Real Madrid were mourning in Barcelona, Barcelona were in celebrating in Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti was behind the microphone inside the Estadi Cornella-El Prat in the heart of Catalonia. The Italian's team had just defeated hosts Espanyol 4-1, Cristiano Ronaldo registering yet another hat-trick, but a single Lionel Messi strike 600 kilometres west at the Vicente Calderon had delivered the league title to the Camp Nou. Again, for the fifth time in seven years.
So Ancelotti sat, with his typically unmoved demeanour, answering questions on his side's downfall, offering explanations for why a Real Madrid team that had once been on course for an historic season and had led the league until Week 25 had finished it all empty-handed. Among the factors listed, but perhaps the most significant one: injuries.
"Injuries have burdened us, especially Modric," said Ancelotti candidly, his mind perhaps wandering back to a defining evening almost exactly eight months earlier. "Modric has missed most of the year and this has hurt us."
That evening eight months earlier had seen Basel in the Spanish capital for the opening round of matches in the Champions League. Real Madrid, fresh from defeat to neighbours Atletico Madrid and still engulfed in the embarrassment of a catastrophic collapse in Basque country to Real Sociedad, were reeling. The Madrid press was circling. Speculation on Ancelotti's future was rife. Supporters' groups were ready to revolt. The Bernabeu was tense, uncompromising—especially so.
But then, Luka Modric intervened.
Receiving a pass from Cristiano Ronaldo, the Croatian, just ahead of the halfway line, didn't bother with a touch and instead hit the most sublime, first-time, outside-of-the-boot chip to a surging Gareth Bale. Goal. As the Welshman finished the move, Modric could be seen in the background, twisting his posture like a golfer watching a long putt, admiring his work.
Less than a minute later, Modric played exactly the same ball to Bale again, wiping out the Basel defence once more and releasing the former Tottenham Hotspur forward into space down the right flank. With the most simple of passes, Bale found Ronaldo. Goal.
The strikes were the second and third in a 5-1 thrashing of the Swiss side; the second and third goals of the 52 that would come in just 13 games prior to the November international break. In those 13, Real Madrid were triumphant 13 times and would go on to reach 22 straight wins with an aggregate scoreline of 81-10 by December 20.
In that stretch there was talk of Ancelotti being Real Madrid's equivalent to Sir Alex Ferguson, Marca labelled Xabi Alonso's departure as "no Real loss," and after being crowned world champions and European champions, Real Madrid were practically being crowned Spanish champions, too, with more than half the season still to play.
Modric, with two majestic passes, had sparked something extraordinary.
Yet, in truth, Real Madrid were functioning sub-optimally from the November international break onward. The goals continued to pile up but the fluency wasn't the same, as Modric sat on the sidelines after suffering a serious thigh injury while on duty with Croatia.
Ancelotti's answer was to plug Isco into the system, trusting the ability of another creative technician to slot in seamlessly alongside James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. It worked, briefly. To an extent. But the young Spaniard is a very different midfielder to the one he replaced in the lineup: whereas Isco is a player of dribbles, weaves, skips, shots and long runs, Modric's game is defined by its efficiency, the speed with which he moves the ball and his ability to render opposing formations helpless with one pass.
In that regard, Modric stands alone in Real Madrid's squad, his talents unique. And to understand the impact he has upon Los Blancos, you need to examine the team's figures with and without him in the XI.
|Real Madrid in La Liga '14-15 With/Without Modric (per game)|
|With Modric||Without Modric|
|Loss of Possession||17.0||19.2|
|WhoScored.com and Author Calculations|
Most striking from the table above is that without the former Spurs star Real Madrid retain more possession, but score less, attempt fewer shots, spend more time clearing the ball from their own defence and concede more goals.
The source of those issues lies in the team's passing and dribble rates when Modric isn't present, the former plummeting and the latter rising without the Croatian.
Essentially, without Modric, Real Madrid have more of the ball but do less with it. Their play becomes stagnant. The ball sticks to feet. Off-the-ball movement fades. Instead of pass, pass, pass, pass, shoot, it becomes: pass, dribble, pause, pass, stop, dribble.
With the removal of the team's central conductor, Madrid lose their flow, turning to individual talent rather than the system to break down an opponent—something Ancelotti complained about in January when he said his team's "rhythm was too slow."
Modric provides the rhythm. Modric is the rhythm.
As such, Real Madrid lost their most critical ingredient, the quality that underpinned their formidable run, when the 29-year-old succumbed to injury. Without him, Los Blancos didn't possess the balance or clarity in attack to disturb Atletico Madrid, Valencia or Juventus.
Modric alone, through his presence and absence, defined the two halves of Real Madrid's season.
It's also revealing to examine the impact Modric has on individual forwards at the Bernabeu.
One of the midfielder's most notable traits is his ability to draw more out of others. His crisp, efficient passing brings more team-mates into play, increasing the number of players involved in each move, simultaneously stretching defences and opening holes to attack.
Karim Benzema was one who benefited from the presence of Modric, scoring at a better clip with the Croatian on the field and enjoying greater freedom in his movement. Yet it was Bale who profited most from his old Tottenham team-mate; in 2014-15, the Welshman scored twice as often when Modric played, with the sparkling goal against Basel emblematic of the pair's understanding and compatibility.
|Modric's Influence on Forwards (goals per game in La Liga)|
|Gareth Bale||Karim Benzema|
|WhoScored.com and Author Calculation|
Equally symbolic was Modric's return from injury in March coinciding with Bale snapping a nine-game scoreless run with a brace against Levante. "Modric brings Bale back to life," declared Marca, hailing the Croatian's "masterful midfield moderation" and asserting that Real were "marching to the beat of Modric's drum."
A month later, however, that drummer was missing once more, sidelined for the critical run-in involving clashes with Atletico, Valencia and Juventus. Prior to the second-leg quarter-final meeting with Atleti in the Champions League, Marca wrote that Diego Simeone's players had reacted to Modric's absence by saying: "He's half the team."
Real would go on to edge past their neighbours in that battle, but they'd go on to lose the war, desperately missing their central general who quietly and efficiently underpins their method.