By Isidore Lewis
All the hype may be centred around Gareth Bale at the moment, but the impact made by Luka Modric at Tottenham so far this season has been equally, if not more, important.
While players like Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart have been taking the credit for scoring goals this season, Modric has played an understated role in orchestrating the Spurs midfield through his ability to dictate the team’s speed of passing and create opportunities for others.
Ever since his move from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008, Modric has grown in influence at the North London club. His manager, Harry Redknapp, speaks fondly of him, and is his words of praise in an interview back in September showed his admiration for the talents and overall contribution Modric brings to the team.
“Modric makes the difference”, said Redknapp. “In my opinion, he could play in any team, anywhere in the world. He’s a top, top player. He is fantastic. You’ve got other people who are good players, great players, but he’s a special player”. Croatia manager Slaven Bilic is also a great admirer of Modric, even going as far as to state in 2008 that “only Kaka is better than Modric”.
From an early age, a lot has been expected of Modric. He made his debut for the Croatia national team in 2006 and scored their first goal in Euro 2008 against Austria before eventually being named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
Some have even dubbed him the ‘Croatian Cruyff’ and, whilst comparison with such a great players is, of course, more than just a tad premature, it is hard to ignore the similarities between the two.
Facially, the pair bear a striking resemblance. And, although Modric is a little smaller than Cruyff was, he displays the same slight (verging on scrawny) physical composition and frame.
In terms of playing style, Modric’s body shape, balance and the way he turns on and runs with the ball is at times uncannily reminiscent of Cruyff, although he perhaps doesn’t have the stride that Cruyff had.
He even wears the same number 14 shirt and has reportedly attracted interest from Barcelona (reports of which Modric has since ‘laughed off’).
Positionally, however, there are notable differences. Modric plays a lot deeper in midfield than Cruyff did in the days of ‘Total Football’ under Rinus Michels. At Tottenham – particularly in recent times with the arrival of Rafael Van Der Vaart and the emergence of quick wingers such as Bale and Aaron Lennon – Modric has played a more disciplined central midfield role for Tottenham, which perhaps says more about tactical evolution and the nature of the Premier League than anything else.
In an interview in 2008, Modric acknowledged theses differences, explaining that “what I noticed the most was the strength and speed (of the Premier League)… The lack of space as well. I was used to getting a lot of space in Croatia and that makes a hell of a difference”.
Jonathan Wilson, a journalist who is an expert on football tactics, supports this view in his book, ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ with his suggestion that Modric is “the first of the new” style playmakers. Wilson refers to the “robustness” and “tactical discipline” of Modric, as well as his creative potential and his ability to play between midfield and attacking lines.
Modric obviously has a long way to go and a lot more to win before he can realistically be compared to someone like Johann Cruyff. Perhaps a more reasonable comparison, though, is someone like that of Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta.
Like Iniesta, Modric is a small guy whose balance, control, speed and vision of passing are invaluable to the team. Yet, even Iniesta has now won trophies with both club and country, including scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final, so there is a long way to go yet for the little Croatian. Maybe joining Barcelona might not be such a funny idea after all