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Why the Return of Luka Modric Can Propel Real Madrid to Even Greater Heights

Nick Dorrington@@chewingthecocaSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 12, 2015

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 27:  Luka Modric (L) of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring with his teammate Gareth Bale during the La Liga match between Villarreal CF and Real Madrid at El Madrigal on September 27, 2014 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Luka Modric played a key role in a number of Real Madrid’s most impressive displays earlier this season. And with their performance levels starting to lag, the club are now eagerly awaiting his return from injury.

Modric has been out of action since mid November after picking up a thigh injury in Croatia’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw away to Italy. Per AS, the initial prognosis was that he would be out of action for three to four months—a time frame that we are now entering.

But how much have Madrid missed their midfield schemer and what impact will his return have on the side?

Their record during his absence certainly looks solid enough. Per Soccerway, Madrid’s 18 matches without the Croatian in all competitions have yielded fourteen victories, one draw and three defeats, with 46 goals scored and 15 conceded.

If three points were awarded for each win and one for each draw, they would have taken an average of 2.39 points per match over this period. That is marginally better than the 2.35 points per match they gained in the 17 matches (13 wins, three defeats and one draw) Modric was involved in prior to his injury.

But looking beyond the raw numbers, performances over this period suggest that Madrid have missed the qualities that Modric brings to the side.

Modric controls operations in the Madrid midfield.
Modric controls operations in the Madrid midfield.Alberto Saiz/Associated Press

While it has been in the big matches—the league defeat to Valencia and the league and cup losses to Atletico—that Modric’s absence has been most keenly felt, there has also been a lack of fluidity to Madrid’s play in many of their fixtures against smaller teams.

Once ahead, their ruthlessness on the counter-attack has been sufficient to see them comfortably emerge victorious, but they have occasionally struggled to get going in the early stages of such matches.

Modric 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.

During the early part of the season, he and Toni Kroos shared responsibility for moving the ball through midfield and setting the tempo of Madrid’s play. Per match data from WhoScored (plus additional author calculations), the pair of them regularly shared between 20 and 29 percent of the team’s total passes during the 10 league matches in which they were both fielded.

The burden has thereafter fallen more squarely on Kroos’ shoulders, with the Germany international since recording three—against Eibar, Valencia and Espanyol—of his five highest shares of Madrid’s total passes so far this season.

Isco has admirably taken on more responsibility. His six highest shares of the team’s total passes have come when Modric has been unavailable, while, as per Squawka, he has also added more variety to the length of his passes in the Croatian’s absence.

The evolution of Isco's average pass length over time.
The evolution of Isco's average pass length over time.Courtesy of Squawka.

But while his increased contribution has been a welcome development—not least for Kroos—much of his play is contained in an area that is smaller, both laterally and vertically, than that in which Modric usually operates.

It is also the pace of Modric’s use of the ball that makes him unique. There are plenty of players capable of the same passing range but few who can execute such passes as swiftly and seemingly effortlessly as the 29-year-old. He automatically brings greater fluidity to the play of any side he is a part of.

"His finest quality is his ability to move forward with the ball," Carlo Ancelotti explained last January, as per Soccerly. "Modric is changing the rhythm of the way we play in attack."

And while Madrid have plenty of talented players, it is the Croatian’s ability to establish and vary the tempo of their play that has been sorely missed.

Per Marca, Modric is expected to be back in action sometime in mid March. The second leg of Madrid’s Champions League tie against Schalke on March 10 is considered a realistic return date, although the club are reluctant to rush him back prematurely.

But once he is back to full fitness and ready to contribute, his return could prove to be the difference between success and failure for Madrid during the final decisive months of the campaign.

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