2014 FIFA World Cup, 32 players to watch, Featured, June 2014

32 Players to Watch in Brazil: #18 Luka Modric

Luka Modric hopes to map a course for Croatia to the knockout rounds...

Luka Modric hopes to map a course for Croatia to the knockout rounds…

Neil W. Blackmon

Sometimes, a player is second-fiddle at club. Sometimes, this trend carries over to country, regardless of the player’s genuine class, such as Edinson Cavani of Uruguay and PSG, our #18 Player to Watch, who Jon Levy wrote a tremendous piece on you can read here. 

Other times, a player is second or third fiddle for club but is the maestro for country. These instances may be rare (2010 Landon Donovan at Everton, Neymar at Barca are two), but perhaps no player best exemplifies this phenomenon more than Croatia’s Luka Modrić.

Number 18: Luka Modrić

Country: Croatia

Club: Real Madrid

Position: Center Midfield

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

Long branded special- he even features in Jonathan Wilson’s great book on tactics Inverting the Pyramid as the exemplar of “the new playmaker”-– Modrić will lead the way for a Croatian side that is in one of Brazil’s trickier groups alongside the hosts, Mexico and Cameroon. 

Once upon a time, Croatia came within an eyelash of the World Cup Final, playing the 1998 tournament with fierce patriotic pride given conditions at home and dropping a tight semifinal to host France behind spirited the efforts of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and Davor Šuker. As a footballing nation, it was to be the country’s high-water mark. Eliminated in the group stage in 2002 and 2006, they failed to qualify for South Africa in 2010 and sneaked into this year’s tournament in a playoff.

But this year’s edition, led by the dynamic Real Madrid midfielder, could be different. No one fancies Croatia to beat out the hosts in Group A but Mexico can’t score goals no matter how attractive the build-up play is and Cameroon are aging and appear vulnerable. And if Croatia do escape the group, they’d be a tricky matchup for any of the Group B sides because they have creativity that offsets the loss of possession through the center. 

Every World Cup Finals brings a player who changes the pre-tournament narrative with magisterial play. Typically, that player is on the fringe of the world’s “household name” elite before the tournament starts, and firmly planted on the tongues of “world’s best” discussions in the months following the Finals. This year, that player could be Luka Modrić.

So why is Modrić Croatia’s most important player, playmaker, and worthy of a spot on this list?

First, the “Wilson new playmaker” argument- written less intelligently and abbreviated. The idea of a classic #10- the swashbuckling playmaker who is a team’s creative fulcrum and heartbeat- emerged in Argentina, to some extent because a forlorned manager named Carlos Bilardo needed a way to play his system that still accommodated the other-worldly talents of Diego Maradona. That’s simplifying things- but beat with us for brevity. Out of the Argentine tradition came the spread of #10’s, players who functioned as creative fulcrum’s and who took the lion’s share of the glory when the team won and the fool’s share of the misery when the team failed. The thinking was simple: individual talent and artistry could trump system– soccer was about winning individual battles, not about deployment and who could make grander chess moves on a board. And even if you wanted a system, like Bilardo did, you could find a way to accommodate a player who didn’t fit it– usually by placing him in the center of attack. Even prior to Maradona at the 1986 World Cup however, things had begun to shift. Soccer tactics don’t really follow a linear progression– even in places like Argentina, where artistry is still valued more than structure and to some extent, result– but over the last two decades, and particularly in the last decade, the game has seen the classical #10’s dwindle in number and give way to what Wilson calls “new playmakers.”

Luka Modrić is his example of what this player does, and what this player does is as follows (again, abbreviated). More systemized soccer means that managers are trying to move players into key areas and various zones– essentially near the ball – to make the best use of their talents on the ball and distributing it, rotating and moving accordingly. Wislon allows Arrigo Sacchi to explain: “a player should move not according to where he thinks a player in his position should move, but by assessing the position of the ball, his team-mates, the space and his opponents. Nothing is fixed, everything is relative.” Modrić, powerful on the ball, brilliant passing it, and capable of scoring from range, can function most anywhere on the field- and has, whether it be for club or for Croatia, where he began as a classic #10 in an antiquated system before stylishly slotting into the 4-1-3-2 of Slaven Bilic and now Niko Kovac. He can take his place within a system, rather than living apart, having to have the system built around him as was the case with old-school number tens. 

Modric plays wherever he's tasked, and does well, at Real, where he's not asked to be the team's heartbeat.

Modric plays wherever he’s tasked, and does well, at Real, where he’s not asked to be the team’s heartbeat.

