive than usual, he certainly showed that he is capable of standing in for Modric in certain matches. Particularly so if he and his midfield colleagues James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos work as hard as they did on Saturday.
But there are fixtures to come in which Ancelotti may require a little more defensive stability than what Isco is naturally able to offer. The coaching staff have worked hard to improve that side of his game, but he still doesn’t offer quite the same level of protection that a more defensively minded player would.
If Modric is out for three months, he will certainly miss the league fixtures against Valencia, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid and would very likely miss the first leg of Madrid’s Champions League round of 16 tie. He would also be unavailable for the highly probable Copa del Rey round of 16 encounter with Atletico, a potential quarter-final against Barcelona and the first leg of the semi-final, if Madrid make it that far.
Extend his time on the sidelines to four months, and it would also encompass the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie and the possible Copa del Rey semi-final. In addition, he would be touch and go for the league fixture away to Barcelona on March 22.
Against some of these more difficult opponents, Ancelotti may need to call on either Asier Illarramendi or Sami Khedira in order to give his side a more solid midfield base.
Despite lacking full match fitness, Khedira was picked ahead of Illarramendi for the Champions League final against Atletico in May. If fit, he is the more likely of the pair to be selected in this role.
That is particularly likely to be the case against combative teams who offer a strong aerial threat from set pieces. Khedira has a clear height and strength advantage over Illarramendi and is more robust into the tackle.
Khedira also has a pre-existing understanding with Kroos from their time playing together for Germany at international level.
Illarramendi does, though, offer more precision in possession and is more accustomed to holding his position at the base of the midfield. This could prove invaluable against technically able teams who break quickly upon winning possession—the likes of Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Villarreal.
Either of them would give Kroos a little more freedom to move forward and get involved further up the pitch as necessary.
Modric will clearly be missed, particularly once the difficult fixtures start to pile up in the early months of 2015. Any team would miss such a talented player. But the truth is that Ancelotti does not need to limit himself to only one plan or approach in the Croatian’s absence.
While the shape seems certain to remain 4-3-3, Illarramendi, Isco and Khedira each provide different qualities that can be utilised on a match-by-match basis to counter the attributes of each opposing team.
The skill will be in choosing the right player for the right match. And Ancelotti, the expert problem-solver, has already provided plenty of evidence that he is more than up to the task.