Croatia's Euros adventure is over but their main man may be back on the continent sooner than later, says Alex Keble
Two minutes into Spain vs Croatia, Luka Modric got his first taste of possession among the titans of the Spanish midfield. The Spurs man jinked between two of them, outpaced a third then cut back inside and delivered a 30 yard crossfield pass, stretching the opposition and setting Croatia up for their first attack of the game.
The crowd roared with delight: so many Croatian hopes were pinned on their No.10, whose delicate touch and nimble footwork are renowned for their sparks of inspiration and thoughtful ingenuity. It was a burst that signalled Croatia's intentions Ã¢ÂÂ and one that, with Jose Mourinho looking on, could herald a career with the world's most prestigious club.
The jolt of electricity Modric provided in these opening minutes was emblematic of his performance; his influence was sporadic, but when given the opportunity Tottenham's playmaker offered a technical assurance comparable to his Spanish counterparts, carefully weaving goalscoring opportunities on several occasions.
Intentionally or not, Modric's assured performance against Spain was as much an audition as it was an attempt to defeat the world champions. Rumours of Real Madrid's interest have slowly emerged over the season, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that Modric epitomises the attributes Mourinho is scouring Europe for.
Modric and Madrid: A Mourinho-made match?
What are Madrid searching for?
When Mourinho arrived at the Bernabeu following success with somewhat safety-first styles at Inter and Chelsea, concerns were raised about his ability to fit Madrid's rich tradition of exciting, attacking football.
Not any more. On their way to winning last season's league title Madrid amassed 121 goals, and a considerable portion of the credit should be given to Mourinho's implementation of a 4-2-3-1 formation utilising three flexible attacking midfielders: Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria can all play anywhere across this line. Their malleable nature allows for constant positional change, giving Madrid the fluidity and unpredictability that was so deadly last season.
Another option there is 30-year-old Kaka, but the Ã¢ÂÂ¬65m man has never truly sparkled in Madrid, and last season contributed only five goals and seven assists. Moreover, the now thirtysomething Kaka can only really play the central No.10 role, contradicting Mourinho's requirements.
Despite signing Turkey midfielder Nuri Sahin last summer, Mourinho knows he is short of options in this area, and is looking for reinforcements. David Silva is a target, but is enjoying success at the financially mighty Manchester City. Sao Paulo's teenage Brazil international Lucas Moura has a great future, but is still inexperienced. So what would Mourinho have made of Spurs' Croatian maestro?
Facing Spain was a good test of Modric's Madrid credentials Ã¢ÂÂ confronting the Spanish style, specifically a largely Barcelona-based midfield. Emerging from such an encounter with respectability would prove the depth of his talent, and indicate an ability to influence play when submerged by the overwhelming presence of Barcelona midfielders.
Modric struggled to remain consistently influential, although this can only be expected when playing against a team virtually guaranteed at least 60% possession. But when Modric was on the ball, his weaving slaloms and tricky little dribbles gave Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso plenty to think about.
Dribbling and technical ability
Playing in an advanced central role (as he presumably would at Madrid), Modric was the catalyst of Croatia's attacks, offering stability and composure in possession to facilitate swift counterattacks, while also providing a significant solo threat with his balletic footwork.
His Stats Zone take-on screen shows the frequency with which Modric was able to outwit the opposition one-on-one. Notice how the majority of these successful take-ons were in central regions: although unable to influence the game closer to Spain's goal due to the champions' dominance, Modric was still able to offer his flair and grace in the most congested area of the pitch.
As noted, to play for Madrid Modric would be required to play various positions wihtin the attacking midfield triumvirate: agility and mobility are essential components of Madrid's fluid and varied attacks.
Although he had a central role for Croatia against Spain, the Stats Zone screen showing his passes received shows his movement off the ball, receiving passes in a variety of positions and on both wings. Indeed, with previous experience as a winger, Modric does not suffer from the same positional hindrance as Kaka.
Influence on the game and creative burden
The highlight of Modric's evening was the chance he created early in the second half. Seizing on an intercepted pass, he flicked the ball past Jordi Alba with a deft touch before sprinting 30 yards in possession, cutting inside, and crossing the ball exquisitely with the outside of his foot. Ivan Rakitic should have scored, Spain could have gone out, and Modric would have stolen all the headlines.
One noteworthy screen shot from the game is Modric's own distribution, which involved almost exclusively longer balls over 15 yards or so; it is rare to see such a conspicuous absence of very short passing.
What this shows us is that Modric was Croatia's creative hub, dictating the tempo and direction of their attacks, while the team followed Bilic's orders by attempting to stretch Spain on the break. Shouldering this creative burden deserves credit, considering the extent to which he was still able to catch the eye and create what should have been a goal.
Croatia's other matches
After impressive performances in all three of their group games, Bilic's side were desperately unlucky not to reach the quarter-finals.
Against Ireland, in which Croatia had 55% of the possession, Modric was the top passer, asserting his dominance on the game. He completed 58 passes, almost the same as Ireland's two central midfielders Glenn Whelan (38) and Keith Andrews (31) combined.
The Italy match was a fascinating tactical performance that would have greatly interested Mourinho. After an unsuccessful first half left Croatia trailing 1-0, Bilic moved Modric into a more advanced role. When their talismanic No.10 was able to receive the ball in more dangerous positions, Croatia's fortunes greatly improved: note their advancing passing shape. Modric proved to any potential suitors his ability to take control of a game Ã¢ÂÂ at the highest level.
Although failure to qualify from the group stage will have hurt Luka Modric, he can be quietly confident that his displays have been proficient and assured. The majesty and intelligence of his playmaking is not fully represented in the statistics, but is in plain sight for the casual observer. Jose Mourinho will know that the 25-year-old is a technically gifted footballer, with the intelligence, ingenuity, adaptability and speed (of mind and body) that is needed to complement the similar grace and brilliance of Ozil, Ronaldo & Co.
With a confident display against a Spain side dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona players, Modric may have just passed the final test before being granted entry to the Mecca of world football. Tottenham fans beware.
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