Why Modric is the best player in the world

With Croatia facing England in tonight's semi-final, the world's best footballer finally has an environment around him to cement that status with the Vatreni.

Luka Modric

Luka Modric Source: Getty Images

Last October in Rijeka, a Mario Mandzukic goal put Croatia 1-0 up over Finland, but there was still a palpable sense of unease.

After five wins in the opening seven qualification matches, anything other than a victory that night would have suddenly put the hosts on the brink of elimination.

In a tight contest, Teemu Pukki's introduction had given Finland a critical replenishment in energy and as the second half progressed, the visitors gained momentum at Rujevica. As a result, Luka Modric's frustration at the bench became clear for all to see.

He implored coach Ante Cacic to make an adjustment but by the time Duje Cop replaced Andrej Kramaric, it was too late.

Pyry Soiri – another Finnish substitute – equalised in injury time, putting Croatia two points behind group-leading Iceland with a trip to Kiev coming up.

In the mixed zone post-match, Modric notably failed to back the under-fire Cacic: "What do we do now? We started with him (Cacic) and we have to keep going," he said.

"Until our match with Iceland, everything was fine but now all of a sudden nothing is of any worth.

"That's the honest truth, the situation is catastrophic but we still have a chance to make it right."

Looking back, it was a pivotal moment.

Making his 100th appearance for the Vatreni that night, after reaching the very pinnacle of the game at club level with Real Madrid, the 32-year-old felt his final chance at success with the national team slipping away.

Cacic was promptly dismissed and under Zlatko Dalic, a Kramaric brace secured the required win in Ukraine - before Croatia comfortably saw off Greece in the playoff.

Thus, Croatia's best-ever generation had one more chance to prove that status at this year's FIFA World Cup and, arguably, the tournament was not denied the game's greatest talent.

Since Carlo Ancelotti took over at the Santiago Bernabéu, Modrić has undoubtedly put daylight between himself and every other midfielder in the world – to the point where he should at least be in the conversation with Lionel Messi as the best footballer in the world, period.

Messi's inability to transfer club success to the Argentine national team has underlined this, but Modric typifies the game's current stylistic trend.

Quicker transitions and deeper defences have now amplified the importance of the central midfielder's movement and overall impact on tempo.

The nature of his control is unprecedented. Instead of deciding matches with isolated moments, he has become football's answer to a boa constrictor, strangling the opposition over the 90 minutes despite his diminutive frame.

Though Andrea Pirlo and Xavi were more metronomic in distribution, they were undoubtedly not as complete.

His movement, neat ball control, vision and ability to recover possession all contribute to the simultaneous application and relief of pressure in attack, along with short but explosive dribbles in confined space that either generate penetration or fouls – where other players would lose the ball.

An underrated aspect of his game is his defensive quality - where he separates himself from the aforementioned midfield greats - borne of boundless energy and an innate understanding of picking the right moments to intercept the ball, both individually and as part of the collective.

Modric's game is not typified by a singular moment that breaks the opponent. Similarly to how Stephen Curry has transformed the NBA with Golden State, his game is death by 1,000 cuts.

For example, his goal in Croatia's 3-0 win over the Albiceleste in Nizhny Novgorod was not merely a singular moment that decided the game, but a punctuation mark in a complete performance from both attacking and defensive standpoints.

It's also what made Croatia's first half against Russia on Saturday so tame in comparison. His movement was initially passive, creating a more laboured tempo in possession.

The difference in Croatia's ball speed and combination was clear once Modric became more active and assertive in this respect.

His performance following the interval was almost superhuman and if Ivan Perisic made it 2-1 on the hour in Sochi, the result would have been far different.

Football is random and volatile, however. It must be said, Modric and Croatia have been fortunate to get to this stage of the tournament.

It also must be said, Croatia's past three matches have been against inherently reactive opposition and their traditional balance has never been conducive to breaking teams down, despite the influence of Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

This was apparent in qualifying and most notable against Portugal at EURO 2016, what many considered to be Croatia's best chance at silverware.

Their ceiling as a team, despite making the semi-final this year, is still to be reached.

While the Vatreni have been effortlessly able to play through pressure in earlier phases of possession, the realisation of play with the more combative likes of Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic, Dado Prso and Nikica Jelavic over the years has been underwhelming.

In contrast, with the ability to keep the ball under close defensive attention, Andrej Kramaric is a pivot that can allow Modric and Rakitic to penetrate lines centrally and more easily manipulate defensive positions. He is everything the Vatreni would have had if injury had not cruelly struck Eduardo da Silva.

Yet with Zlatko Dalić's insistence on playing Mandzukic as the target man along with Ante Rebic – with Kramaric as an attacking midfielder – his setup is confined to breaking teams open in transition.

Although Croatia was able to create chances with relative ease against an embedded Icelandic defence in Rostov-on-Don, their best performances at this tournament have been as the reactive team.

Ultimately, Dalic is no different to conservative Croatian coaches in recent past, who have been unable to maximise Modric's peerless ability to dictate play from the middle.

From Slaven Bilić opting for Tomislav Dujmovic and Ognjen Vukojevic as defensive midfielders while Rakitic was deployed in wider positions, to Zlatko Kranjcar starting a creaking Igor Tudor ahead of Modric himself, the Vatreni have never really had a fluid attacking mind as a coach.

To Dalic's benefit, the level of talent has given this Croatian squad optionality, which makes them unique. With Kramarić as the attacking pivot along with the technically gifted Marko Pjaca, they can control tempo and create chances against any team in the world.

With Mandzukic and Rebic, meanwhile, they are the best pressing team in this competition.

Their ability to then compress the pitch in order to win the ball back and consequently apply pressure has been evident in each game so far.

Dalić has so far favoured the latter. Theoretically, it is the more compatible ploy against an English side that has preferred to have the ball under Gareth Southgate.

Although effectiveness is dependent on the opposition, this optionality is built upon Modric, who Quique Setien aptly described as the queen on the chess board.

For a player of his quality and with time ticking, a World Cup triumph should put him in the very pantheon of football's finest.

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7 min read
Published 10 July 2018 at 11:12pm
By Ante Jukic