That’s precisely what he’s done at Real Madrid, where he is coming off a Champions League win and his best campaign since leaving White Hart Lane and Tottenham Hotspur, and it is precisely what he does for Croatia, where he can play any of the three midfield slots in Niko Kovac’s system. There have been arguments, both for country and yes, even at Real Madrid, that Modrić  ought to be the focal point of attack– the important thing, realistically, is that Modrić doesn’t care.

Modrić could sit behind the other two midfielders, Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitić or Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovačić, and be perfectly effective. In fact, you could make the argument, and Michael Cox has, that Modrić is precisely who Kovac wants deepest, where he’ll be able to command things from the center. This also would make more use of the talents of Mateo Kovačić, who flourished advanced as a “10” at Dinamo Zagreb and who has more physical wherewithal to battle international level CB’s than the other two options. Alternatively, Kovac could slot Modrić in between Rakitić and Kovačić,  and charge him with controlling all link-up play as a conduit or hub in the attacking third. This is risky in Group A, where Croatia are likely to win possession in only one match (Cameroon), but the thought might be that Kovačić’s natural tendencies– or at least his new tendencies since moving to Inter– are to drop deep and receive the ball anyway– and someone of these three number ten’s has to remember to charge forward. Whatever his role is, Modrić is suited to fill it. And if  Modrić  can control distribution from deep, then they will be able to ensure that Kovačić, striker Mario Mandžukić and the overlapping right-back Darijo Srna see plenty of the ball, and the Croatians will look plenty threatening. 

In many ways, it’s versatility that makes the new number ten, and it’s versatility that makes Modrić  a compelling threat to steal plenty of highlight reel time at this World Cup.

And it is versatility, the plentiful number of ways Modrić can influence a game, that connects him with Bryce Harper, who is often viewed as one of baseball’s “new style” playmakers. Soccer is just scratching the surface with metrics and higher-level analytical analysis. Sites like TYAC friend @stathunting and books like The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong from Chris Anderson and David Sally are examples of higher-level metric analysis in soccer– but the truth is baseball was at the cutting edge in terms of using these statistical tools and every other sport is catching up. 

Harper's multi-tiered skill set make him the darling of Sabermetricians...

Harper’s multi-tiered skill set make him the darling of Sabermetricians…

In the old days, baseball fans looked to the back of baseball cards to debate dominance. Statistics like batting average, hits, home runs, stolen bases and runs batted in were “sacred cows”, and high volumes in one or two of those areas tended to win the hearts of fans and the bankroll trust of owners. What resulted, then, was a host of players who were scouted, drafted, signed, or traded for who filled “needs” in those particular areas. If you needed a home run hitter– you went and signed one. Who cares that he doesn’t hit for average? If you needed speed, you signed a guy who was a base stealer, regardless of the volume of his attempts or the number of times he was on base and didn’t try. Players who could do more than one or two things very well were of course valued, but not overwhelmingly prioritized. After all, multi-faceted talent is rare, so why not build block-for-block, or so the argument went.

Then, a few years after Curt Flood helped begin the modern era of baseball with free agency, a baseball-mad fan named Bill James began publishing papers questioning these long-held assumptions. He argued that statistical analysis demonstrated flaws in nearly every long-standing baseball “Sacred Cow” statistic. Who cares, for example, that a player has a high batting average if he hardly ever walks and doesn’t hit for power? Metrics like .OPS were generated to factor in how often a player got on base and how far. Were this a baseball website, I could go on. I won’t.

Like in soccer, baseball’s progression towards high-level statistical analysis, and the change in draft and scouting tactics that has been attendant to it- has not been linear. Moneyball didn’t happen and then spread like wildfire. That’s only half-true. What is true is that as things have changed, players like Luka Modrić and Bryce Harper have emerged that fill the prevailing view of what it takes to be a difference maker in the modern game. In Harper’s case, you have a five tool player: he can hit for average, power, steal bases, throw you out with his arm and cover a great deal of range in the outfield. His talents are considered “plus” or “plus plus” in each of these areas– and he can capably play any spot in Washington’s outfield. Stephen Strasburg may get more attention because he’s a brilliant pitching talent- and Mike Trout may be baseball’s best young, “new playmaker”, but Harper, like Modrić  in his sport, is a highly coveted talent capable of turning an entire game on its head.

Today, only a few years after Wilson’s piece regarding the “new” number ten, the idea is largely mainstream and accepted in soccer, just as Moneyball has become in baseball. Now all we can do is wait for the Harper and Modrić types to dominate an entire tournament, and prove all the theories true. Starting Thursday, that’s what Luka Modrić will try to do.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon