It was hardly the sort of entrance that said “I’m here to save the day”. Luka Modric was still putting his headband on as he rather leisurely entered the Old Trafford pitch just a few moments after Nani’s controversial sending off in the Champions League last-16 second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Los Blancos were down 2-1 on aggregate after a Sergio Ramos own goal had put United in the driving seat a short while earlier, but with the hosts a man light, Jose Mourinho sent Modric on as Madrid looked to suffocate Alex Ferguson’s men.
Alongside Xabi Alonso, Modric was swiftly into the thick of it as Madrid tried to pull United this way and that, and he soon took matters into his own hands with Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo unable to break through.
Allowed space just outside the United area, Modric’s motioning for a shot lured Michael Carrick out of position and the Croatian easily breezed past him before lashing an unstoppable effort in off the right-hand post just seven minutes after coming on.
It was only his second goal for the club, but as it spurred Madrid on to seal a 2-1 win and a spot in the next round thanks, Modric has regarded that match as the turning point in his career at the Santiago Bernabeu.
A perfect storm
It’s easy to forget how disappointing Modric’s first season at Madrid was deemed to be. After all, before Christmas, he was voted as the worst signing of the campaign in a Marca poll, beating Alex Song of Barcelona to top the charts.
Two years Modric’s junior, Song has been playing his football in Djibouti this season; Modric remains, at the ripe old age of 35, arguably the finest midfielder in Spain.
There are certainly comparisons to be made with Thiago Alcantara’s first season in England, with Liverpool struggling to even maintain a challenge for the top four, let alone defend their title.
Thiago was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle, the sort of central midfielder that balanced flair with genuine playmaking abilities, unlike anyone already in the squad. It was said his arrival would enable to Liverpool to play with greater flexibility, but the reality has been a little different.
Teams are playing deeper against Liverpool, as evidenced by the fact their shots outside the area per game is up from 4.6 per game to 5.2, while they are being allowed 190.4 passes in the final third each match, up from 180.9. Opponents are more confident they can keep Liverpool out if they defend deep.
Of course, Liverpool’s issues this term are plentiful – injuries have been particularly frequent, and Thiago himself has lost a significant chunk of the season in this regard.
But even when he has been fit, it’s difficult to say the Spain international has transformed the Reds. In fact, they have a better league win percentage (57.1) when he doesn’t play than when he does (37.5), while they tend to score more goals (2.4 per game, compared to 1.1 when he is playing).
One theory for Thiago’s struggles has been his apparent lack of comfort with Liverpool’s intense pressing style, but the data suggests that to be a red herring.
Granted, Liverpool do engage in 18.9 pressed sequences – instances where the opposition have three or fewer passes in a move, which ends within 40 metres of their own goal – per game, with their total of 567 the most in the Premier League this term.
But Bayern averaged 16.9 per game in 2019-20 and led the way in the Bundesliga in this regard. Meanwhile, they allowed 9.8 opposition passes per defensive action, with Liverpool’s PPDA this term 10.7, showing the Bayern side Thiago played in wasn’t too dissimilar.
So, why would Liverpool’s off-the-ball intensity impact him so much? It seems far more likely the issue is simply that he’s in the middle of a perfect storm of settling into new surroundings and a new team during an injury crisis that has impacted him as well.
Fans can forget that players are people first and foremost. Upheaval off the pitch can have a demonstrable effect on it – of course it can, just like life at home can impact the job performance of average Joe.
This was a key element for Modric, who explained how he found it difficult to settle in initially at Real Madrid, not only because as a club they are an entirely different beast to Tottenham but also as he didn’t have a pre-season and gaining fitness was always likely to be a struggle when playing catch-up.
As for fan expectations, perhaps there was also a degree of misunderstanding from Madrid supporters. Maybe they were initially expecting something more than Modric.
After all, in his final season at Spurs, Modric was a key creator. His 96 key passes in 2011-12 was bettered by only two midfielders in the Premier League (David Silva – 104, Juan Mata – 103), evidence that much of the creative burden was on his shoulders.
So, perhaps the fact his creative ingenuity wasn’t being so frequently displayed at Madrid coloured opinion.
Granted, his 17 key passes in 13 league appearances between the start of the season and January 1 left a lot to be desired, but his end-of-season record of 56 was the third-highest in the Madrid squad.
Time, patience and trust were seemingly key to Modric establishing himself, but to suggest he’s played the same way at Madrid as in his best season at Spurs would be incorrect – the closest he’s ever got to that 96 key passes haul since was 61 in 2015-16.
In fact, when you consider a whole range of his key metrics such as passes, pass completion, chance creation, touches of the ball and defensive areas, there hasn’t been drastic fluctuation between 2012-13 and now.
Certainly, his 62.6 successful passes per 90 is up from 55 in 2012-13, while his touches have improved from 80 to 86.7, but those differences certainly aren’t major. The fact is his figures have been pretty steady throughout his time in LaLiga.
But at 35, he has still played in 28 of Madrid’s 29 league matches this term. He’s arguably more important to them than ever before.
Coming back from being a target of ridicule to becoming a club great and winning the Ballon d’Or speaks to Modric’s attitude and talent, but also serves as inspiration for Thiago.
While the Spaniard has not had to contend with quite the same level of criticism, there are certainly those unconvinced by him.
With a full pre-season under his belt and allowed to gel into a settled team that isn’t constantly being chopped and changed due to injuries, Thiago can surely enjoy a sparkling second season at Liverpool. After all, the data proves the Reds’ pressing shouldn’t be a long-term issue for him given how Bayern played.
A 25-yard strike of his own against Manchester United would go down very well right now, although a similarly decisive impact against Madrid would surely be a nice compromise for the Barcelona product.
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